Manute Bol's Legacy Lives On in Africa
It announced the death of Manute Bol. He was 47.
"It's very sad," Fall told me Saturday evening. "What this office is doing right now ... comes from the same spirit [Manute emoted]. I'm not just talking about charity, but empowering young people."
Indeed, long before the NBA set up Fall's Mandela Square office as part of commissioner David Stern's social responsibility initiative, Bol, mostly alone, was using his spare time away from his day job -- blocking shots and shooting three-pointers as a 7-feet-7-inch NBA center -- trying to save the young people in his native war-torn Sudan. He was a Dinka tribesman, a people in southern Sudan that in the early 1980s suffered displacement and massacre not unlike what the people of Darfur have gone through the past several years.
In the midst of what turned into a 10-year NBA career, in 1991 Bol began making regular visits to southern Sudanese refugee camps. His large extended family, some of whom briefly ran a restaurant in his name I recall visiting on Washington's now trendy U Street in the mid '90s, included leaders in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army that was rebelling against the North.
Three years later, the NBA officially followed Bol to Africa when Stern joined Dikembe Mutombo, from the Congo, Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing, and several other players, officials and coaches, in South Africa to conduct youth clinics and meet the newly freed Nelson Mandela.
Nineteen years after Bol started regularly bringing the NBA's credentials to Africa, the NBA late last month opened the office to which Fall was given the keys as a vice president.
"The thing that stuck out to me about Manute was he was the real deal who gave back," said Fall, who as a player for the University of the District of Columbia as the '80s turned into the '90s was often mistaken for one of Bol's brothers. "I know its cliché to say he just didn't talk the talk, but he didn't."
Bol supported the rebel movement by giving it an estimated $3.5 million. He lobbied members of Congress for U.S. intervention against what he thought were northern Sudan extremists. In 1996, a cease-fire was achieved.
Bol never recovered after falling ill last month helping build a school in Sudan and staying longer than anticipated when asked to make election appearances in hope his reputation would counter voting corruption.
"He was here for Basketball Without Borders just a couple of years ago," Fall recalled of Bol participating in the NBA and international basketball governing body's global basketball program that uses sport to create social change. "His contributions have a lot to do with where we are today in terms of the commitment to launch this massive initiative on the continent."
The NBA's plan as Fall is carrying it out isn't to mine Africa for basketball talent, even though there were at least 25 NBA players in the league this year born in Africa. Instead, it is for now to use the game's largesse to help bring much needed help to many people on the continent who need it. He has a five-year plan that includes opening more offices in Africa, building indoor and outdoor courts throughout South Africa, and using the sport to bolster education and teach positive life skills.
The dozen kids who played a little soccer and shot a few baskets with Nash, Ferdinand, Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute from Cameroon and former South African soccer star Lucas Radebe were the kind of kids Bol always wanted to help. They were survivors of one of the most impoverished townships, the black ghetto Alexandra, as can be found in South Africa. They were supported by the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.
They got their t-shirts autographed. They got encouraging words of support.
"We teach music and life skills," said Jacob Mhlapong, who directs the Alexandra Field Band Foundation of which the kids were apart. "We would like to do more but have limited funds. So this was a free opportunity for kids to have fun and meet some sports stars."
Time was when the basketball marvel Nash, who I came to know during six years we were both in Dallas, would've been ashamed for it to be known that he was born in South Africa. After all, he was a guy who spoke from time to time about the need for everyone to get along and most memorably spoke out in words and fashion against the Bush administration's run-up to war against Iraq.
But there was Nash on Saturday in his birth country for the first time since his father spirited the family out of South Africa in 1975 when Nash was just one. Nash's father didn't want his son reared under apartheid.
"For the World Cup to come to Africa, to come to South Africa, is fantastic," Nash told me. "It shows a commitment from soccer to Africa, and I think it's about time we all support the continent."
Nash then headed to back to O R Tambo International Airport after spending several days in the country of his birth. He didn't know before leaving that the visionary for what he'd just involved himself in had died.
But no one with the NBA, or in Africa, will ever forget what Manute Bol did for both. A Mandela statue stands tall in the square beneath Fall's office window. How appropriate it would be if the world's biggest basketball league championed its own selfless humanitarian with some sort of honor for posterity.