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Bridgeport boasts towering rim-minder in Sudan's Manute Bol

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1985

Waltham, Mass.

The suspense of a once-close basketball game had evaporated, but the Bentley College crowd remained to witness every last elongated move of the visiting center. The vigil was rewarded, for suddenly 7 ft. 6 in. freshman Manute Bol had the ball at midcourt with no one in front of him.

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Would he attempt a breakaway layup? The prospect was almost too delicious to contemplate, yet that's exactly what the fragile-looking pivotman of the victorious Bridgeport University team attempted. He dribbled to within one loping stride of the basket only to have a sure slam dunk snuffed out by an intentional foul.

A collective groan filled the gym. The packed house figured it was robbed of the potential highlight in the big man's stratospheric repertoire.

To some extent, the final score has become secondary when Bol watchers gather, which occurs whenever Bridgeport plays, either in Connecticut or out of state. The primary attraction is the extraterrestrially tall Dinka tribesman, a foreign import from the African nation of Sudan.

As with most soaringly tall hoopsters, he is a curiosity, on or off the basketball court.

``It's like in the E. F. Hutton ads,'' says Bruce Webster, the Purple Knights' coach, ``Everbody stops when they see Manute [pronounced muh-NOOT]. The other day a cab driver was so distracted he drove over the curb at LaGuardia Airport.''

Bol's bedpost limbs tend to exaggerate his already tremendous height. At only 190 pounds, he is much thinner than you'd expect an athlete of his size to be.

In explanation, he says only, ``I've got a small stomach'' after ducking under the doorway outside the Bridgeport locker room.

``He comes from a culture that doesn't eat that much,'' Webster adds, indicating that nutritionists have been called in for their weight-gaining ideas. The pounds should start adding up as his steak, chicken, and pizza input increases -- especially now that he has a full complement of teeth, thanks to a local agency. He once had a number of teeth removed as part of a tribal ritual, and lost still more when his mouth smacked the rim during one of his early dunk shots. He can dunk without jumping, but what fun is that?

At times, however, he seems quite earthbound with the ball. ``That's because he's worried about being undercut,'' the Bridgeport coach says. ``He'll go up higher defensively than offensively.''

He is clearly an unsettling force near the basket, blocking an average of eight shots per game while seldom being called for goaltending.

Not surprisingly, he grabs a bushel of rebounds every game, too, and leads the team in scoring with a 23-point average.

The game is not the snap that some may think, though. Point-blank dunks may require limited skill, but positioning for them entails considerably more than meets the eye. And no defense worth its salt will allow a player free access to the best real estate.

Still, if Bol gets the ball anywhere near the basket there's almost no stopping him, which is why opponents often try to prevent passes to Manute by double-teaming John O'Reilly, the Purple Knights' playmaking guard.

Casual fans may be surprised to learn that even with the big guy, Bridgeport, now 20-4, hasn't been unstop-pable. They really shouldn't be. Consider, for instance, that Oral Roberts University was not a particularly good team with 7-5 John Holinden on the roster, nor was UCLA a power with 7-4 Mark Eaton. There is no direct correlation between height and might.

Even with only five years of playing experience, however, Bol has made a substantial impact at Bridgeport, which went 12-16 last season but is now the second-ranked Division II team in New England and 14th-ranked nationally.

In some ways, of course, he is a Sears Tower among the townhouses of Division II, small-college basketball. Division I ball certainly would have offered greater challenges, but given his age, 21, collegiate rules limited him to just two years of eligibility at the major level instead of the four he can now enjoy.