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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

That is, of course, if he decides to stay in school. Bol, a serious student, hasn't voiced any pro ambitions, but some National Basketball Association teams undoubtedly will be eager to draft him at the first opportunity on his potential alone. ``Why wouldn't someone take him now? He might be worth a million dollars,'' his coach reasons.

Webster avoids calling Manute a one-man ``franchise,'' however. ``I don't think he'll win or lose the Division II championship for us,'' Webster asserts. ``That's really up to the other four guys, but there won't be a better center than him at our level.''

Webster feels Bol exhibits ``a great sense for the game'' in the way he drifts in for rebounds at just the right times. He's not a bad shooter, either, and includes jump hooks and short set shots in his repertoire. There's room for improved shot selection, though, based on the fact that Manute is as accurate from the free throw line as the field, hitting at a 60 percent clip on both types of shots. He also needs to work on his quickness to protect the basket area against gnat-like intruders and ``soften'' his hands to better secure passes and rebounds.

As intimidating as he can be, opponents welcome his presence, since he brings out large crowds and extra press coverage. Bridgeport's 1,800-seat gym is always packed, and reporters from as far away as Philadelphia and Syracuse were at the Bentley game in Waltham, Mass., which the school promoted as the Manute Bol show. A poster illustrated with a cartoonish body disappearing off the page announced in carnival-ese: ``See the country's tallest basketball player. . . .''

Ironically, Bol attends school in the same Connecticut city where Tom Thumb got his start.

Actually, Manute's presence in Bridgeport all seems rather incongruous. After all, who would expect a seminomadic herdsman to settle into an industrialized New England city, suit up with guys from Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach, N.Y., and find happiness and basketball fulfillment in a small college setting?

His story bears some similarities to that of Akeem Olajuwon, the Nigerian who has enjoyed such great success in American basketball. Olajuwon, a seven-footer, enrolled at the University of Houston four years ago and is now a pro star in his first year with the Houston Rockets.

Both players were members of national teams in their respective countries, raw talents basically waiting to be discovered. And, of course, with their height, visiting Americans recognized their potential and were happy to steer them to US colleges.

Unlike Olajuwon, who speaks English with a clipped British accent, Bol basically had no grasp of the language. Consequently he spent his first year in the states just getting his bearings in the special English program at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. His basketball consisted primarily of ``pick games,'' as he calls them. These pickup games sometimes pitted him against members of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now he's on an athletic scholarship at Bridgeport, where he and former Sudanese teammate Deng Nhial, a transfer student, are roommates. It is a reasonably comfortable place to experience culture shock, since some 600 foreign students are in the same boat.

Many, including Bol, do double academic duty, attending the university's English Language School as well as regular classes. In fact, Manute spends three hours a day just polishing his language skills and is a conscientious student who doesn't like disruptions to his classwork.

To alleviate the crush of interview requests, the school has set aside one hour a week for this purpose. Webster, however, has become a knowledgeable authority on his star pupil and can recite everything from his waist size (32 inches) to his passport height, which at 5 ft. 2 in. is a far cry from the true story.

The measurement, Manute explains, was taken while he was sitting down. His Sudanese nickname of ``Raan Cheg'' then is a better fit than it appears. The translation? ``Short stuff.''

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