Tuesday, June 22, 2010

RIP Manute Bol: basketballer, humanitarian and originator of the phrase "My bad"

Former NBA star Manute Bol passed away this week, aged 47, after suffering acute kidney failure and complications from a rare skin condition (Stevens-Johnson Syndrome). Despite barely averaging more than 2 points a game, Bol cut a distinctive figure in the basketball world; he was the equal tallest man (at 7 feet 7 inches) to ever play in that league, and still holds the league record for the most blocked shots per minutes played. But his life story was fascinating in far more than basketball terms.

A Dinka herdsman from South Sudan, Bol only started playing basketball at age 15 after moving to the capital Khartoum. Eventually he made it to the NBA where he enjoyed a 9 year career. Outside of basketball he was very committed to the struggle of the South Sudanese against the country's brutal military, making many visits to refugee camps where he was hailed as a hero. After his attempts to negotiate a ceasefire between the warring sides, he was once offered the post of Sports Minister, but refused because the government insisted it was conditional on him converting to Islam. Of the around $6 million he earned over the course of his career, he donated around $3.5 million to a Dinka rebel group, but some bad business investments eventually left him penniless. He ended up returning to the US as a political refugee. He survived a car accident in 2004 which left him with a broken neck. Nonetheless through all these trials and tribulations, he devoted much of his later life to raising money for Sudanese refugees.

No one who was following basketball in the 80s or 90s will easily forget Bol's distinctive frame and shot-blocking ability. Perhaps his most famous moment was a game against Orlando in which he blocks 4 shots in about 5 seconds, as players foolishly kept coming back for more and he just kept rejecting them; you can watch it in the video below. He also became fond of shooting 3-pointers later in his career, not something you expect from such a tall player.

One thing basketball fans may not know, however, is that Bol is generally regarded to be the inventor of the now-popular phrase "My bad." In his early days in the US, when he spoke little English, Bol would apologise to teammates for his on-court mistakes by saying "my bad" instead of "my fault". The phrase became popular in the NBA and filtered down to street-ball levels, and then into mainstream popular culture.

(I've heard it claimed that others were using this term in the 70s and thus Bol didn't invent it; however it is still probable that Bol invented it independently and its popularisation started with him.)

I have two other favourite stories about Bol. One is that he is surely the only NBA player to have killed a lion in the wild with a spear (from his younger days herding cattle). His team-mate Charles Barkley, noting Bol's famously good-natured persona, quipped that if Manute could kill a lion, it must have been sleeping.

The other is about another aspect of Bol's acclimatisation to the NBA environment; despite not speaking a word of English until he was 20, he did learn the art of talking trash, in his thick Sudanese accent. After blocking an opponent's shot, he would quip, "Don't you have cable? Didn't the other guys tell you? Nobody dunks on Manute B-O-L!"

More about Manute Bol's life here.

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