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Manute Bol: Basketball player who used his fame to help peace efforts in his native Sudan

At nearly 7ft 7in tall, Manute Bol, who has died of kidney failure aged 47, stood out even among the giants of America's National Basketball Association.

When he made his debut in 1985 he became the tallest man to have played in the league, though Romania's Gheorge Muresan, perhaps a centimetre taller, now holds that distinction. Thin (his playing weight hovered around 16 stone) and impossibly long-limbed, he resembled a frail stick insect, but he could reach over the basket with his feet flat on the ground, and was a well-coordinated and prodigious shot-blocker; in one game against the Boston Celtics he rejected shots from all five Boston starters in the first quarter alone.

Born in the Sudan, he was the only NBA player to have killed a lion with a spear (although the beast was sleeping when he did). Almost a side-show curiosity in America, Bol was accustomed to being different; as a Christian Dinka he was part of a beleaguered minority in his own country. Later, he would capitalise on his uniqueness to help peace and relief efforts in his war-torn homeland. He also served as an ambassador for the game; the Sudan-born British star Luol Deng was taken under Bol's wing at a camp he ran.

Bol was born in October 1963 in rural Turalei, where his father was a cowherd; his name, pronounced Ma-noot, means "special blessing". He was descended from nobility, and height ran in the family; his father and sister were 6ft 8in, his mother 6ft 10in, and his great-grandfather Nyuol Bol, a Tuic Dinka chief, was reputedly 7ft 10in. Bol didn't take up basketball until 1978, when a cousin in Khartoum saw a newspaper photo of Manute with a visiting politician, and suggested he try the game.

Eager to leave his village and avoid some of his tribe's manhood rituals, he travelled to the nearest basketball team, in the town of Wau. Despite smashing his jaw on the rim as he went up for his first dunk shot, within a year was playing for the Catholic Club in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

In 1982, when a visiting US coach suggested he leave for America, Bol, who faced persistent racial abuse from the Moslem majority in Khartoum, didn't need much persuading. But he also spoke no English. He wound up at Cleveland State, where coach Kevin Mackey, a legendary corner-cutter in recruiting, saw language as no barrier. Bol was enrolled in English classes and kept under wraps, but somehow the NBA's San Diego Clippers chose him in the draft, sight unseen, before the league ruled him ineligible.

Meanwhile Mackey's funding of expenses, travel, and college fees for Bol and two other Africans caused Cleveland State to be placed on probation, and Bol wound up at the University of Bridgeport, a Division II school in Connecticut. According to a friend of mine who played in friendly pick-up games with him on local courts, Bol would play as a guard, away from the basket, so as not to disrupt the game; his game and adjustment to America improved rapidly.

Bol played only the 1984-85 season with UB, before turning pro with the minor league Rhode Island Gulls, where he blocked 84 shots in only six games. The Washington Bullets chose him in the second round of the NBA draft, and his 397 blocked shots, an average of five per game, set a rookie record that still stands.

In 1987, the Bullets drafted Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, at 5ft 3in the shortest player in NBA history, and for a season the pair were the delight of photo editors around the country. Lack of bulk made Bol a liability on offense, but in 1988 he moved to San Francisco's Golden State Warriors, where coach Don Nelson simply moved him out on the perimeter, as Bol had done in the playgrounds, allowing him to attempt extra-long three point shots as a final option. Bol's flat-footed slingshot release and surprising accuracy became a crowd favourite. In 1990 he moved on to three seasons in Philadelphia.

After eight games with Miami in 1993, he made brief returns to Washington, helping to tutor Muresan, and Philadelphia, where the 7ft 6in Shawn Bradley received his advice. He ended his career back with Golden State, but played in only five games before being injured. His autobiography, Manute: Center Of Two Worlds, written with Leigh Montville, was published in 1993. He attempted a short-lived comeback in 1995 with a minor-league team in Florida, and also played briefly in Italy and Qatar before finally bowing to the effects of rheumatism.

Bol estimated that some 250 of his relatives had been killed in the conflict in Sudan. He returned regularly to the country during his playing days, and spent most of the estimated $10 million he earned in the NBA. After his retirement his efforts became more public, which made him a marked man. On a 2001 visit to Sudan, he declined the offer of a post as minister for sport, because it required him to convert to Islam. He was then accused of of being a US spy, and denied an exit visa. After selling-off his local possessions, and helped by a campaign that included the Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, he eventually flew to Egypt, and in 2002 was granted refugee status in the US.

There he started the Ring True Foundation, and engaged in stunts like defeating the American footballer William "The Refrigerator" Perry in a celebrity boxing show, or skating for an ice hockey team, in order to raise money for Sudan. Despite suffering severe injuries in a taxi accident caused by a drunken cabbie in Connecticut, he continued to return to Sudan, where he had pledged to build 41 schools. It is thought that medicine he obtained there on his last trip, to cope with his Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a rare skin disease, may have caused liver damage which was aggravated on his return flight to the US.

He died in hospital at the University of Virginia. Bol was divorced from his first wife, Atong, for whom he paid 80 cows in dowry, and is survived by his second wife, Ajok, and 10 children. His former team-mate Charles Barkley said, "a lot of people feel sorry for him, because he's so tall and awkward. But I'll tell you this – if everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it's a world I'd want to live in."

Manute Bol, basketball player and activist: born Turalei, Sudan 16 October 1963; married twice (10 children); died Charlottesville, Virginia 19 June 2010.