Sudan mourns gentle giant who took NBA by storm

The showbusiness world of the NBA and the remote and battle-scarred south of Sudan were united in mourning yesterday at the passing of Manute Bol, a beloved peace activist and one of the tallest players ever to star in US basketball.

Aged 47, the Sudanese known to many Americans as "the gentle giant", died of a rare skin condition complicated by kidney failure at a hospital in Virginia.

Born to Dinka herders in the one of the remoter parts of Africa, the exceptionally tall and athletically gifted Bol made a remarkable journey from civil war at home to the millionaire's playground of the NBA. After he retired, he continued to raise money for humanitarian causes in Sudan and won plaudits as a tireless campaigner for peace in a region blighted by Africa's longest-running civil war.

Before his death he had spent all of the $6m in career earnings on various campaigns in southern Sudan. He contracted the illness during a spell in the country earlier this year, where he campaigned against the corruption that has blighted the south's first semi-autonmous government since the end of the civil war in 2005.

Bol was a regular visitor to Sudan even during the worst of the 20-year civil war in which he lost hundreds of relatives. Born in Turalie in southern Sudan in 1962 he was renowned in his family for a rebellious streak that saw him refuse the coming of age ceremony in which the lower middle teeth are chiselled out.

Bol, it turned out, was more interested in basketball than the cows that are the centrepiece of Dinka culture. He was spotted playing for a team in Khartoum by an American scout who persuaded him to go to the US in 1983. After struggling for two years in college basketball where his poor grasp of written English was a constant problem, he qualified for the NBA draft in 1985.

He was picked by the Washington Bullets and embarked on a decade-long career at the top of the game. There are still disagreements over his exact height but Bol was at least 7ft 6in, making him, for a time, the tallest player in NBA history.

While at the Bullets he spent a season playing with the league's shortest player, the 5ft 3in Muggsy Bogues. Coaches were divided over the value of the willowy giant but he amassed an NBA record for shot blocking, even though he always saw himself as a gifted attacker.

His extraordinary height and spindly legs made him an object of freakish fascination to American sports fans. Woody Allen famously joked that he was so thin his team used to save money on airfares by faxing him from city to city.

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