The boy walked into his high school basketball coach’s office staring at the ground. He didn’t want to be here, at this new school with all of these strangers. He no longer cared who knew. He needed some help.
“Look at me,” the boy told his coach. “How am I supposed to be happy like this?”
The boy is 14 years old and already 6 feet 10 — taller than 99 percent of American adults and most of the NBA. He is already talented enough that the coaches at Kansas have called. Same with Missouri, Kansas State and many others. All for a freshman who hasn’t even played a varsity basketball game yet.
A transfer rule will keep him off varsity for another month, so the boy’s high school career consists of two junior varsity games. Out of the first came a video that spread across the country, this smooth creation of arms and legs and bones blocking shots and even hitting a step-back three-pointer. His coach says the video is misleading, which the people who packed the gym for his second JV game found out when the boy named Bol Bol was pushed around in a game at Gardner Edgerton.
If that name sounds familiar it’s because of his father. The late Manute Bol was measured at 7 feet, 63/4 inches by Guinness World Records and played 10 seasons in the NBA. Later in his life, Bol became known for his heroic efforts to help his native Sudan. He died in 2010 from an illness contracted there while trying to use his influence to ensure an honest election. He was 47 years old.
The Bol family genes also explain why the boy was so upset in his coach’s office that day. He is so long that the sleeves of his shirt, part of the school uniform at Bishop Miege, barely went past his armpits. The bottom of his shirt didn’t even reach his belt. The cuffs on his pants hung just past his knees. And these were the biggest clothes they could find. Who could be happy like that?
The coach called Dockers and custom-ordered a pair of pants — 28-inch waist, 48-inch inseam. Cost almost $100. Worth every penny.
“This is a good place for me,” Bol says. “I still don’t like (classes), but I have to try harder.”
The kid looks just like his father.
It is hard to see Bol Bol without thinking of his famous father. So tall, so thin, with the same high cheeks, the same brown and lively eyes, and those hands that seem to stretch forever.
“Oh yeah, oh my God, I can’t believe it,” says Ajok Kuag, Manute’s widow and Bol’s mother. “He’s just Manute. Same thing. Same body, same everything. Everything is Manute. I know he’s my son, but he has nothing from me. He’s all Manute.”
Bol loved his father, and that’s probably the wrong way to say it. Bol loves his father. He thinks about him often, and even four years after the funeral, the loss sometimes drives him to tears.
His father is the reason he plays basketball. He used to go to the gym with his dad, and together they would ignore the strangers staring at the impossibly tall man with his impossibly tall son and shoot baskets together.
The truth is, Bol didn’t like basketball. Not at first, anyway. But his dad and older brothers — Bol has several older half brothers and half sisters who live with their mom in New Jersey — always wanted him to play. He likes it now.
Bol was born in South Sudan and moved to Connecticut when he was 2 years old. When he was 7, he moved with his parents, three younger brothers and a younger sister to Olathe, where there is a large Southern Sudanese community.
Dad was a national hero to the Southern Sudanese, and it had little to do with basketball. Manute was tireless in pushing for a better life back in Sudan. He spent his entire basketball fortune and survived attacks on his life to save and educate people in and around Sudan.
Even while playing, he risked his life to help the Lost Boys and other refugees in war zones. He helped build schools and hospitals where those things are needed perhaps more than anywhere else in the world.
To the rest of us, growing up the son of a 7-foot-7 international humanitarian would be a strange experience. But it’s all that Bol Bol has seen. He doesn’t know what it’s like to walk into a restaurant and not be asked how tall he is, or see a stranger approach and tell him how much he looks like his old man. This is as normal to Bol Bol as small talk about the weather is to the rest of us. He’s used to it. He’s tall, and Dad is a hero.
Dad used to travel a lot, not just to help the Sudanese but also around the country to spread the word. Manute would take his son on some trips, and it shaped the boy.
“He was always nice to anybody,” Bol Bol says. “He liked everybody, and he always liked to help people.”
When Ajok talks about the similarities between her oldest son and his father, she isn’t just talking about the physical. Manute taught his children the value of their word and the importance of being strong, especially for others. Bol Bol is the oldest of Ajok’s children with Manute, the one who spent the most time around him. The influence is obvious.
Bol Bol is a sweet soul, just like Dad. Ajok says her son can get angry at times, just like Dad, but you see a kind temperament on the court that mirrors Manute’s — more of the jokes and kindness that make Bol Bol closer with his teammates than the kind of edgy competitiveness that would make him closer to what his coaches want.
“I think he’s proud,” Ajok says. “People tell him all the time he looks like his dad, and he loves his dad so much. He cries about it sometimes. He wishes his dad was around. People tell him about his dad, and I think he loves it because he’s proud of his dad.”
Bol Bol smiles when you ask. Yes, he’s watched videos of Dad playing in the NBA. Dad is the only man in NBA history to average more blocks than points, and Bol Bol’s favorite clip is when Dad blocked four shots in five seconds against the Orlando Magic.
You ask Bol Bol if he’s had any moments like that. He giggles and looks at his shoes.
“Yeah,” he says, and he rubs his palms on his shorts.
Manute weighed 200 pounds when he entered the NBA. Bol hasn’t been weighed in a while, but various coaches guessed between 140 and 180 pounds. Bol Bol is so similar to his father physically — in sprints, Bol goes from free throw line to half court in four steps, a distance that takes most of his teammates six — that it’s easy to think he’ll be a similar player.
The thing is, on the basketball court, Bol Bol will likely be very different than his dad.
He has great skills for a 14-year-old. You can see glimpses of it immediately.
He can handle the ball. Those long hands are also soft with a touch around the basket. And every now and then you’ll see him put a behind-the-back pass into a teammate’s chest.
The other day in practice, he was playing defense and anticipated a drive to the basket so perfectly he caught the shot. Didn’t block it. Caught it, with two hands.
One major college assistant says with no irony in his voice that Bol “could end up as a 7-7 wing player.”
“The sky is the limit,” says L.J. Goolsby, who runs the AAU program KC Run GMC and will coach Bol in the summer. “He’s got natural abilities a lot of kids his age don’t have, regardless of size.”
This is all the kind of best-case scenario and potential talk that too often goes unchecked with young athletes, particularly young basketball players.
The coaches at Miege sometimes spend as much time trying to get Bol to practice as they do coaching him when he’s there. A coach at Wake Forest stopped by Miege recently, but Bol wasn’t at practice that day. He’s too young to drive, of course, and sometimes it’s hard to find a ride.
Rick Zych, the boys basketball coach at Miege, sees a kid in need of some tough love. Every day it’s something. In the hallways, it might be to tuck that shirt in or take off that sweatshirt that isn’t part of the school uniform. In practice, it might be to get closer to the basket, keep his hands up or just stay focused from beginning to end.
“He likes to shoot around and play basketball,” Zych says. “But does he like to play competitive basketball? That’s what we’ve got to figure out.”
One day, Zych pulled Bol out of practice and told him he’d never make it without a better attitude. Zych didn’t know how Bol would react.
He showed up the next day and had a great practice.
Not too long ago, Ajok and Bol watched an old TV show about Manute. It’s important for both of them to remember a husband and father they love so much.
The show was about Manute’s life, not just his basketball career. It was about the friends he made and the example he set and the strangers he helped. He really did the work of a saint.
“Do you want to be like that one day?” Ajok asked her son.
“Yes,” she remembers him saying. “I’ll do the same thing to help people, but I’m not going to do it like my dad did and spend all of his money. I will help, but I will save some for myself.”
There is a quick laugh when Ajok tells this story. That would be nice, if her son’s life turned out like that. Good enough at basketball to make a lot of money, selfless enough to share his wealth, yet selfish enough to keep some of it for himself.
There is so much for Bol to do between now and that hypothetical, non-guaranteed future. The list of teenage basketball prodigies is much longer than the list of adult basketball stars. The biggest thing at the moment is for Bol to play harder, more often, and as an example Zych brings up the video that went viral.
No offense to the kids playing junior varsity for Blue Valley Northwest — coincidentally that’s the school Bol started at before it was discovered he didn’t live in the district — but they should have been overmatched.
“He had two rebounds,” Zych says. “And there were about five times he didn’t even cross half court.”
Bol knows all of this. His coaches talk to him about it all the time. He admits it’s hard to get excited about playing JV, and the coaches hope that playing against better competition on varsity and over the summer in AAU will help Bol find his best.
That’s how Bol figures it will happen, anyway. This is all so new to him. He talks about playing harder for his coaches and doing better in school for his mom and believing that this is all the best life for himself.
He’s a sweet kid with a kind heart and a world of talent. There is always help for someone like that. He is only at the beginning of a journey he’s starting to understand will be watched by strangers. It’s a journey that may look familiar to those strangers, even if it’s brand new to him.
“I’m trying to go to the NBA,” he says. “To help my family.”
There is a pause. Bol smiles.
“Like my dad.”