Manute Bol, a literal giant on the NBA court as the league's second-tallest player ever, was certainly an epic defender, but in some ways, he stood out because he was probably one of the most interesting player stories in NBA history.
And his story got more interesting this week after the college basketball coach who first discovered him laid out a surprising detail about the 7-foot-7 Sudanese player who became one of the best shot-blockers in the league’s history: Apparently, when Bol played basketball in the NBA, he was possibly 20 years older than his teammates—minimum. If true, it would make him by far the league's oldest player to ever take the court.
(Bol died in 2011 at the apparent age of 47, his stature as a global figure and humanitarian underlined by the fact that his funeral took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, and was attended by politicians.)
Kevin Mackey, the onetime Cleveland State University coach who brought him to the U.S. to play basketball, told sports journalist Adam Zagoria that he actually offered up a birthday for Bol because “they didn’t know how old he was.” Bol didn’t speak English at the time, and couldn’t get into the school for academic reasons, so he never played for Mackey.
But the decision to simply assign an age to Bol, done in part because the Sudanese player was already getting media attention as a potential basketball star, apparently stuck around with the player for the rest of his life.
Whatever the case, Bol was able to maintain a presence in the league, despite his apparent advanced age and somewhat limited basketball skills (barring some fluke incidents, he was never particularly known for his shooting), because of his sheer height, which made him naturally effective as a defender. Mackey suggested that, had his age not been fudged, he might have never played in the NBA for a decade.
“Every athletic door is open at 19, every athletic door is closed when you’re 35,” Mackey told ZAGSBLOG. “He was probably 40, 50 years old when he was playing in the NBA.”
Mackey’s move came with a price, however. In 1992, about seven years after he gave Bol an age, Cleveland State’s basketball program was fined because Mackey was believed to have given improper financial assistance to African players who ended up never playing at the school, including Bol.
These days, the late Bol’s legacy lives on; his son, Bol Bol, is said to be one of the most prized high school prospects in the U.S. (He’s not as tall as his dad, at 7 foot 1 and 1/2, but he’s close enough.)