Convinced that a man who had towered over him in life would not easily go down to death, Tom Prichard made four trips to Virginia to see former NBA basketball player Manute Bol during six weeks of hospitalization. "We thought he was going to make it before he took a sudden turn for the worse," Prichard told me. Bol died a day later on June 19 at age 47. He suffered from acute kidney failure and a severe skin condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
Prichard, a Kansas pastor and longtime friend, worked alongside Bol to start Sudan Sunrise, building schools and churches in Bol's native South Sudan. Along with other prominent Sudanese-Americans like Olympic track star Lopez Lomong, Bol aimed through Christian-Muslim efforts to reconcile communities racked by 22 years of civil war. "We need something to symbolize how far we've come," Bol told Prichard.
It was a remarkable undertaking, considering that Bol himself had 250 members of his own extended family killed at the hands of Khartoum's Islamic government during the war. (His father named him Manute, meaning "special blessing."). Remarkable also for a 7-foot-7 NBA star drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1985 and later traded to the Golden State Warriors, 76ers, and Miami Heat. He played 10 seasons as the tallest center in the NBA, earning an estimated $6 million that most who know him say was spent on helping Sudanese. "God guided me to America and gave me a good job," he notably said, "but he also gave me a heart so I would look back."
Bol's NBA career was notable also for an expression he invented on the court. In early practices when he missed a shot, Bol-who never had a formal education and knew little English-told teammates, "My bad." Players repeated the phrase to poke fun at him, until it spread into sports and then mainstream vernacular.
According to Prichard, the same thing that motivated Bol in life drove him to his death: love for his homeland.
He made three trips to Sudan in 2009, the last in November with Prichard and former Reagan national security adviser Bud McFarlane. The trio surveyed progress on the first of 41 schools Sunrise is building-this one in Bol's home village of Turalei. Nearly complete, it's being constructed by Christian and Darfuri Muslim laborers.
"He was going to stay a matter of weeks," Prichard told me. But Bol picked up "a whiff of a plan" to derail elections scheduled for April-the first multiparty elections in Sudan in 24 years. Pro-Khartoum candidates were turning up in Twic County, his county, to run against established locals from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the majority (and largely Christian) party in the south. Bol was someone locals would listen to, and SPLM leaders asked him to stay. Twice he delayed his return to the United States-until early May.
Lacking medication for his kidney ailment, Bol's health declined. Eventually he became so sick he had to be hospitalized in Nairobi, Kenya, for a week. But when he learned that some candidates were trying to buy votes in Twic, he left the hospital and returned to Sudan: "If they give you money and food, take it," he told villagers. "But don't give them your vote in return."
On election day the candidates Bol favored won. According to Prichard, "he was very pleased but he was also very sick." When finally he arrived at Dulles airport outside Washington, he was too ill to board his connecting flight to his home in Kansas. Taken by ambulance to a hospital in northern Virginia, he remained there for five weeks before he was transferred to the burn unit at the University of Virginia hospital in nearby Charlottesville. Apparently medication he received in Nairobi for his failing kidneys brought on Stevens-Johnson, a severe skin reaction that burns the tissue from the inside out.
"He lived for his country, and he died for his country," Prichard said. "He gave his life to try to thwart the plan to manipulate elections and to try to keep plans on track for a [2011 independence] referendum."