Billy Fishkin shares the story of the ignition of his fascination with Manute Bol.
This post is part of our series, From the Front Lines . . . of Sports, where readers share personal stories of their experiences attending live sports events. These essays can explore aspects of the game itself, the feeling of being there, of spending time with family or friends, or anything else connected to the experience. And it can be any type of sports event, big or small, from the NCAA Basketball tourney with buddies, the SuperBowl with friends, on a baseball trip with your kid, or to a minor league baseball game with the family.
The remainder of this post is the words of reader, Billy Fishkin:
The NBA All-Star Game returns to Madison Square Garden this February. I had the good fortune of attending the last MSG All-Star Game, back in 1998. Memorable as that certainly was, it is another star-filled exhibition at The Mecca of Basketball that remains much nearer and dearer to my heart.
It was the night I came face to face with Manute Bol. Needless to say, he was sitting at the time.
Midtown Manhattan, October 21, 1986:
Four days before a baseball would find its way through Bill Buckner’s wickets one borough over. Three fraternity brothers and I made a spur-of-the-moment 3-hour road trip from central Pennsylvania to see the Knicks host a rare preseason doubleheader: Knicks vs. Lakers and Rockets vs. Bullets on one ticket.
Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Ewing, Moses, Akeem The Dream (he didn’t add the “H” until 1991), Sampson, and…yes…Bol.
I had a strange fascination with Manute Bol. I had his name ironed on the back of my intramural basketball “Bricklayers” t-shirt (yes, I wore it to The Garden that night). From the moment the Rockets and Bullets took the court for their warmups, I simply couldn’t take my eyes off the 7’7” human stick figure.
When Game 1 ended and the Rockets and Bullets left the court, I was utterly fulfilled. Game 2 between my Knicks and the Showtime Lakers, who would win the NBA title that season, had become merely gravy. I had seen Manute Bol up close and in person. Little did I know that, in just a few minutes, I would see him REALLY up close and in person.
Shortly into the Knicks-Lakers game, members of the Rockets and Bullets – showered and in street clothes — began emerging from the Garden tunnel to take in the rest of the game. My jaw dropped when Manute Bol climbed the steps and took a seat just one section over from us! No cell phone cameras, of course, but I had brought a couple of actual cameras for the event. I handed my Kodak Disc 4000 to my buddy, Dan, and barked some 1986 equivalent of “Let’s do this.”
We maneuvered to Manute’s row, where I sidled up to him and gently tapped the longest suit sleeve I’d ever seen.
Mr. Bol, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m a huge fan. Can I take a picture with you?
He very politely said that he doesn’t do that.
You don’t have to get up or anything. My friend is right here. Just one quick shot.
We turned and Dan snapped.
Thank you, thank you SOOOO much.
From that day on, I followed Bol’s career and life.
He began as something of a playful cartoon hero to me, but I would soon learn what a bona fide hero he really was.
I read about his spending most of the money he earned in the NBA to help orphaned children and politically oppressed people in his native Sudan. I saw how, after his playing career, he continued to make appearances and perform publicity stunts, like celebrity boxing and minor league ice hockey, to earn yet more money for Sudanese causes. I read how, in 2001, he was held captive in his homeland by the ruling Islamic government and had to escape to return to the United States.
I learned what a principled and committed humanitarian he was, who put the welfare of his countrymen ahead of his own wealth and health. My picture with him was no longer just a photo album novelty and a good story to tell, but rather it became a special and inspiring memento. Sadly, Manute Bol died in 2010.
I’ve been to a lot of live sporting events. A LOT. Playoff games, bowl games, championship games, title fights. Heck, well over 300 New York Giants games, alone.
I never imagined that an otherwise meaningless preseason exhibition basketball game could prove so very memorable.
Cover: Associated Press/Jim Sulley
All others: Photo credit courtesy of author.
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