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Monday, 29 October, 2001, 17:05 GMT
Sudan's NBA giant
Manute Bol
The only thing on the court higher than Bol is the basket
Sudan's Manute Bol is impossible to miss.

When you find that your people are living in a bad situation then you have to help your people

Manute Bol
At seven foot seven inches, he is still the tallest man ever to have played in America's National Basketball Association (NBA) league.

He earned millions of dollars in a 10-year career, setting records that still stand to this day.

But things are different now.

He suffers serious rheumatism, and his fortune has disappeared, largely due to his ceaseless support for Southern Sudan's largest rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

Waiting game

Earlier this year he managed to flee Khartoum where the authorities had been refusing to let him leave.

Manute Bol
Bol gave up soccer because he was too tall
He has made it as far as Cairo now, where he is trying to return to his family in the United States.

He explained that after his step-mother was killed in a car accident three years ago, he has been looking after his nine-year-old half-sister, as well as his wife and son.

But the US consulate in Cairo has said he must have the correct custody papers to bring his half-sister back to the United States.

So having filled out the forms, he is just sitting in Cairo waiting to hear from lawyers.

But since the 11 September tragedy, he has heard nothing, and he now waits in Egypt, living off money sent by relatives.

"I just sit watching TV and what's going on in the news," he said.

Sudan's most famous

It is a sad turn of events in what has been an astonishing rags-to-riches story.

Sudanese rebels
Bol has no regrets about funding rebels in Southern Sudan
His meteoric rise to fame took him from humble beginnings in the southern Sudan to the glories of the NBA, which made him probably the most famous Sudanese national in the world.

"I was a young guy from the Southern Sudan. We made our living taking care of cattle..we grew our own food," he said.

In 1972, he started playing football, but was injured.

"People were telling me, you know you're too tall to play soccer, you should play basketball," he said.

He started playing basketball in 1979 and was soon playing for the national team. His supreme talents were quickly spotted and he was encouraged to head for the States to play college basketball.

One of his fellow players acted as translator for him.

"It was very hard the first time, because I didn't speak any English," he said, adding that a fellow Sudanese player acted as translator for him.

"When everybody was talking, I thought they were talking about me. I got mad, I wanted to go back to the Sudan."

He said people were shocked at first when they saw how tall he was, but his performance on the court soon won them over.

He still hold the record for the most number of blocked shots from his first season - 397 to be precise.

Fighting for freedom

Despite the fame and wealth coming his way, Manute's heart still lay back in his homeland with those he believes are fighting for freedom.

Manute Bol
"God gives everybody something"
The SPLA has been fighting an 18-year-war demanding more freedom in the south for the mainly animist and Christian population, from the mostly Muslim, Arabic-speaking north.

"I used the money to help some of my people back at home. If someone needed something, I had to be there for them," he said.

"When you find that your people are living in a bad situation then you have to help your people. We thought that we had been forgotten by the world."

He estimates he has given $3.5m over the years and has also opened an office in Washington to lobby the US government on behalf of the rebels.

And despite his current circumstances, he has no regrets.

"If I had the money again, I would do the same thing again," he said.

He may not play any more, but he looks back on his career with pride and impressive modesty.

"God gives everybody something," he said.

Manute Boll talks to the BBC
"People were telling me, 'you're too tall to play soccer'"
See also:

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29 Oct 01 | US Sport
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02 Jun 01 | Africa
Sudan summit fails to agree truce
21 Apr 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Oil and Sudan's civil war
27 May 01 | Africa
Powell promises Sudan aid
24 May 01 | Africa
Sudan to halt air strikes
24 May 01 | Middle East
Timeline: Sudan
24 May 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Sudan
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