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Manute Bol, a towering Dinka tribesman who left southern Sudan to become one of the best shot blockers in the history of American basketball, then returned to his homeland to try to heal the wounds of a long, bloody civil war, died Saturday at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, according to Sally Jones, a spokeswoman for the hospital. He was 47 and lived in Olathe, Kan.
The cause was severe kidney trouble and complications of a rare skin disorder known as Stevens Johnson syndrome, said Tom Prichard, who runs Sudan Sunrise, a foundation that is building a school near Bol’s birthplace in Turalei. Bol had been hospitalized since late May when he fell ill during a layover on a trip home from Sudan, Mr. Prichard said.
Though he wore size 16 sneakers and had a pair of the spindliest legs ever to protrude from a pair of nylon shorts, Bol, at 7 feet 6 inches, was an athletic marvel. He arrived in the National Basketball Association in 1985 and promptly set a rookie record by blocking an average of five shots per game a total of 397 for the season.
Bol eventually came to terms with the fascination Americans had with his height. When he was a young man in Sudan, he told The New York Times in a 1985 interview, his size was not so remarkable.
“My mother was 6 feet 10,
my father 6 feet 8 and my sister is 6 feet 8,” he said. “And my great grandfather was even taller 7 feet 10.”
As a boy, Bol had tended his family’s cattle. According to a tale he was often asked to repeat in interviews, he once killed a lion with a spear while he was working as a cowherd.
In a 2001 interview with The Times in Khartoum, Bol said he dreamed of going back to Turalei and his roots. “I would have a big, big farm,” he said. “Then we have no worries about money. If you have the cows, you have the money.”
Bol returned to Sudan regularly during his playing days, and once he retired, he became more politically active there. He went there late last year to check on the school construction. Then he stayed to campaign for a candidate in the region’s presidential election, which was held in late April, said Mr. Prichard, who traveled there with Bol in November. During his extended visit, Bol became ill and was briefly hospitalized in Nairobi, Kenya, Mr. Prichard said.
“He really felt that his country needed him,” Mr. Prichard said. “He really died for his country. He wanted to do everything he could to see southern Sudan make it through this election in the best possible way.”