A long way down
Horrific taxi crash has Bol in physical and financial distress
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. -- There's a basketball hoop outside Manute Bol's window at the Hospital for Special Care, but the famed NBA shot blocker doesn't look at it. He has a broken neck and wears a collar that restricts his movement. Bol lies in a specially constructed bed to support his 7-foot-7-inch body, which was badly injured in a taxi cab accident June 30. The single-car crash killed the driver and left Bol near death. His son tries to find a spot to hug his father where it doesn't hurt. "It's OK," says Bol, stroking the 4-year-old's head with his usable hand.
But it isn't OK, at least not yet. Besides the three fractured vertebrae in his neck, Bol suffered a sizable head wound. His left wrist was mangled so badly that surgeons inserted rods and grafted it to his abdomen so that blood would circulate ("It didn't have any meat on it," says Bol). His left kneecap was broken. He suffered internal injuries and abrasions on his chest.
"I am very lucky to be alive," says Bol, 43, in his first interview since the accident, which happened on Route 2 in Colchester, Conn. "If God wants to take my left arm, that's OK, as long as I can walk and play with my kids. I'm a lot improved. I was worse than this after the accident."
The taxi driver, Neville Robinson, 48, of Hartford, was driving under the influence. His death certificate cites "acute ethanol intoxication" as a significant contributing factor in his death from multiple blunt traumatic injuries, according to Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner Dr. H. Wayne Carver II.
Robinson also was driving with a license that was suspended until at least Sept. 19 for a "failed chemical alcohol test" on April 22, according to motor vehicle department records. Efforts to reach the president of the Yellow Cab taxi company, Marco Henry, were unsuccessful.
Bol was returning from a WNBA game at Mohegan Sun to his West Hartford home when the taxi lost control, struck a guard rail on the median divider, and swerved across both lanes before striking a rock ledge. According to an initial State Police report, it flipped over, ejecting both men. Witnesses told State Police the vehicle was traveling at an accelerated speed. A comprehensive report, including a reenactment and toxicology results, has not been completed, according to Connecticut State Police.
Paramedics found Bol lying in the road.
"He was unconscious and unresponsive," said John Fisher, chief flight nurse for Star Flight, an emergency medical helicopter service. "He was in critical condition."
EMTs didn't have a body board large enough to secure Bol's frame. They strapped him down, gave him pain medication, and put him on life support.
Bol doesn't remember the accident or the following week.
"The doctors were saying my kids came and my wife," said Bol. "They said I held them close to me and I was crying and saying that I'm going to die. But I didn't know that."
Bol has sued the cab company, but his attorney, Michael Jainchill, said, "He's in pretty serious financial trouble because it appears the cab company doesn't have enough insurance to even pay Manute's medical expenses."
"What did I do wrong?"
Some 76 days after the accident and still facing a long rehabilitation, Bol is not only broken but broke. He says he has no health insurance and is not eligible for his NBA pension until he is 45. He gave away an estimated $3.2 million to help his countrymen fight the Islamic government in Sudan, and he's not sorry he did. "I don't feel bad because I feel I saved some people by doing that," said Bol.
Still, as he lies in bed, his mind wanders.
"I was wondering, what did I do wrong to God?" he said. "I've gone to war zones before and never got shot. Why is this happening to me now?
"I'd like to do things to make money to save myself but right now I can't do nothing. If they want to put me in jail, they can do that. It's kind of tough."
Bol said he relies on personal appearances to support himself and his family.
In 10 NBA seasons (with the Bullets, Sixers, Warriors, and Heat), Bol's spindly legs and huge wingspan helped him changed the direction of 2,086 shots.
But when he was 18, Bol knew nothing of basketball. He was the son of a Dinka tribal chief in Southern Sudan. Six years later, he was in the NBA. As a rookie, he blocked 397 shots, the second-highest total ever in the NBA. For his career, Bol averaged 3.34 blocks per game, second only to Mark Eaton's 3.50. He was not a scorer, averaging just 2.6 points a game, even though he could dunk without leaving his feet. He was a mere 185 pounds and was easily moved around by beefier NBA centers.
After he retired in 1996, he spent five years abroad. In 2001, he moved to Khartoum when the Sudanese government offered him a job as a sports minister, only to rescind the offer when he refused to convert to Islam.
"They were using me," said Bol. "Trying to make me be a Muslim and go against my own people and I refused to do that."
He eventually left for Egypt, where he ran a basketball school in Cairo. There he tutored fellow Dinka and Sudan refugee Luol Deng, who was recently signed by the Chicago Bulls. But in the aftermath of 9/11, Bol had visa problems returning to the United States. The terrorist attacks left him stunned. "I didn't eat for three days." he said.
Bol says he warned Congress in 1993 or '94 about Osama bin Laden, who operated out of Sudan from 1990-96.
"We talked to Congress, but nobody listened to us," said Bol. "We told these people about terrorists taught by bin Laden. We met 58 congressmen. We talked to the Pentagon, and said, `Support us.' But Clinton was a lover, not a fighter."
Bol finally was able to return to the US in 2002. He fought -- and beat -- William "Refrigerator" Perry in a pay-per-view boxing match and donated his $30,000 purse to his Ring True Foundation, which raises money for children in Southern Sudan. He signed with and suited up for the Indianapolis Ice minor league hockey team, though he did not play. He also became the world's tallest jockey in October 2003, again for charity.
The fateful ride
On June 30, Bol attended a WNBA game between the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics at Mohegan Sun. After the game, he got into the back seat of a Yellow Cab taxi to return to his West Hartford home. He said it was a flat rate of $86.
"It's supposed to be a 40-minute ride," said Bol, "but it took a long time because he got lost right from the entrance of the hotel. We drove for 40 minutes and we're in the middle of nowhere. I said, `We should be in Hartford, where you taking me?' He's driving crazy, and too fast. I told him that."
Bol told him to pull over.
"I said, `You're not going to take me home, let me find another taxi.' So we had a big argument in the car. I called a cab company on my cellphone. They said it might take 40 minutes to an hour. He said, `Don't worry about it, I can see the lights of Hartford. I'll take you there.' He said, `I'm going to slow down.' "
Bol said he thought the driver had been drinking.
"I asked him, `Did you have a drink?' First he denied it. Then he did say that he had a drink. He said, `Hartford is close to us and I'm going to get you home safe,' and I said, `OK.' He said, `Don't worry about it.' I didn't want to talk to him at all. We drove to the intersection of the highway [Route 2] and I went to sleep.
"I don't know what happened after that. Whatever he did, I forgive him. I wish nothing happened to nobody."
When Bol regained consciousness more than a week later, his wife was at his bedside. Bol had no idea what he was doing in the hospital.
"I was talking to my wife. She said, `You got in a car accident.' I didn't know that. I said, `No.' She said, `Yes.' "
Doctors are hoping for a full recovery. They say his athleticism helped save his life.
After the accident, former Warriors teammate Chris Mullin, now a Golden State special assistant, called several times to cheer Bol up. Mullin also organized a Fantasy Basketball Camp weekend in November with Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond that will include a dinner, clinic, and tickets to a Warriors game. The Warriors will donate all proceeds to help pay Bol's medical bills.
Bol says the future is still bright even though this has been a bad year for him. He was arrested twice since he returned to Hartford, once after a fight with his first wife and another time for assaulting his daughter, cutting her lip. Bol says she ran into a door he was shutting.
"I love my family," he said. "I didn't hit my daughter. My wife shoved me but I didn't touch her. I'm not a violent person. There's a lot of bad things going on but I didn't do nothing."
He wishes he had been healthy enough to get arrested with actor Danny Glover in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington last month. Glover was protesting atrocities in Western Sudan, where more than 50,000 black Africans have been killed by Arab militia.
"They need action, not talk," said Bol. "These are black Africans and this is their land."
He said he would like to split his time between Southern Sudan and the US after he heals. He thinks he can find future NBA stars in Africa.
"NBA, why do you do something in China but nothing in Africa?" he said. "You can get a good player every year in Africa. Nobody can beat the Africans. Nobody."
Bol said he watched Olympic basketball from his hospital bed.
"It's unbelievable the US lost four games," he said. "They made a mistake not having Shaq O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Kobe [Bryant], and Tracy McGrady. You got them, you'll kill everybody. The Europeans were playing together for 10 years. I was disappointed."
At 1 p.m., the physical therapists arrive in Bol's room. They tug him out of his specially made 9-foot bed into his specially made 5-foot wheelchair. It has been three weeks since Bol first stood up and took a step.
"I remember his first step. It was at Hartford Hospital," said his friend, Drew Kearns. "The ceiling was low. They actually got him up and Manute stood up and there was blood on the ceiling from his head wound."
Therapists still have to dress Bol and assist him to his feet. Supported on each side, Bol slowly walks down the hallway. A third therapist follows closely behind with the wheelchair.
"I'm learning to walk again, like a little baby," said Bol. "It's kind of tough."
Contributions to the Manute Bol Medical Fund can be made c/o Fleet Bank, 4 North Main Street, West Hartford, Conn. 06107.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.