Hockey team to pull off one big publicity stunt

Friday, November 15, 2002

Picture 7-foot-7 Manute Bol on skates.

Indianapolis Ice general manager Larry Linde did more than that. Earlier this week, he got Bol's signature on a Central Hockey League contract and then started measuring the rest of him for a uniform.

Never mind that Bol played pro basketball, not hockey, or that all his previous experience with ice is the kind that fills a glass.

"A company told us they have a size 16 skate and our equipment guys have been putting together extra-long sticks," Linde said Thursday. "We're making progress."

Indianapolis' next Central Hockey League game is Saturday against the Amarillo Gorillas. Linde wouldn't say whether Bol will take the ice for the Ice, but in the tradition of showmen, he said to stay tuned.

"All I can say is we hope to have Manute in uniform and sitting on the end of the bench," Linde said.

This is hardly the first time someone has threatened to pass off a freak show as real sport. But trust us (for the moment, anyway), it's also one of the few times it's being done for the right reasons.

Baseball fans might remember that St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck sent a midget named Eddie Gaedel -- wearing uniform number 1/8 -- to the plate as a pinch-hitter in a real game.

It was 1951 and Veeck had a terrible team in a town the Cardinals already owned. Before Gaedel went up to hit, Veeck told the 3-foot-7 batsman that if he actually swung at a pitch, a sniper hidden in the stands would take him out.

But Veeck did right by Gaedel, too. He took out a $1 million insurance policy in case anything went wrong. Nothing did -- Gaedel walked on four pitches -- and Veeck later employed the tiny stage actor in some zany, off-the-field work as well.

Boxing fans, too, have known the dubious pleasure of epic mismatches through the years. And what's pro wrestling, really, if not the nightly refuge of borderline personalities with pectorals to die for?

So when Linde said he had a deal with Bol, it was easy to assume the worst.

Bol is 40 now. His joints are swelled by rheumatism and he weighs 225 pounds, 20 above his playing weight. His last NBA payday was seven years ago. He's so low on money that Catholic Charities pays Bol's rent and he relies on friends to help make ends meet.

And just a few months ago, Bol fought (and beat) former football player William "The Refrigerator" Perry in a bout on the same televised celebrity boxing show that included Joey Buttafuoco squaring off against John Wayne Bobbitt.

So this stunt, like all those, is about money, too.

But it's what Bol does with that money -- what he did with most of the money he made in 11 NBA seasons -- that makes this stunt different.

He gives it away.

Bol, the son and grandson of Dinka tribal chiefs, grew up in the Sudan in the 1970s during a brief lull in the civil wars that have ravaged his homeland for much of the last 50 years.

He didn't play basketball until he was 15, then walked three days from his village to join his first team. Six years later, after stints in college and minor-league basketball, he entered the NBA as the tallest player. He left as anything but a freak.

Bol blocked 397 shots in his rookie season, still the second-best total ever. He was part comedian and part nobleman, someone that good buddy Charles Barkley remembered "always wanted to be looked upon as dignified."

But he was also consumed by the civil war that returned to the Sudan. Bol testified at congressional hearings in the mid-90s against the Islamic extremists who controlled the Sudanese government, and sent $3.5 million of his own money to fund a rebel movement in which his relatives fought one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

After his NBA retirement, a peace treaty was announced in the Sudan and Bol returned home, hoping to play a role in the new government. Instead, he became a virtual prisoner. He bribed his way out of the Sudan last year and only made it back to the United States in March.

That part of Bol's story, and his continued work on behalf of the Ring True Foundation, a charity he set up to aid Sudanese refugees, has just started getting out.

That's where the $35,000 he pocketed for fighting Refrigerator Perry went. It's where his first -- and probably only -- paycheck from the Indianapolis Ice will be headed, too.

Because whatever Linde says publicly, he's telling friends Bol won't set foot on the ice during a game and that the stunt is a way of helping Bol and his cause.

The general manager hasn't figured out for how many games he'll have Bol greet fans, but Linde already knows what will happen to the skates and stick afterward. They'll be auctioned off, and the money donated to the Ring True Foundation.


Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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