You never think someone you know is going to die, even though eventually we all do. But Saturday's news that former NBA shot-blocker extraordinaire Manute Bol had died at 47 hit me hard.
I knew Bol recently had been hospitalized with a skin disease after returning from his native Sudan, but I always thought he'd recover. Ultimately, kidney failure prevented any recovery.
Bol had been in the Sudan to help get schools built and then stayed until mid-May when he was asked by the president of southern Sudan to make election appearances and help counter corruption in the country.
The first time I met Bol - all 7-foot-7 inches of him - was during an interview at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Bol was sitting down, I was standing up and he still was taller than me.
I was wearing a hat made from kente cloth (native of Ghana and the Ivory Coast) and it immediately attracted Bol, who could be shy, but also had a boisterous and outgoing side once unleashed.
Actually, writing that statement made me smile and think of the TV show back in the day on which Rick Mahorn and Charles Barkley pulled a prank on Bol.
I can't remember whether it Mahorn or Barkley, but one of those two nutcases put his head through a hole in the table that was covered with different food dishes.
The hole was covered by metallic food plate cover and when Bol picked up the top, he jumped back and the look on his face was priceless.
In fact, Mahorn and Barkley talked so much stuff to Bol, they probably could have been arrested for verbal assault, if such a charge existed.
The Sudanese native had come to the United States to play basketball, spent a year at Division II University of Bridgeport where he set record after record in rebounding and shot blocking. One of his Bridgeport teammates was John Mullin, brother of then St. John's and future NBA star, Chris Mullin.
Back to the kente cloth hat, Bol asked if I was from Jamaica.
I told him, yeah, and asked him how he knew.
He said, "You're wearing that kente on your head."
I told him, I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and he started laughing and called over one of his partners in hilarity, Mullin, a Golden State Warriors teammate.
In fact, I'd bet every possession I have, 'Nute never knew my name.
He always called me, 'Jamaica,' and then started laughing.
"You ain't from Jamaica, boy. Jamaica, Queens don't count," said Bol with his wide smile that always was highlighted by the contrast of his jet-black skin.
Bol's height and skin made him stand out visually in the U.S.
On the court, Bol, 47, had no problems blocking anyone's shot, but the real kicker was his eventual ability . Strength never was a forte since he weighed no more than 225 pounds on a really good day.
However, that didn't stop him from telling the story about killing a lion. He would be serious as a heart attack and since we're from here, who were we to tell him he was lying.
Chris Mullin said Saturday from Denver he had been thinking about detouring his trip back to New York through Virginia to see Bol in the hospital.
"I just talked to him last week," Mullin said. "He actually sounded pretty good, but I guess he took a turn for the worse last night. I'd been keep track of him through one of his sons."
Mullin said last night he'd been reminded of Bol.
"I was getting a Hertz rental car and the guy working for them asked me if I was Nute's guy," Mullin said. "He said, 'Your Manute's guy.'" He was Sudanese and he was pretty young. My son, Liam (13) asked me how that guy knew me and Nute were tight.
"But they were from the same country and Nute was a guy everyone from there knew about."
Mullin said Bol was 'so complex. Man, he'd been through so much growing up in the Sudan. Once he was here, obviously because of his size and complexion he stood and people didn't know how to take him.
"I'd known him before the NBA, during the NBA and then after, so it was like three different phases of his life. What he was though, was really, really funny. He could be brutally honest. The guy was a fighter."
Mullin said that was evident last week when he phoned Bol.
Said Mullin, "My phone number wasn't in his phone and when I started giving him (stuff) he started talking (stuff) back to me. He was a fighter even when he wasn't feeling well. Then when I told him it was me we just started laughing. He said, 'Chalk,' I didn't know that was you."
Mullin said Bol attracted attention wherever he was.
"Him and my brother would come to games at St. John's," Mullin said. "When they showed up, everybody in Alumni Hall (now Carnesecca Court) would just stop and turn around and look at him.
"But Nute always went back to the Sudan to try and help, I think because he'd gone through so much and seen so much when he was growing up."
Where as Bol and Mullin were the ultimate Ebony-Ivory combination, it was the pairing of Bol and 5-foot-7 Spud Webb as United States Basketball League teammates that brought the long and short of it all.
"We lived together with John Hot Rod Williams from LSU when we played together during the summer in Rhode Island for Kevin Stacom," Webb said Saturday evening. "John was such a country guy and you had Manute talking about using spears to kill food. It was something special.
"But Manute always had a joking personality. I saw him a couple of years ago and he wasn't getting around after that car accident he'd been in, but there he was telling jokes."
Bol indeed was special in part because of his natural humanitarian nature.
As a basketball player, Bol is believed to be the only NBA player to have registered more blocked shots (2086) than points scored (1599).
Rest in peace, Nute.