Monday, June 21, 2010

Death and Near Death in Sport

Rest in peace, Manute. 

Manute Bol was 7 feet, 7 inches tall; the basket is only 10 feet above the court; the hoop is 18 inches in diameter and the ball only 9.39; but for most of his career including 10 seasons as an NBA professional, the league's tallest player had difficulty making the ball go through the hoop.  He is the only player in NBA history who averaged more blocked shots per game (3.3) than points (2.6).

He tied the record for most blocks in a half (11) and twice set the record for blocks in a quarter (8). 

Despite his reputation for futility as a shooter, he once made six of 12 three-point attempts in a single half. 

But none of this is important in considering Manute Bol, who died at 47 last Saturday of acute kidney failure in a hospital in Charlottesville, VA.

This is what's important:

Born in Sudan, the son of a Dinka chief, Manute (it means "special blessing") spent virtually all of the small fortune he earned in the NBA building schools and financing efforts to end poverty and oppression in his homeland.

His goal was to build 164 schools.  He was less than halfway there when he died.

The NBA should finish the job in his memory, as a tribute to a man whose humanitarianism towered far higher than 7 feet, 7 inches.

          * * *
In the opening match at Wimbledon Monday, Falla won the first two sets against someone posing as the defending champion, Roger Federer. (No, silly, not the reincarnation of FDR's dog.  FAH-ya, the Colombian left-hander who is ranked No. 60 in the world).

The scores were 7-5, 6-4.  Falla, like Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals at Paris a few  weeks ago, was eating Federer's second serve for lunch.  Or was it the impostor's? 

The real Federer began making a few token appearances in the third set, which Falla lost, 4-6.  But the impostor returned to action in the fourth, with Falla serving for the match at 5-4.  Then real Roger came back on court, forced a tiebreak, and won it easily.

There was no sign of the impostor in Set Five.  Real Roger won, 6-0.

What doth this bode for Federer's quest to equal Pete Sampras's record of seven Wimbledon championships, and add yet another to his record set of 16 Grand Slam titles?

At 29, Roger seems to have lost something on a second serve that was once one of the strengths of his magnificent all-around game.  And his backhand remains vulnerable against constant pounding.  But the Roger Federer of incomparable grace and skill, the man with the most complete game in the history of tennis, refused to surrender his dignity to the number 60 player on the tour.

He acknowledged afterward that this was a match he probably should have lost. "But then," he added enigmatically, "I've lost some this year that I should have won."

It's a long fortnight, and neither Roger nor his principal adversary, the No. 1 player in the world, Rafael Nadal, has an easy road ahead.

But this is Wimbledon, the courts are grass and the real Roger is still here -- or was, at least, when he needed to be.

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