JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - The body of basketball star Manute Bol returned to south Sudan on Saturday, where a crowd paid tribute to a national hero revered for his charity work at home as much as his sporting glory in the United States.
Bol, the 7-foot-7 (2.31 metre) shot blocker who took an unlikely path from cattle herder in south Sudan through 10 seasons in the NBA to an internationally-respected humanitarian career, died in a U.S. hospital on June 19 at the age of 47.
The charity he worked with building schools in Sudan said the cause of death was kidney failure and a painful skin disease, Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
A plane carrying his body landed in south Sudan’s capital Juba on Saturday morning. Officials draped his white casket in a south Sudan flag as a crowd of more than 700 mourners, including young players from local basketball teams, looked quietly on.
Officials said the body would stay for a short time in Juba, to allow mourners to pay their respects. There are plans to fly Bol back to his home village of Turalei in south Sudan’s remote Warrap state and bury him near his grandfather in coming days.
Bol, discovered playing on the streets of Khartoum and brought to the United States, became a fan favourite for Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia and Miami.
He is still tied for the record as the tallest person ever to play in the NBA and owns the career record for most blocked shots per 48 minutes of playing time.
In Sudan’s semi-autonomous south, he was known for his charitable work, particularly during the decades-long civil war between north and south Sudan that ended in a 2005 peace deal.
“He was the tallest man in the NBA and everybody here enjoyed the international fame he was getting,” Warrap governor Nyandeng Malek told Reuters before the body landed.
“We remember him for his leadership during the struggle ... He gave his money, he talked and he advocated for the people of south Sudan.”
Malek said Bol paid for refugee airlifts during the war and visited south Sudan during this April’s national elections, campaigning for people to vote, despite signs of his last illness.
“With our tradition, the remains of the body must go back to where he was born. His grave will be shown to generations to come,” she added.
Sudan Sunrise, a charity that worked with Bol and set up a school in his name in Turalei, said he fell seriously ill after becoming separated from his medicines on his last trip to Sudan.
“Ultimately, he succumbed to a combination of kidney failure and Stevens-Johnson syndrome,” said the group on its website.
Two million people died and 4 million fled during the battle over differences in ideology, ethnicity and religion between Sudan’s Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christianity and traditional beliefs.
Southerners are just over six months away from a referendum promised in the 2005 peace deal on whether they should stay in Sudan or secede. Analysts expect most to choose independence.