I could not understand why. Two days earlier, the Mets had held a three games to two lead and were one win away from the 1973 world championship. They had Tom Seaver and Jon Matlack, two of the best pitchers in baseball, set to start games six and seven. Victory appeared imminent. Yet the Oakland A’s took the next two games and, as Wayne Garrett’s pop fly settled in to the glove of A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris for the final out of the World Series, the question I kept asking myself was: why? Why had the Mets lost, after staging a miraculous regular season comeback that had seen them win the National League East division title on the day after the season had been scheduled to end? Why had the Mets failed to score more than one run for Seaver in game six? Why had Matlack faltered in game seven after dominating the second half of the regular season? Why?
I suppose the question I asked at age thirteen is what long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans ask every year. It is difficult to understand why, despite regularly playing before boisterous sellout crowds, the Cubs have not won in over a hundred years, while the Florida Marlins, playing in front of nearly empty stadiums, have won two championships since they came into existence in 1993. It is also the question asked by Cleveland fans who have not experienced a championship in any sport since 1964 and recently saw their franchise player, LeBron James, a native of Ohio, defect to the Miami Heat.
The question of why resurfaced when I recently read the obituary of former basketball player Manute Bol, who died on June 19 at the age of forty-seven of acute kidney failure. Bol was one of the most unusual and memorable players ever to wear an NBA uniform. A native of impoverished Sudan, Bol stood at seven feet, six inches, and weighed a mere two hundred pounds. He was long and thin, with legs that seemed to come up to his chest, and arms that appeared to reach below his knees.
When he entered the NBA in 1985, after spending a year at the University of Bridgeport, he was the tallest player in league history. He had never played basketball before his late teens and was never a dominant force, yet managed to spend ten years in the NBA, including part of the 1993-94 season with the Miami Heat. It was there that I saw him up-close for the first time, and what I witnessed defied description. While he towered above other players, he visibly struggled to move up and down the court on legs that were clearly not meant for running. He was so thin that he always appeared to be one sharp blow away from incapacitation.
Yet the most memorable aspect of Bol’s physique was his smile. It was always visible, and seemed to charm friend and foe alike. He was one of the best liked players in the history of the sport.
Bol never signed a multi-million dollar contract and never held an ESPN special to announce his future plans. He had few endorsement opportunities and his number was not retired by any of the teams for whom he played. While other athletes associated with performance enhancing drugs held long, profitable careers, his was modest by comparison.
Bol’s main legacy was established outside the basketball court. He was a philanthropist who spent much of the money he made during his career on causes related to his native Sudan. After he retired in 1995, he continued devoting his life to helping the Sudanese people, occasionally running afoul of the forces that fought to control his war-ravaged nation. He was, by all accounts, one of the good guys.
That is why, for someone seeking to make sense of the world, Bol’s death raises the age-old question of why. Men have long sought answers for things they cannot explain, sometimes resorting to myth, such as the “Curse of the Goat” for Cubs fans, and other times to religion, which can often be described as that to which men turn when logic fails.
I stopped asking why long ago. As I think back over my life, the turning point appears to have occurred eighteen years ago, when I huddled in a closet for several hours with my wife and eighteen-month old twins, listening to the ravages of Hurricane Andrew and wondering if we were all going to die. While we survived the storm, the experience left its mark on us, as it did on all of South Florida.
When I think of Manute Bol, I prefer not to focus on the question of why someone with so much to give should be taken from us prematurely, while others, less worthy, live to ripe old ages. I prefer to focus instead on his life, what he fought for, and how the world is a better place because he was a part of it for a few short decades.
There is no point to asking why. Sometimes things just happen, and life goes on.