Basketball may be a sport that favors the tall, but at the end of the day, height isn’t everything. Still, that hasn’t prevented NBA general managers, especially in previous decades, from taking a flyer on the unusually tall; why sign a mediocre 6-foot-10-inch prospect to fill out one of your last few roster spots when someone who stands 7-feet-2-inches is available with a similarly uninspiring skill set? As they used to say so often, you can’t teach height.
On the other side of the spectrum, players who stand less than 6 feet tall have traditionally found it much harder to break into the league, though there are obviously some exceptions such as Spud Webb and Earl Boykins who, despite being only 5-foot-something, enjoyed successful careers in the NBA. But those two players weren’t the shortest to ever play in the league, and the league’s tallest-ever player(s) stood well over 7-feet-2-inches.
Years before the Washington Wizards became known as such, D.C.’s NBA team was called the Bullets, and for one season in the late ’80s, they had the distinction of having the shortest and tallest player in NBA history on the same lineup. The Orlando Sentinel referred to the pairing as a "Barnum & Bailey sideshow," and a lot of the promotional tactics used by the Bullets felt more appropriate for the world of pro wrestling. But when it was all said and done, 7-foot-7-inch Manute Bol and 5-foot-3-inch Muggsy Bogues exceeded expectations in the NBA, with these two men of disparate heights also enjoying a close friendship behind the scenes.
Manute Bol became the NBA’s tallest player ever in 1985
It’s not every day that you see the NBA Draft’s 31st overall pick being referred to as a gamble. But that was the case with Manute Bol, who was selected by the Washington Bullets early in the second round back in 1985. Yes, it’s true that he averaged 22.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, and a ridiculous 7.1 blocks per game while playing for the University of Bridgeport in the 1984-85 season (via Basketball-Reference). But firstly, Bridgeport was an NCAA Division II school, and not a Division I powerhouse like North Carolina, Duke, or Indiana. Secondly, the Sudanese center was the very definition of a project, an extremely tall (7-feet-7-inches) player who, at 200 pounds, weighed just about as much as a 6-foot-6-inch small forward. He may have been the NBA’s tallest-ever player at that point, but his skinny frame almost ensured that he would get bullied in the paint by shorter, yet more conventionally built centers.
Interestingly, Bol won the starting center job at Washington as a rookie and, while coming off the bench in his second season, still saw meaningful minutes. His rebounding, and especially his scoring, was nothing to write home about. But he did lead the NBA in blocked shots, averaging an even 5 per game in the 1985-86 season, and followed that up with 3.7 per game in only 18.9 minutes in 1986-87. He was making good use of his height on defense and playing for a decent Bullets team that won 42 games and made the first round of the playoffs in 1986-87. But the Bullets needed help at the point guard position, and they addressed that need in the 1987 draft … by selecting someone who stood a good 28 inches shorter than Bol.
When the tallest met the shortest
After a 1986-87 campaign where they relied mainly on journeyman Ennis Whatley and the mostly unproven Michael Adams for playmaking duties, the Washington Bullets used their first-round pick in the 1987 NBA Draft on Wake Forest Demon Deacons point guard Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues. Who, must we remind you, stood all of 5-feet-3-inches tall. This easily made him the shortest player in NBA history, though his diminutive size didn’t stop him from putting up big numbers (14.8 points, 9.5 assists per game) for a reputable college program.
Bogues’ arrival in Washington, naturally, meant that the Bullets had both the tallest and the shortest NBA players of all time on the same lineup. The peculiar pairing looked and felt like a gimmick, and Bogues would later admit that the Bullets would occasionally focus too much on their extreme Mutt and Jeff dynamic. "Yes. I think they started to try to use me and Manute as a novelty act, because of the height differential," he told the Charlotte Observer. "But luckily for Manute and I, we were comfortable in our own skin."
Even with Bol proving his worth on defense and Bogues boasting impressive college credentials, it was hard not to see the duo as little more than just that — a novelty act. As documented by the Chicago Tribune, the pair participated in a photoshoot that underscored their height difference. Bogues, meanwhile, was featured on a growth chart poster, and during a media conference, was introduced to the press by the "shortest male senator" and asked to dunk a ball through a lowered hoop. So much for minimizing the "freak-show stuff," as a Bullets press representative was quoted as saying.
Bogues and Bol developed a tight bond in Washington
During his Charlotte Observer interview, Muggsy Bogues shared some insight into his friendship with Manute Bol, which started in the aforementioned 1987-88 season with the Washington Bullets where they stood out for their unprecedented difference in height. As the former NBA point guard explained, teams still flew commercial in the late ’80s, and since there were only so many first-class seats available for the Bullets’ players, Bogues and Bol had to sit in coach, on account of their relative youth compared to the rest of the team.
According to Bogues, those commercial flights were a fun experience for him, especially since Bol had fascinating tales to tell about life in Sudan. "Of course he was 7-foot-6 [sic]," he recalled. "Knees up to his chest. And he’s back there trying to tell me stories about how he killed lions with a spear." Secret Base‘s feature on the duo also noted how Bogues and Bol frequently horsed around as two close friends would typically do, and stuck around after practice to play one-on-one games, including one where Bogues blocked one of Bol’s shot attempts.
Unfortunately, neither player really set the world on fire on the court. The Bullets’ half-court game was not a good fit for the lightning-quick Bogues, and he and Bol both struggled as second-stringers in the 1987-88 season.
The end of a (very brief) era
The Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues era in Washington, if you can even call it that, came to an end after just one season when Bogues was among the players selected in the 1988 NBA expansion draft. Playing for the Charlotte Hornets alongside the likes of Dell Curry (aka Stephen Curry‘s dad) and future social media influencer Rex Chapman, Bogues saw his numbers substantially improve in his sophomore season, and he would go on to play for the team until early in the 1997-98 campaign. He would also average double figures in assists two times during this lengthy run with the Hornets (via Basketball-Reference).
Meanwhile, Bol was also gone from the Bullets after the 1987-88 season, joining the Golden State Warriors and having a bounce-back season of sorts in 1988-89, where he led the NBA in blocked shots for a second time with 4.3 swats per game. What followed was a journeyman career that ended in 1995 with a second stint with the Warriors. While Bol was never even a merely decent scorer during his time in the league, he did develop a then-unusual-for-big-men proclivity for shooting three-pointers, albeit at an abysmal 21% career percentage. Still, he remained a fantastic shot blocker on paper despite never returning to the starting lineup on a regular basis.
Manute Bol is still fondly remembered by Bogues
After retiring from the NBA, Manute Bol became heavily involved in charitable activities that often saw him flying back home to Sudan. It was during one of those missions that he fell seriously ill, and on June 19, 2010, the former NBA center died of kidney failure and complications from a rare condition known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (via ABC News). He was only 47.
In the years since Bol’s passing, Muggsy Bogues has looked back multiple times on his friendship with the big man and the brief time they spent together as teammates. Speaking to Mulligan Brothers Interviews in 2019, Bogues described Bol as a solid citizen on and off the court. "He just had such a spirit within him that it really resonated amongst the team as well as the organization," he said. "He was a giving young man … he stayed true to himself and he stayed true to his family and friends." The Charlotte Hornets legend concluded his recollections of Bol by saying that he was "grateful that [he] had the opportunity to play with him."
Although Manute Bol is no longer with us, his legacy lives on in the NBA, as his son, Bol Bol, was drafted in the second round in 2019. The younger Bol, who stands 7-foot-2-inches, is entering his fourth season in the pros as of this writing, though he has yet to see significant minutes in the NBA.