Bulking Up Manute Bol Was a Tall Order and Then Some for Trainer Mackie Shilstone
updated 10/27/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 10/27/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
Manute Bol. Sudanese herdsman. Washington Bullets center. Seven feet, seven inches tall.
Mackie leads Manute around the gym floor, goose-stepping, calling out in his shrill, girlish voice, "Lift your knees, Manute! Higher! Lighter! Like you're walking on a hot stove!" Manute, flat-footed, follows behind Mackie and moans, "Ah, Mackie-man, I'm tryin', I'm tryin'."
Manute Bol, 24, as dark as a plum, painfully shy, stiff moving, splayfooted, regally tall and thin like an African warrior out of an old British colonial movie. Mackie Shilstone, 35, pale, slim, light moving, with fluttery little gestures of his hands, a hyper New Orleans entrepreneur.
He put nearly 30 pounds of muscle on boxer Michael Spinks in preparation for his heavyweight championship win over Larry Holmes. Mackie did it by defying boxing wisdom. He had Spinks lift weights instead of skip rope; he had him run sprints, not jog for miles; he had him eat pancakes and drink protein shakes instead of eating steaks.
Now Mackie is trying to work his fitness magic on Manute, who surprised pro basketball experts last year by averaging 4.96 blocked shots per game. Bol, who had been training under University of Maryland strength coach Frank Costello, more than held his own during his brief stays on the court, but he lacked stamina. So Bullets general manager Bob Ferry, seeking a trainer with a nutrition background, sent Manute to New Orleans. When he met Manute Bol, Shilstone says, "I had to throw away everything I had worked out. I had problems with Manute I never counted on."
The problems were both physiological and psychological. Manute is still exceedingly shy after three years in this country. When he and Mackie stood together in the lobby of the Bayou Plaza Hotel, where Manute was staying, one woman said they looked like Mutt and Jeff. Manute fled the lobby.
"Physically, he was fit," says Mackie. "I had him checked out at East Jefferson General Hospital to make sure he could sustain my routines. But I realized right off that I couldn't just bulk him up and turn him over to the Bullets. I had to increase not only his strength and stamina but also his flexibility. I had to teach him how to move gracefully."
Mackie set up a routine for Manute that included flexibility and agility exercises on one day, weight lifting and endurance on the second day, and a third day of rest. "Big men need a lot of rest," says Mackie. "Do you realize how hard his heart has to work to pump blood down to his toes?"
And finally, Mackie had to devise a nutritional routine that took into account his client's strange eating habits. Manute claims most fish in America are not as clean tasting as those in the Sudan, and that no self-respecting Sudanese would ever eat shellfish. "They look terrible," says Manute. "If you eat them you are a bad person." Further-more, Manute thinks of the kitchen as a place where women prepare food and bring it to their men. So Mackie had all of Manute's food brought to him—5,500 calories a day at 11 separate meals and snacks.
When Manute arrived in New Orleans late in July, he weighed 198 pounds. When he reported to the Bullets training camp in September, he was up to 229 and slowly but steadily becoming more flexible and graceful on the court.
Most athletes abhor conditioning. For Mackie's routines to work, he has to convince his clients that they need his routines. "I get into their psyche," he says. By the time Mackie finishes with his charges, they seem barely able to make a move without him. "Michael Spinks still calls me wherever he is," says Mackie. "He'll say, 'Mackie, what am I supposed to eat today?' "
Mackie has a B.A. in political science from Tulane. He also has an M.A. in nutrition from Goddard College in Vermont and is an adjunct professor of holistic health at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. In fact, Mackie seems to see life as one long quest for credits. His resume runs to three single-spaced typed sheets. He is, among other things, a charter member of the Aerobics Research Society, Dallas; a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Assn., Lincoln, Nebr.; and, despite having married former New Orleans Magazine editor Sandy Sciacca in 1980, a member of the Bachelors Club of New Orleans.
He also has his own local television program, Feelin' Good With Mackie, and has written a soon-to-be-published book, Mackie Shilstone's Feelin' Good About Fitness (Pelican). He won the "living well fitness assessment" competition for males at the National Fitness Classic in Houston in 1983. His greatest athletic accomplishment, however, was talking his way onto the Tulane football team in 1971. At 5'8", 143 pounds, he didn't play much as a wide receiver from '71 to '74, but he did earn his varsity letter, no mean accomplishment for a man his size. "Now I want to take other athletes who are told they can't do something and help them do it," Mackie says. "It's important to me, personally, to have Manute succeed."
Mackie and Manute are in the dance room of Isidore Newman High School. The room is bare, except for a mat on the floor and dozens of New Orleans prints on the walls.
"Tie your shoes," says Mackie.
"I know, Mackie. I know," says Manute. He bends over, a gigantic folded jackknife, and ties his shoes.
"Let's loosen up first," Mackie says.
"I'm tying my shoes, Mackie."
Finally, Mackie and Manute face each other on the mat with their hands on their hips. "Watch me," Mackie says. He hops left-right-left, like a light-footed Irishman doing a jig. Manute tries to imitate him. His flat feet thud on the mat. "Lighter, Manute, lighter!"
"I'm trying, Mackie." Mackie begins to hop with him. They hop in unison.
"That's good, Manute," Mackie says breathlessly. "That's just good!" Then he tells Manute to sit on the floor, legs outstretched, back against the wall. He tosses him a medicine ball. Manute throws it at Mackie.
"I don't wanna hurt you, Mackie." Manute grins.
"You're not strong enough to hurt me."
Manute throws the ball harder. "I'm strong enough for my height, Mackie. I can knock you down."
"No, you can't."
Manute throws the ball as hard as he can. Mackie catches it, makes a little forced stagger backwards. "Thatta boy, Manute!"
When they leave the dance room they go downstairs to the gym for a four-man basketball game with Jay Murphy, a 6'9" Bullets forward, and a friend of Mackie's who is 6'1". Mackie and his friend square off against Manute and Murphy. The game is a laugher. Manute takes half-court shots while Mackie, scurrying like a waterbug, tries to penetrate to the hoop. Manute stands near the basket like a giant praying mantis.
"Oh, Mackie, I am the greatest. I block everybody. You can't shoot over me."
Mackie, head down, weaves around Manute's legs, and then finally he fires the ball toward the ceiling. The ball eludes Manute's outstretched hands and then comes straight down. Swish!
"Look at that! Look at that!" Mackie screams. He begins to laugh, shrilly.
Manute shakes his head in mock despair. "Oh, Mackie-man, I'm gonna quit basketball if you can shoot over me." Then he too begins to laugh.