You’ve all heard the miracle tales about a poor child, born and raised in the ghetto. He’s the one who overcomes amazing odds to pull himself up by his gym shoe strings out of poverty and corruption to become a world-class ball player, complete with wealth and fame.
Well, we’ve got a similar story for you, but it starts out even worse and ends up even better. Sound impossible? Read on.
Olivio Gomes Manuel wasn’t raised in a rat-infested urban tenement building. He and his seven brothers and sisters lived in a small Angolan village in a two-room mud hut with a dirt floor and thatched roof. Plumbing and electricity were unheard of.
At least he didn’t have to deal with drug dealers—no, he and his family had revolutionaries to watch out for. When Olivio was nine years old, his country was thrust into an extremely violent civil war in which thousands were murdered or just disappeared. Then, when most of the fighting was over and the blood had seeped into the ground, the country’s troubles were far from over. Famine swept through Angola, and thousands more died of starvation. “It was not a good life,” he says, in his very deep, soft voice. Understatement is typical of him.
It was something completely out of his control that saved him from starvation, although there were many days that he and his family went hungry. “God blessed me,” says Olivio, tall and, even though he hasn’t missed a meal lately, still very lean. He was granted incredible height and agility. Olivio was able to play basketball for food.
At the age of 11, Olivio was six-foot-three. He’d been playing professional ball for about two years. Well, professional meant that the company that sponsored your team would sometimes feed you on game days. Some weeks those were the only full meals Olivio ate.
And the road trips were the best of all—your meals were all taken care of. Olivio played in Nigeria, Algeria, Zaire, and even went to Czechoslovakia. “I was there for ten days, and they gave us money for food,” said Olivio. “With this money I bought clothes and shoes for my family. It was difficult to buy clothes in Angola. They were so expensive.”
Olivio had been raised by his parents to be a good Christian, but at times his faith was tried. “If there is a God, how can he let so many people die—so many people suffer?” he asked. Still, Olivio could not deny that God had had a hand in his survival. He felt that he was being prepared for something.
When Olivio was 17, he played on a team for the Angolan military. All the boys in the country were required to go into the military for an indefinite amount of time. He also made the national team.
That’s when Olivio began to dream of playing ball in Portugal. He was fluent in Portuguese. (Angola is a former Portuguese colony, and Portuguese is the official language.) And what’s more, Olivio heard that they actually paid professional players salaries in Portugal. He would be able to send money home to his family.
It took Olivio a few years to get a visa to go, but once in Portugal it only took him a few days to find a professional team that wanted him. At six-foot-seven, he not only had the stature they were looking for, but he had the moves.
And it only took him a month to find something else. “I was on the metro, and I saw these two boys—they were only boys, but they were wearing nice suits, and they said they wanted to talk to me, so I said okay.”
“They started to teach me the discussions. The Joseph Smith story surprised me, but it felt good. Everything felt good. One week later I went to a conference. I attended the meetings, and afterwards I was baptized. Baptism is for the remission of sins. I was a good guy, but I knew I needed to be baptized.”
Little did Olivio know what that baptism would lead to. When he wasn’t playing basketball, Olivio was at church. “I tried to go to church all the time. Every time I would go, my mind would open up and I would learn something new. It felt good.”
Then one day, about a year later, one of Olivio’s American teammates said, “Hey—you’re Mormon. Don’t Mormons go on missions? Are you going to quit the team and go too?”
That got Olivio thinking. “The things I learned made sense to me, and I said, ‘Well, if these things come from God, I have to explain them to other people.’”
But leaving basketball—that would be tough. Olivio had just made the Portuguese national team, and they had offered him a very lucrative contract—lots of money, a car, and a luxurious apartment.
“It was a difficult decision to leave basketball, so I decided to get my patriarchal blessing. There it said that I was going to serve the Lord, so I decided to do it. God prepared me to come here and find the gospel by giving me these talents to play basketball. I don’t have a problem leaving it to serve him. I think I can help many people.”
And now, Elder Olivio Gomes Manuel, who left northern Portugal almost two years ago to serve in southern Portugal, is helping many people. He’s well known throughout the mission for his good nature and easy smile, his hard work, and his gentle rapport with the people he towers over.
That isn’t the kind of fame that makes you a star on national television—it’s more the kind of fame that makes you a star in the eternities. And while he won’t make millions from gigantic contracts and endorsements, he knows that his eternal reward will be far greater.
Still, you see his eyes light up when you put a basketball in his hands on P-day. Watching him glide around the court, you realize basketball is as natural for him as swimming is to fish. It seems to be what he was made for. Oh, once his mission is over he would like to use basketball to earn a university education. But then he wants to return to Angola “to help the Church and help the people grow there.” Elder Manuel speaks mostly Portuguese now, but he remembers his native language, an African dialect called Quinbondo, and he knows English as well.
Even though the end of this tale is far from written, it’s already a success story as tall as Elder Manuel himself. After all, the richest pro in the world can’t buy his way into heaven, and no matter how many autographs you’ve signed, if your name isn’t written in the book of life, your fame won’t mean a thing.
Elder Manuel has already gained more success than he ever hoped to, and his secret is simple: “I listen to God, and when I do what he says, he blesses me.”