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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

An ordinary player who’s anything but

Hansel Enmanuel, who lost his left arm at age 6, doesn’t want sympathy. He just wants to play.

By Billy Witz

Hansel Enmanuel knew just what to do when his teammate DeMarcus Sharp was marooned in the lane after picking up his dribble, surrounded by defenders. Enmanuel bolted from the corner toward the basket.

Sharp, recognizing help was on the way, delivered a bounce pass to Enmanuel, who collected it in stride and vaulted toward the rim for what everyone on his team — and everyone else in the small arena — expected to be a stanchion-shaking dunk. But as Enmanuel approached the basket with the ball palmed in his right hand, he recalibrated.

Instead of dunking, he laid the ball on the rim. It would not cooperate, rolling off.

A few moments later, Corey Gipson, Enmanuel’s coach at Northwestern State, pulled him aside to deliver an indelicate truth: Enmanuel should have dunked it, but he had shied away from the contact.

“He went up worrying about missing instead of saying, ‘I’m going to put the women and children to bed,’” Gipson said later that night, after Northwestern State lost to the University of New Orleans in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

What made their exchange so extraordinary, though, was just how ordinary it was — no mollycoddling or mincing of words, just a coach letting a freshman know that he expects more from him. In that moment, Enmanuel, who lost his left arm in a childhood accident, was right where he wanted to be — just another player on a team with NCAA Tournament ambitions.

Of course, Enmanuel is anything but.

Enmanuel, 19, is the only player in Division I men’s college basketball with only one arm, relying instead on his other gifts: a rangy, 6-foot-6 frame; kangaroolike hops; and a basketball IQ passed down from his father, Hansel Salvador, a longtime standout in the Dominican Republic professional league.

And how many other college players have collected 1.4 million Instagram followers, walked the red carpet at the ESPYs or taken a star turn in a sports drink commercial broadcast during last year’s NBA Finals? (For that matter, how many have a seven-figure endorsement portfolio, which he does, according to his agent, that also includes sportswear, sunglasses and cellphone companies?)

That visibility has been mostly recent, after he moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic less than three years ago speaking little English. He became an internet sensation through dunk videos while he excelled at Life Christian Academy in Kissimmee, Florida.

This is a life Enmanuel did not think possible after, at age 6, a wall he was climbing collapsed on him, pinning his left arm. By the time he was rescued, it was too late to save his arm. It was amputated just below the shoulder.

“When the accident happened, I was thinking, like: ‘What am I going to do now?’” he told The Associated Press in December in the only print interview he has done this season. “I was thinking: ‘It’s over for me.’”

Small milestones — such as tying his own shoelaces — gave way to bigger ones, such as maintaining his equilibrium while running. And then learning to do basketball tasks with one hand, such as dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding and blocking shots. When Enmanuel moved to Florida, where his mother had immigrated years earlier and he also hoped better opportunities awaited, he more than held his own on the court.

This was true even at a 2021 summer recruiting showcase near Indianapolis, when coaches in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Mountain West sat in folding chairs along the court and marveled at how capably Enmanuel played — even as they were skeptical that he could play for their teams.

“Sometimes coaches second-guess themselves and what they’re looking at,” said Rick Catala, who coached Enmanuel for SOH Elite, a club team based in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “I’ve seen Hansel destroy high-major kids, but then they’re still questioning him. I told one coach, ‘I don’t know why you keep asking me, “Is he a D-I basketball player?”’”

A year ago, Isaac Haney was on the Missouri State team bus having a spirited debate with a teammate over the same question. Now, as Enmanuel’s teammate at Northwestern State, he has a clearer understanding.

“You’re recruited because a coach sees an ability in you to do a specific job, and sometimes guys aren’t willing to do the job that’s asked of them,” said Haney, a sophomore guard. “I look at Hansel and see a guy who has an unbelievable work ethic, but also a willingness to serve and a willingness to do the little things. That’s what really makes him an asset and invaluable to this team.”

Enmanuel’s duty is to provide energy through his play — and his smile.

“His biggest job,” Haney said, “is to bring that it factor.”

If Enmanuel was intent on a quiet assimilation into life as a college athlete, it would be hard to find a better place — or one farther off the basketball grid — than Northwestern State.

A public university with an enrollment of 9,389, serving mostly students in one of the nation’s poorest regions, Northwestern State is tucked away in a city that claims to be Louisiana’s oldest settlement. Its closest airports are an hour’s drive south to Alexandria and a little more than that north to Shreveport. The Demons, who had not had a winning season in seven years, have neither a media following nor many fans, drawing perhaps 1,000 to their home games.

There are, to put it kindly, few distractions here.

“Hansel likes quiet,” said Jhoancy Zapata, his business agent.

There were other options to consider. Memphis, which has national championship ambitions and would have offered a bigger stage but perhaps less playing time, extended a scholarship offer. So did Tennessee State and Bethune-Cookman, historically Black universities that would have provided a unique platform. Northwestern State could promise only one thing: that it would treat Enmanuel like a basketball player.

“I guarantee you we’re not recruiting him for a dog and pony show,” Gipson told Enmanuel, his parents, his club coach and his business advisers in a video call last spring. The coach has heard the inevitable tongue-clucking from other coaches that signing Enmanuel was merely a publicity stunt. “We’re recruiting him because we think we can develop him and we think he has the right ingredients to fit into the program.”

Northwestern State’s president, Marcus Jones, was also on the call, easing Enmanuel’s mother’s concerns in Spanish, which he speaks fluently. Jones hosted Enmanuel and his parents for breakfast during his recruiting visit.

“The main thing — and I think we’ve held true on this — is they did not want their son to be treated as a number or as someone who would be exploited because he was popular on social media,” Jones said.

One accommodation has been enlisting Christian Paez, a Colombia native and honor student who has played saxophone in the school’s jazz orchestra, as a graduate assistant with the team, helping ease Enmanuel’s integration. Paez doesn’t know much about basketball, but he knows what it’s like to drop into small-town Louisiana when your English is a work in progress.

“When I came to the airport and went to a fast-food place, I knew how to order, but I was afraid to mess up and have people laugh at me,” Paez said. “He was the same when he got here. But he’s not somebody who is afraid. If he wants to develop a skill, he can do it.”

Enmanuel has been adamant about not receiving any special treatment on the team.

When Gipson told him he could do situps instead of fingertip pushups as punishment for a mistake in a drill, Enmanuel resisted — completing the task with the help of a teammate, Cedric Garrett, who supported him around the waist.

Earlier this season, the Demons were whizzing through an NCAA survey for college athletes, eager to get out the door. As they did, Enmanuel remained behind, painstakingly using a translation app on his phone so he could diligently answer each question. “He looked up at me with this distraught look on his face going, ‘Man, this is hard,’” Haney said. “But he doesn’t want anyone’s sympathy.”

This has helped him earn the respect of his teammates.

Enmanuel did not arrive until school started in late August, missing summer workouts and the opportunity to get to know his teammates, the coaches’ terminology and the nuances of their schemes. He arrived late because he was fulfilling his endorsement obligations. It was an example of the tension that sometimes exists between his basketball and business interests.

He is in the United States on an O-1A visa, granted to individuals with extraordinary abilities, which makes him the rare foreign college athlete who can earn money in the United States on endorsements. His contract with Adidas runs through the 2025-26 season.

For business to continue, Enmanuel must play. But playing time is doled out on merit, and he had difficulty getting on the court early in the season.

“This is what the brands are after,” Zapata said. “They don’t want to see Hansel’s grades in science or English or math. They’re after Hansel for how he plays.”

There were “most definitely” questions about his priorities when Enmanuel arrived, said Sharp, the team’s standout point guard. “It was probably a month after I got to know him — you could see he was locked in on basketball,” Sharp said. “He never focused on social media; he was always in the gym playing one-on-one and working on his game.”

It is for that reason that Enmanuel has limited his interviews this season, speaking only to The AP and CBS, although he did agree to take a portrait for this article. His discomfort, those around him believe, comes from being the center of attention when he is not the star — as he was in high school.

“I’m diving into Hansel’s mind here,” said Gipson, who is trying to organize several exhibition games for his team in the Dominican Republic this summer. “But he’s saying to himself: ‘Why are you interviewing me? Are you patronizing me? My time will come.’”

And yet, Enmanuel is drawing attention to his team’s program — an inspirational tale itself.

The Demons (21-10), who were 9-23 last season, finished second in the Southland Conference this season with a 13-5 record, earning a spot in Tuesday’s conference tournament semifinals. If they reach the NCAA Tournament, they may have a puncher’s chance: They won at now-No. 22 Texas Christian, led 25th-ranked Texas A&M at halftime and played seventh-ranked Baylor competitively.

This is the first head coaching job for Gipson, 41, who believes small gestures off the court carry over on it. His players are required to perform 70 hours of community service, including picking up trash at local parks, reading to elementary school children and serving food to the needy. And they make sure to fist-bump everyone — strangers, too — when they leave a room, as they did on a recent morning after breakfast at Lasyone’s, a downtown Creole institution known for its meat pies.

It was important, Gipson said, that Enmanuel fit in as well off the court as he might on it.

So, it was a marker of where Enmanuel stood when players (and coaches) on the Demons’ bench leaped to their feet early this season when Enmanuel scooped up his own missed free throw and dunked the ball. After playing only sporadically and missing several weeks with a concussion, he has earned more playing time of late. He has started the past three games, his activity defensively and on the boards providing an energetic presence while he better remembers his assignments.

And occasionally, he’ll contribute offensively, as he did Euro-stepping his way through the lane recently for a nifty basket against Southeastern Louisiana.

Two days later, Enmanuel pestered the University of New Orleans with his activity and was on the court for 15 impactful minutes, scoring 5 points, a total that may have been higher had he not held back on the dunk opportunity. Omarion Henry, a freshman forward for New Orleans, popped Enmanuel on the chest with his fist as the teams went through a handshake line after the Privateers’ victory.

It was a simple but meaningful gesture, a sign of the respect Henry said he has for Enmanuel, one competitor acknowledging another.

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