Hansel Enmanuel paused for a moment and then reached for his left leg.
“I’m going to show you something I haven’t shown nobody,” he said, slowly lifting the leg of his sweatpants until the leg is exposed to the thigh. “Look.”
He pointed to scar after scar after scar down the length of the leg of an internet sensation, a one-armed basketball player for Northwestern State who stands 6-foot-6. It is physical evidence of a grim time etched deep, a lifelong reminder of a journey that has brought him to Division I basketball.
“You see all this right here?” he asked during a recent interview at a Houston hotel. “That’s because every time I fall… (that) happened.”
He shook his head before continuing.
“That time was too hard for me,” he said. “That was crazy because I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
The 19-year-old Enmanuel has drawn attention for several years now after videos went viral showing him dunking with ease in high school. Dribbling past opponents intent on shutting him down. Draining 3-pointers. Sinking turnaround fadeaways.
All with just his right arm.
It looks almost effortless when he plays. It’s not. It never has been.
Enmanuel was 6 and living in the Dominican Republic when he playing with friends, climbing a wall. It fell over him, bricks and blocks pinning his left arm. He was rushed to the hospital, but doctors couldn’t save his arm and it was amputated several inches below the shoulder.
He was hospitalized for about six months. It was a dark time for Enmanuel and his family.
“When the accident happened, I was thinking like: ‘What am I going to do now?’” he said. “I was thinking: ‘It’s over for me.’”
By the end of his hospitalization, Enmanuel said his mental approach had improved thanks to his relationship with God. Slowly, things got better for the little boy dealing with an unimaginable loss.
Small things became huge victories. He vividly remembers the first time he tied his shoes. Just 7, Enmanuel was waiting in his room for his mother to do it for him but she was busy cooking.
“I was like, never mind, I’m going to start,” he said. “I told myself let me try. I was trying. Then I made it. I tied my shoes. So, I was excited. Excited like crazy.”
Months after the accident, Enmanuel tried basketball, too.
His missing arm left him lacking balance. With his equilibrium off, every time he tried to run, he’d crash to the ground, falling on debris strewn across the makeshift courts he played on. The scars piled up. So did his confidence gained from experience.
He was 5-foot-9 by age 11 and 6 feet a year later. No one really expected much from him on the court; even his father, who played professional basketball in the Dominican Republic, had trouble envisioning success after such a loss.
“He didn’t even know I would be that good at basketball,” Enmanuel said. “None of my family. Because you think, a kid with one arm — it’s hard.”
Enmanuel admitted to himself that basketball could wind up being just a pastime: “I didn’t know I would be who I am right now.”
By 13, he started attending camps and tournaments in the United States andhe began to realize just how good he could be. He first dunked at 14 and it wasn’t long before his celebrity started to grow along with the views on those videos.
He played high school ball in Kissimmee, Florida, and was considered a top prospect as a senior, when he averaged 25.9 points, 11 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 3.4 blocks per game.
It wasn’t the highlight-reel plays that piqued Northwestern State coach Corey Gipson’s interest. He liked his attitude and the way he carried himself on the court.
“Hansel is a very resilient person, which makes him a very resilient player,” Gipson said. “That mindset translates to the game. When you see him on the floor, you just see a formidable force that doesn’t take anything for granted.”
As a freshman on Gipson’s team, Enmanuel has seen limited minutes. But he has shown flashes of the skills that made him famous before he stepped on campus.
On Dec. 10 against Louisiana-Monroe, Enmanuel scored the first points of his collegiate career, finishing with five points. A layup, a free throw. But he capped the performance in stunning fashion when he missed a free throw, grabbed the rebound and finished with a thunderous dunk.
His teammates and the crowd went wild. Enmanuel barely reacted.
“If you watch when I made my first college points, I was trying to get back to defense,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to (be) excited.”
Cedric Garrett was a fan of Enmanuel’s long before he became his teammate at Northwestern State. But seeing him do it in a college game was far more thrilling.
“It was electric,” he said. “It just got my juices flowing. It was fun to see in person.”
Gipson and Enmanuel’s teammates understand the interest in him is amplified because he’s missing an arm. To them, he’s just one of the guys.
Gipson, who is also in his first year at Northwestern State, shared a story from early in camp that perfectly illustrated that point. When a player makes a mistake in practice, Gipson makes them do fingertip pushups. Gipson told Enmanuel to do them after a miscue, then immediately felt bad and said he could do sit-ups instead.
Enmanuel refused: “No, coach.”
As he struggled to complete the task, Garrett sprang into action, grabbing his midsection to help.
“And when they grabbed him by the waist, he got down and he did it. He dug down and he did it,” Gipson said. “And from that moment on, the team, the staff and everybody (said): ‘Hey, we are all on the same page. Nobody’s… asking for entitled treatment, but, dadgum, if Hansel is not asking for any favors, nobody else better… ask for any.’”
Enmanuel seemed nonplussed when asked about that day.
“I’m not special,” he said. “I’m not different than nobody. The only difference is I’ve got one arm but that’s not different.”
Northwestern State President Marcus Jones was instrumental in Enmanuel signing with the school in Natchitoches, Louisiana, because he’s fluent in Spanish and helped assuage the concerns his Spanish-speaking parents had about his transition to college.
“We had an opportunity to talk about the university and what they wanted to see happen to their to their son,” Jones said. “They didn’t want him to be treated as a number and just as a showpiece.”
The reaction people have had to Enmanuel playing college basketball has overwhelmed Jones.
“It’s an inspiration for those who have disabilities and who feel like the disability that they have may limit them or prevent them from doing certain things,” he said. “Having a Hansel at Northwestern, you cannot imagine the number of calls and emails and messages that I’ve gotten from individuals who have children who have disabilities and saying how great it is to see Hansel essentially overcome that and be able to play at this level.”
Enmanuel seems to have fans everywhere he goes, often young boys and girls who’ve watched his highlights on the internet for years.
At a recent game against Rice, three elementary-aged boys screamed his name and waved as he warmed up near them. When he played less than a minute in the first half, they complained that he should be on the floor more.
After he finally checked in again late in the game, they stood and cheered every time he touched the ball. When he got a rebound and took the ball down the court before finishing with an off-balance layup, screams of “Hansel! Hansel!” came from the kids.
Enmanuel’s celebrity has also led to endorsement deals with adidas and Gatorade, among others. He has high goals, too.
“We’re going to make it to the NBA,” he said. “That’s the big goal. Nobody is going to stop me. Only God.”
Another aspiration is to one day become a motivational speaker so he can share his story.
“I think that’s my perfect … destiny God gave to me,” he said. “To be that person so I can inspire some people and motivate a lot of people. Yeah, I can be a positive.”
Gipson can see that quality in Enmanuel and said one of the best things about him is his unselfishness.
“It’s not about Hansel,” Gipson said. “I think so many people across the globe make it about him, but every opportunity he gets, he makes it about his team, and he makes it about Northwestern State. And so we’re so blessed to have a person like that with such a giving and serving heart.”
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