Hansel Enmanuel has arrived, with his best days of basketball ahead

UNIQUELY GIFTED:  Northwestern freshman basketball player Hansel Enmanuel has reached levels of accomplishment and recognition few could have foreseen, even while playing sparingly this season. (Photo by KEVIN SHANNAHAN, Natchitoches Parish Journal)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

It’s a process that requires patience.

That’s something that Northwestern State basketball coach Corey Gipson and the most famous player in school history, Hansel Enmanuel, understand, even if most others may not.

It’s a process for most freshmen to earn playing time in college sports. Enmanuel is unique, among freshmen or current college basketball players, because he has only one arm. At age 6 back home in the Dominican Republic, he lost his left arm in an accident.

Four other one-armed men have played college basketball previously, notably Kevin Laue, a 6-11 center at Manhattan College from 2009-12. Enmanuel, largely due to social media, is by far the best known.

Enmanuel is undeniably famous, and was before he arrived in Natchitoches late last summer. By then, he had been featured in a Gatorade commercial that aired during the 2022 NBA Finals. Now he’s added endorsement deals with T-Mobile and adidas, has approximately 4.3 million social media followers, and has a Name, Image and Likeness valuation estimate of $1.5 million, according to On3.com analysis, which also places the NSU freshman eighth on a list of the most prized amateur American athletes, topped by Bronny James (son of NBA great LeBron) and Arch Manning.

His fame has rapidly paid great dividends for NSU. After Enmanuel’s first scoring began with a thunderous dunk at home Dec. 5 late in a blowout win over ULM, the resulting media coverage produced an estimated $89 million in “earned media” – the estimate of what it would cost to obtain the same exposure if paying for it – as his story was featured on many national and international media platforms, including a minute-long segment on ABC’s Good Morning America.

The latest could come as soon as this weekend, possibly Sunday, during CBS Sports college basketball coverage. A CBS crew visited Natchitoches earlier this month for interviews. That’s never happened.

With his grandmother seeing his potential, Enmanuel moved to Florida to finish high school at Life Christian Academy, a private school in Kissimmee. His talents earned opportunities to play on the summer AAU circuit, where he hit the national stage.

That’s the background. What’s ahead? Patience is required, he and Gipson agree.

Last Saturday at UNO, Enmanuel achieved another milestone, draining his first collegiate 3-pointer in the waning moments of another blowout win by the Demons (who have a Saturday afternoon contest in Prather Coliseum against Lamar). The 3-pointer didn’t gain a fraction of the national media traction that his spectacular slam did, but it energized the 1,093 at Lakefront Arena, including a couple waving the Dominican Republic flag in tribute, and it did move the internet needle.

Reality check: it was Enmanuel’s first game action since Dec. 18, and only his seventh appearance in 20 games this season. Only two other players, both freshmen, on NSU’s 14-man roster have played more infrequently.

Enmanuel has been in action for only 30 minutes, scoring 10 points and collecting five rebounds, making half of his eight shots, but just one of eight free throws. He’s had a steal, and an assist, and no turnovers. A concussion sidelined him for three conference games; he figures to get an uptick in playing time going forward, as circumstances arise to maximize his chances to be effective.

“Any freshman is going to have a tough time at the beginning, because you have to work on your fundamentals and pay attention to detail,” said NSU co-captain Ja’Monta Black. “His growth from Day One to now is great. He’s gotten better at every aspect of the game. He’s going to play hard every time, every practice, every minute.”

“We felt he was somebody who could grow in our program, and those things were addressed on the front end (of recruitment),” said Gipson.  In other words: be patient.

“I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been coachable,” Enmanuel said in an interview just after Christmas. “I’m getting better at my game, making the right decisions. I’ve improved in every area. I’m going to do what (coach) wants me to do.

“Right now, being coachable is the most important thing. Practicing hard. I have to keep working. I don’t know the future. I just know right now.”

Natchitoches is the smallest place he’s lived in his 19 years.

“People are good here. I’ve lived in Florida, New York and the DR. I’m here for a reason, and a small town is OK for me,” he said.

He loves fried food and fast food, especially burgers. He longs for dishes like what his grandmother fixed back home. But he’s very happy at NSU in his tight-knit basketball family.

Along with total immersion in basketball, they’ll play video games (Enmanuel’s favorite is “Call of Duty”), go out to eat, and do things typical college kids enjoy. NSU’s social media monster is especially fond of Tik-Tok because of his passion for music, starting with rap, but ranging across genres. Listening helps him improve speaking English, something that he knows is necessary.

Enmanuel hasn’t considered an academic major yet, not until he gets better command of the language here. He listens carefully and speaks cautiously, but capably, to those outside his small circle.

Coaches, teammates and staff members uniformly enjoy his personality and marvel at the 6-foot-6 forward’s athletic skill set and work ethic.

As for whatever the actual financial windfall is, it’s going to support his family, he said – although he gifted teammates with new adidas shoes in the holidays. He is planning on monetizing his basketball career professionally, ideally in the NBA but perhaps in smaller leagues. His father, Hansel Salvador, has been a pro star back home and has played overseas.

Enmanuel constantly cites his faith in God as directing and inspiring him, while he serves as an inspiration for untold millions around the world. He’s the rare athlete who may do nothing other than warm up at pregame and at halftime, but even that makes the price of admission worthwhile.

“Hansel Enmanuel’s greatest talent, the rest of his life, will be his mental fortitude and resiliency. That affords the opportunity for him to be a great example,” said Gipson.

He already has been. Black shared a treasured snapshot of his young teammate, early in the season after a win in a tournament at Central Arkansas.

“I don’t think he played in either one of those games, but after we won, he was the happiest guy in the locker room. That just tells you about him. He’s not worried about his playing time. He’s just trying to get better every day. Any other person would be frustrated not getting in the game, but he got in that locker room and was dancing harder than everybody else, so that’s a moment I’ll always remember.”

Fans everywhere eagerly anticipate seeing him in action. There’s been no negativity from the crowds, said Black.

“I don’t believe so. We wouldn’t tolerate that. Pretty much everybody in the stands cheers for him to get in the game. They want to see him play and I understand that.”

“It’s impossible not to cheer for Hansel Enmanuel,” said former CNN sports anchor Paul Craine. “Such an incredible, inspirational story.”

No matter whether or not he hits the court in a game, that’s true. At this point of his college career, just making it this far is simply remarkable.

What’s next? Patience could pay off. In any case, it’s worthy of admiration, the global community seems to agree. 

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com