This is who Emanuel Duncan was, and the cruelty of that word — was — tells you where this story is heading. But where, on that September day in 2016, was Emanuel Duncan heading? To Crispus Attucks High School. To watch a football game.
Emanuel didn’t attend Crispus Attucks, you understand. Didn’t really know anybody at the school. But after 31 years without a varsity team, this was Attucks’ first home football game since 1985. This was an event, a happening, and if something was happening in his city, Emanuel wanted to be there. It’s what he did. It’s who he … was.
Emanuel had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, one of the crueler forms of a cruel disease, the disease slowly turning muscles into fat until the body has had enough and shuts down. He was in a wheelchair, a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. He lived several miles from Crispus Attucks.
He went to Attucks alone. He rode the city bus.
I saw him in the distance on Sept. 26, 2016, approaching on that motorized wheelchair of his. He was rolling around the far turn of the track that rings the football field at Attucks. It sure looked like Emanuel Duncan, an amazing kid I’d written about less than a year earlier when he was a senior at Lawrence Central, but … here? At Attucks?
He kept rolling this way. He was still way off in the distance — but yup, that’s Emanuel. I’d know that smile anywhere.
LeBron James noticed Emanuel
Emanuel Duncan died on Friday night from complications of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, according to multiple members of the Lawrence Central athletic department. He was 22.
This is who Emanuel was: He commanded the attention of LeBron James.
The LeBron story is so amazing, and so Emanuel, or Man-Man, as he let me call him. It stems from that story I was telling you about earlier, the one I’d written about Man-Man in October of 2015. He was a senior at LC then, and serving as a student-coach — not a manager, but an assistant coach — on Jed Richman’s football team.
Richman had noticed Emanuel around the halls, always chattering as he motored from class to class, always making somebody laugh. Richman checked into the kid, learned he was a sports nut, and approached him earlier in 2015 about joining the Bears’ coaching staff.
Here was Richman’s pitch:
“You’re not a manager, but a coach. Don’t pick up cups and footballs. Pick up us.”
That’s where it started. That was the story. Kids with Duchenne muscular dystrophy typically don’t survive past their 20s, but Emanuel had plans. He was going to coach, or work in NASCAR or IndyCar. Maybe a crew chief. Maybe he’d drive the car himself. He hadn’t decided yet.
One thing he knew: LeBron James was his favorite athlete. And in the only tip of the cap he’d given the disease that was slowly killing him, Emanuel told me:
“My bucket list is to meet LeBron.”
That went into the story.
Three weeks later, Emanuel sent me a late-night text message: A package had shown up that day at Lawrence Central. It was for him. It was from Cleveland. From the Cavaliers. From LeBron. He sent a signed jersey and shoes. He sent some Beats by Dre headphones.
He enclosed a letter. Here’s how it started:
I’ve heard some pretty amazing things about you, and from what I’ve heard, I can tell you’re an unbelievable coach. I know you said that I’m your role model and that I inspire you, but I know that you give so many people inspiration, including me …
Never knew where you’d see him next
This is who Emanuel Duncan was, and please, don’t let politics get in the way of what you’re about to read:
In July 2016, more than 600 people attended a Black Lives Matter march that started at Central Library and reached the Indiana Statehouse an hour later. Emanuel was there. Rolled his motorized wheelchair to the bus stop near his home several miles from Downtown, rode to the Library, and joined the mile-long march.
Before the march began, demonstrators used a megaphone to protest two recent officer-involved fatal shootings earlier in Louisiana and Minnesota. One young man told the crowd: “I feel like this is what Indianapolis needs. I lost my cousin (to gun violence). I know how it feels to lose a family member. My family hasn’t been the same.”
How Emanuel Duncan got his hands on that megaphone, I’ll never know. But that’s who he was.
Inspirational, to the end
This is who Emanuel Duncan was: A rapper, a comedian, an inspirational speaker. An entertainer. That’s from his Instagram account.
His stage name was E RealSpitta, and he had a YouTube channel, and later this year he was going to rap at the Muscular Dystrophy Family Foundation’s 2019 Christmas party. Well, maybe.
“I told Emanuel I want him to do a Christmas rap song next year at the party, on one condition: That he kept it clean!” says Tim Doyle, president of the MDFF board and subject of a recent IndyStar story. “He laughed and said he would. I reminded him that I’d heard him rap on YouTube, and it was filthy. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s how you do it.’ I said: ‘Not here.’
“He just smiled. That kid …”
Tim Doyle came to know Emanuel after reading that IndyStar story from October 2015. He’d asked me for contact information, reached out to Man-Man and invited him to the 2015 MDFF Christmas party, just one of many wonderful people in a town that does wonderful things for kids like Man-Man.
The Colts gave him tickets to their game against the Houston Texans on Dec. 20, 2015. The Pacers gave him tickets to a game on Nov. 16, 2016, against Cleveland. The Pacers wanted Emanuel to see LeBron. They didn’t meet that night, but Man-Man was in the building for his idol. Coupled with the package and personal note he’d received earlier that week from LeBron, Emanuel told me he considered it a success — that he could check off his one and only bucket list item.
Emanuel went to those games the same way he went everywhere, by public transportation. And he went to that Christmas party in 2015 because it was an event, a happening, and that’s who he was. He went to the annual party every year, even this year, even as the disease was ringing out the last little bit of him, hospitalizing him late this fall.
On the YouTube channel of Emanuel — sorry, of E RealSpitta — he posted his last video on Dec. 31. As of Saturday morning, it had two views. Which is a shame, because we could learn so much from Emanuel. This is how Emanuel started that video from Dec. 31, filming himself with his phone as he rolls around the room:
“I got a lot to feel thankful for,” he said. “It’s crazy man. I ain’t gonna lie — when I was in that hospital, I didn’t think I was going to see Christmas. I didn’t think I was going to see my birthday. I didn’t even think I was going to see 2019. There’s one thing I’m gonna say, man: I’m happy. … It’s a blessing, man. You gotta really take advantage of these moments.”
Three minutes later, this is how Emanuel Duncan ended that video:
“I love y’all. I love all my friends, supports — and fans, if I have any. I ain’t trippin’ if I don’t. But I’m thankful. I’m thankful, I’m so thankful, I’m just thankful, man. I ain’t really got no words. It’s a blessing. And I’ll see y’all, man. Merry Christmas! And I’ll see y’all on New Year’s.”