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Emanuel Steward: A Personal Memoir


By Debra Schuss Lampley

I’ve read dozens of articles about Emanuel Steward since his death on October 25. They speak of his extraordinary success as a trainer and manager of world-class boxers, of his devotion to the city and the people of Detroit, and his smart savvy expertise as a commentator for HBO Sports. What the articles don’t articulate – perhaps because it’s taken for granted - is what a world-class human being and loyal friend Emanuel was.
Emanuel will be remembered as an immortal for his Hall of Fame career in boxing. But an even greater legacy lives on in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of hearts that he touched in his all-too-short 68-year life.

Emanuel took an interest in every person he met. He remembered, not just your name, but also your stories. Whether you had last seen him ten days or ten years ago, he would ask about your mother, your children, your job, your life. He would smile (oh, that smile!) at the delight he took in your joy, or he would ache for your heartbreak. Amid his busy schedule, he would pop up on your cellphone just to say “hi” or to recount a story he thought you should hear. If you needed a dollar, he gave you two. If you were hungry, he cooked you a side of ribs. If you were in Emanuel’s life, he wanted you to feel comfortable and loved.

Among Emanuel’s many gifts, the greatest might have been his capacity to make every person he met feel special. It was virtually impossible to leave his presence without feeling enriched. He was never too tired, too busy, too broke, or too wealthy to care. Whether you were a fan on the street or the heavyweight champion of the world, you had his full attention when he was with you.

Boxing royalty was out in full force in Detroit on November 13th for the memorial service in Emanuel’s honor. Five legitimate heavyweight champions mingled with pound-for-pound greats like Tommy Hearns, Ray Leonard, Aaron Pryor, and Roy Jones. There were enough HBO colleagues to fill up a bus. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, was there.

But what I’ll remember forever - the image that will make me smile for the rest of my life when I think of it - was a moment that reflected Emanuel’s true heart, soul, and passion.

One of the speakers at the memorial service talked about Emanuel’s relationship with “the kids” - the boys and young men who were his motivation for keeping the Kronk Gym alive. Boys he took off the streets, to whom he gave nurturing and love - and quite often, a home. He taught them to box. Then, somewhere along the line, they would sense his real quest, to teach them how to live.

The speaker asked for all these boys sitting in the massive crowd to stand up. A few rose. Then, almost as if in slow motion, others began to stand. Three or four, here and there. Then six, eight, a dozen. And finally, hundreds. Boys of school age and men now fully grown. Hundreds of men who will never appear on HBO or Showtime, but who will be better sons and fathers, better husbands and brothers, better citizens and more productive human beings because they encountered Emanuel and the Kronk Gym. More than Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, more than Tommy Hearns, this is Emanuel’s legacy. It took my breath away.

My husband spoke at the memorial service and told those in attendance that he thought of Emanuel as his best friend. But he acknowledged that there are hundreds of others who might say the same thing. No matter the situation, no matter the cost; if you asked Emanuel for something, his heart said “yes” and his mind began figuring out how to get it for you. Now all that is a hallowed memory.

We didn’t know it at the time. But in our household, we now understand what a great gift it was that Emanuel flew in to attend our backyard wedding when Jim and I got married on August 4 of this year. There was a moment on the night of our wedding when Emanuel stood on our back deck looking out at the Pacific Ocean and said, “This place is so perfect, I don’t really ever want to leave.”

In our hearts, he never will.


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