Main picture Lethuxolo Zulu

Players, colleagues pay homage to the late Letha Zulu

Gumede: I could write a book about the guy

LETHUXOLO ‘Letha’ Zulu’s is one of the most revered basketball coaches in South Africa. The reason being, he has helped to mould and shape some of the country’s best and most promising talents. 

Samkelo Cele, Thabo Sithole and Liam Reid are among the players who had their game was shaped by Zulu, the head of the famed Durban High School basketball program.

When the news of his untimely passing last Sunday came to light, it was a cruel blow to the game in the country. A blow felt by his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, the players nurtured by him, his friends, colleagues and most importantly, his family.

At the time of his death Zulu was meant to lead South Africa’s men’s team at the FISU World University Games (28 July – 8 August) in Chengdu, China.

With this sad state of affairs, one can only imagine the pain of the players. The Games being close by and the man who was supposed to lead them not being there. Players and colleague spoke to The Big Tip Off about the impact of Zulu on them and the game.

Kwazi Gumede
Kwazi Gumede says Zulu knew how to engage with players. Pictures: The BTO and Getty Images



Players and colleagues spoke fondly of Zulu

Kwazi Gumede, shooting guard of the South African team, spoke of his sadness at the loss of Zulu and describes as being genuine with players.

“I think about the moments he shared with us individually or as players, and it breaks my heart that he is no longer with us. Coach will not be with us on the flight to China. He is not going to coach us. He is not going to be there,” said the Tshwane University of Technology player. “Coach Letha knew how to engage with players. South African basketball has lost a real one.”

“I could write a book about this guy. He is just amazing. We are going to miss him. I do not doubt that coach Mandla (Ngema) and ourselves as players will make him proud.”

The University of Pretoria’s big man Nhlanhla Vela, who is part of the student team, felt Zulu had a lot to give.

“Coach Letha was a great coach. The news (of his passing) hurt. I had known him for a while and I feel he still had a lot to teach. He believed in me and thought I have what it takes to become great in this game. I want to make him proud and finish what he has started (with the national team),” said Vela.

Cape Town Tigers players Samkelo Cele and Liam Reid, had nothing but praised their former mentor: “Coach Zulu was more than coach to me. He was more than a coach to anyone who played under him. He taught me the game, and he taught me how to love the game,” said Cele, who starred for the Tigers at this year’s Basketball Africa League. “Beyond the game, he was a great and selfless person. I don’t know any other person like that in the world.

“He is a guy who probably had opportunities to leave DHS. Instead choosing green pastures, he stayed to give kids, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, opportunities to see the world differently.”

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Samkelo Cele says described Zulu as a selfless person.

Tigers centre, Reid says Zulu helped to set him on his present path in the game.

“Coach Zulu was the first to show me I could have a future in this game. His teachings have brought me far in life. He was a guy who believed in me. And believed all the players he coached,” said the former KwaZulu-Natal Marlins player. “He was an open-hearted and selfless man… A role model for many people in and around basketball.

“Whenever I reached out, he wished me the best.”

Another former DHS player, Thabo Sithole, developed under the tutelage of Zulu. He played many a game under Zulu from high school level, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the junior national team. Sithole described his former coach as a disciplined man who worked to “instill” the same principle in his players.

“On and off the court, he used to push us… Running suicides and doing other basketball drills. He was trying to instill that strong work ethic in us. Off the court, he was present for players. I would say he was great dude,” said Sithole, who represented South Africa at the 2017 AfroBasket.

Coaching colleague Craig Gilchrist says Zulu was one of the pillars of the game in KwaZulu-Natal and the district of Ethekwini.

“We were all shocked on hearing the news of the passing of Letha. He was one of the fathers of KZN Basketball. He has left a huge hole. The game survived the tough times thanks to him,” said Gilchrist, who led South Africa at the 2017 AfroBasket.

“Had it not been for him starting the EBA and providing a platform for the players to participate, basketball would not be what it is today in KZN. He was an inspiration and mentor to many young players who came through DHS in the past 15 years. It is truly a sad moment for KZN basketball as we mourn the loss of one of our own.

“Condolences to the Zulu family. They will be in our thoughts and prayers.”

The University of Pretoria’s junior program and second team coach coach Lesiba Molothane said in his memorial message: “We had the privilege of meeting Letha Zulu back in 2003 during the Olympic Solidarity Coaches’ program, and from that moment, a special bond was formed. Letha was not just an exceptional coach; he was a mentor, a guide, and a source of inspiration for all those fortunate enough to know him. His dedication and unwavering passion for basketball were unmatched, and he poured his heart and soul into nurturing young talents, moulding them into confident athletes.”

The overarching theme of Zulu’s character is that of a player’s coach. A man who gave his all to the game and expected the players he coached to do the same. The gratitude towards him is understandable, he left an indelible legacy.

Go well, Coach Zulu. You have served, and deeds of your work will forever live in those you impacted.

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