Weng James, a 27-year-old who lost his life to COVID-19 this week, is being remembered by his family and friends as a leader on his provincial championship winning high school basketball team and as a caregiver for his family.

“He was always there for everybody. He was very generous if we ever needed anything. There was somebody to talk to, he would always be there,” his sister Nyapini James said.

“He was like our second dad.” 

Weng was brought to Windsor Regional Hospital on Dec. 4 and was put in an induced coma after his heart stopped, his sister said. He died on Dec. 7.

His family said he had no underlying health conditions and they are uncertain how he contracted the virus. 

Weng James’ Mother Mary Machek, Sister Nyapini James and father James Gatlulk. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

“It was difficult because we weren’t able to see him,” Nyapini said while interpreting for her mother, Mary Machek, and father, James Gatluak, who speak Nuer, a South Sudanese dialect. “Him being alone was really tough.”

Weng had been staying at a friend’s house in the days leading up to his hospitalization because Nyapini had tested positive for the virus and had just completed quarantining. 

He was always there to help — always asking my parents making sure they were good, he was the one out of all of us that did that.- Nyapini James

“He came and he dropped some food off for us,” she said. “He was waiting at the door, we couldn’t … let him come in because we didn’t want him to get sick not knowing that he himself was sick and suffering.”

She said they’ve told all his friends to get tested for the virus. 

Since his death, Nyapini said that friends and family have been helping and offering condolences. 

People need to take precautions, wear masks, wash their hands and sanitize, she said.

“I think everybody should start taking it seriously,” she said.

‘Always there to help’ 

Nyapini is the only daughter in the family of nine, Gatluak and Machek both expressed their grief at the loss and spoke about how much of a contribution Weng made to the family.

“He was always there to help — always asking my parents, making sure they were good, he was the one out of all of us that did that,” Nyapini said.  

Sister Nyapini says he was like a second father to her and he would buy clothes for the family. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

They said he helped take care of his siblings and would provide for them and buy them clothes.

“He would always be buying us stuff and making sure we were good.” 

He was very close with their mother, she said.

“They were like best friends.”

‘He uplifted our group’

Former teammates who played basketball with Weng at Catholic Central High School have connected since his death to remember their friend.

“Obviously it was devastating news to hear of his passing,” former teammate Myke Mulder said. “I’ve been getting texts from my teammates. We all still keep in touch, so this one hit home for us for sure.”

Mulder, who is now in his second season with the Golden State Warriors, said Weng was awesome to be around, not just as a teammate but also as a person in general.

“He was someone that as soon as he joined our team, he uplifted our group and that is what I was really proud of him for.” 

Weng James was part of the 2013 team from Catholic Central that won the provincial championship. (Submitted by Peter Cusumano)

Weng had a work ethic that went unmatched, and he was always in the gym when Mulder would get to school — ready to shoot hoops, he said.

“Me, him and a couple of other guys would be playing basketball before school started, come in after school, he’s in there already just ready to get more shots up,” Mulder said.  

At six feet six inches tall, he was a good fit for the team when he arrived at the school in Grade 12, said former coach Peter Cusumano. He said Weng was more than just a player for the two years he was on the team.

“He was loved,” Cusumano said. 

“He was always a kid that wanted to play, he had aspirations and most importantly for him was his brothers and sisters.”

Weng was one of five siblings that were part of a basketball program at the school.

Myke Mulder, who now plays for the Golden State Warriors, played on Catholic Central with Weng says he was lucky to have had him as a teammate. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

“Weng was like the older brother but in a lot of ways … he took on the father role. He was making sure they got to camp and making sure they got fed. So, he was more than a brother to those kids.” 

Nyapini said he did play a big part in her and her other brothers beginning to play the sport. 

“He taught us how to play and he motivated us all the time,” she said, adding that two of her brothers have continued playing basketball after school, one at a prep school in Atlanta and another on a team in Nova Scotia.

“You become like family so when something like this happens, it’s really hard on everybody,” Cusumano said. 

Weng was also on the 2013 team that won the provincial championships — an unforgettable experience for the entire team and an experience Weng played a large part in.

“Weng wasn’t even the guy that played all the minutes or anything like that, but he did show that leadership in pulling the group together and upping the bar in terms of work ethic.”

“That was a huge accomplishment for all of us and I know how seriously he took it just because of that dedication he had to getting better at his craft,” Mulder said. “It was really meaningful to him and he wasn’t scared to show you that it meant a lot for him.” 

Weng’s high school coach Peter Cusumano says the team Weng played on was like family and Weng was a big part of it. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

His coach remembered a game in the tournament where Weng was lobbying hard to play and ended up playing a lot of minutes. Afterward he was approached by the coach of Niagara College asking to recruit him.

“For Weng that was a big deal because he wanted to play,” Cusumano said. 

Mulder said he wants Weng’s family to know how sorry he is for their loss. 

“My heart is with you, my thoughts and prayers are with you,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do from my end feel free to reach out.”

Raising funds

Nyapini said her oldest brother, whom she’s never met, is currently living in Uganda. Weng had been working hard to bring him to Canada, she said.

“It’s sad that my oldest brother never got to see him,” Nyapini said.

Both Gatluak and Machek have lost their jobs during the pandemic — Gatluak said that he was let go the day that Weng died. They are raising funds online so they can afford the burial as well as a flight for the oldest sibling.

“We’re trying to make it happen now so he can come for the funeral.”

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