Weng James, a 27-year-old Windsor, Ont., man 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,” his sister, Nyapini James, said. “He was very generous if we ever needed anything. There was somebody to talk to, he would always be there.
“He was like our second dad.”
Weng was admitted 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 coronavirus.
“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 the South Sudanese language Nuer. “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, 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.
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 as a person.
“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 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.
Father figure to siblings
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 James children to join the basketball program at the school.
“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,” Cusumano said.
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.
Two of her brothers have continued playing basketball after leaving Catholic Central, 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.
Known for leadership, work ethic
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,” Mulder said.
“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.”
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 looking to recruit him.
“For Weng, that was a big deal because he wanted to play,” Cusumano said.
He ended up playing with the Niagara team for a year.
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.”
Nyapini said her eldest 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,”Nyapini said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.