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Letsebe studies, plays and teaches, too; High schools: South African Thabo Letsebe, making his mark as a Towson Catholic basketball player, leaves as much in the classroom as he learns.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To those who know him, Towson Catholic senior Thabo Letsebe is more than a South African exchange student and basketball player.

"Thabo displays presidential qualities, the character of someone who should someday be an ambassador," said Horace Holmes, a Washington television news anchor who helped initiate Letsebe's move to Maryland.

"Thabo carries himself with an eloquence, a different moral perception and character, than you're used to seeing in most kids," said Towson Catholic assistant coach Joe Connelly, a history and government teacher at Dunbar High.

Letsebe, 18, is from Alexandra, the native township of South African President Nelson Mandela. He speaks English and five African languages. His 3.0 grade-point average and raw basketball skills for the fourth-ranked Owls have colleges such as Lafayette and St. Mary's expressing interest. And he might be as good with the pen and paint brush as he is on the hardwood.

"I'm impressed by his mannerisms and sincerity, let alone with his exceptional brilliance in drawing," said Sheila Gill, a Towson Catholic art teacher for 11 years. "I see him as having a future as a graphic artist. And he paints magnificently. He's got this attitude like he really wants to succeed at whatever he tries to do. In Thabo, I see a young man with unlimited potential."

Thabo Letsebe (pronounced tie-bow let-se-bee), whose real name is David, said "Thabo" means "Happy" in his native language, Northern Sotho. It is a nickname given him by his mother for his carefree demeanor as a child.

Letsebe's personality and background so enthralled a former teammate that he made Letsebe the subject of a writing project. The student, Dunbar senior LaFonte Johnson, said, "I wrote a five-page report on Thabo and wound up with the highest grade in the class."

As part of the project, Letsebe came to Johnson's class and fielded questions from students about himself and his heritage.

"Thabo did an excellent job of portraying to my class the hardships -- both pre-apartheid and post-apartheid. Yet on a daily basis, he doesn't seem to dwell on it," said Connelly, Johnson's teacher.

"If anything, his experiences seem to have made him very sensitive to other people's hardships and life difficulties."

Letsebe said he wants to attend a four-year college in the United States, obtain American citizenship, and, eventually, bring his family to America "by taking it step-by-step."

"Thabo's the chosen one, the person in the family who is expected to make his mark, and ultimately, to bring the rest of his relatives here," said Towson Catholic coach Mike Daniel, with whom Letsebe is staying.

Solid on the court

Letsebe is also a pretty good basketball player, averaging 13.2 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks over the past 15 games for the Catholic League regular-season champion Owls, who will be going to the Alhambra postseason tournament at Frostburg State on March 18-20.

The 6-foot-6, 190-pound Letsebe had his breakthrough game in a victory over Red Bank (N.J.) Regional at the Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament in Lewes, Del., in late December.

Facing University of Maryland-bound Tahj Holden, a 6-9 center, Letsebe grabbed eight rebounds, blocked four shots -- two by Holden -- and scored 12 points.

"All I'd heard was that he was this good player who was going to Maryland, but I just treat everyone the same," Letsebe said. "We played good 'D' to the point when he started taking the ball outside and staying there. I was surprised to see that."

Holden finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, but Letsebe was also impressive.

"We doubled down on [Holden], and you could see Thabo's wing span and quickness bothered him," Daniel said. "Every time the kid put up a shot, it seemed like Thabo had a hand on it."

Mandela's home in the 1940s and Letsebe's hometown is "a place 10 times worse than any American ghetto I've ever seen," said Mike Finley, an U.S.-born businessman in South African who befriended Letsebe. "People literally live on top of each other."

Alexandra, about a 30-minute drive from suburban Johannesburg, is close to the most affluent white areas of the nation once known for its legalized racism.

"The townships were built for black people. And being close to [Johannesburg] in the '40s and the '50s, everyone came to get jobs," Letsebe said. "A lot of blacks were domestic workers. They weren't allowed to leave the townships unless they had permits. That's how townships began."

So packed is the township with an estimated half-million people -- many illegal immigrants -- that shacks often are built in the back yards of others. Nomads come and go. The government provides public water spigots, portable outdoor bathrooms and wood stoves.

The Juskei River runs through the township, occasionally overflowing and wiping out makeshift homes.

The son of a builder, Jacob, and a hairdresser, Onica, Letsebe lived in an apartment with his mother, his brother Donald, 22, and sister Cornelia, 15. "It was just like the apartments around the city here," he said.

"Shacks, immigrants, that stuff started around the '80s and '90s, but then we started standing up for our rights," Letsebe said. "Some blacks did OK financially [and] made it to the suburbs of Johannesburg."

But education was still limited for black people, Letsebe said.

Discovering basketball

Letsebe said he was a good soccer player, grew too big for his 12-year-old age group, then tried marathon training and tennis, but liked neither.

"By surprise, I was walking around when I was 13 and saw some guys playing basketball on a tennis court," Letsebe said. "For me, it was a new sport. I'd never even really seen it on TV, didn't know how to dribble or shoot. We had a couple friends from Zimbabwe and Mozambique -- they had seen it and had been playing it for a while."

The players built a makeshift court.

"We dug out a hole, drew some lines and started playing," Letsebe said.

Unknown to Letsebe, however, Mike Finley began watching him.

"It seemed every day, I'd find Thabo on those courts," said Finley. And Letsebe's ambitions grew with his game.

The first time Finley saw Letsebe was as "a 6-foot-4, 15-year-old center on an 18-and-under club team, playing his heart out on a converted tennis court."

"There was this skinny black kid, bringing the ball up the floor, dribbling between his legs and behind his back," said Finley. "He was working as hard as any American teen-ager I'd ever seen -- in a country where, for blacks at least, there's no athletic future except maybe in boxing or soccer.

"Thabo, as I later came to know him, was just showing this incredible hunger for the game," Finley said. "Every day, there was this kid working on his game -- refining things with no formal training."

So after about a year, Finley approached Letsebe and convinced him to play on his all-black teen team that competed in a predominantly white club league.

September 1997 was the beginning of a journey toward new opportunities.

Coming to America

Through business associates, Finley gained enough financial backing and sponsorship to send five of his players, including Letsebe, on an all-expenses paid trip to a summer basketball camp in Chicago run by the Miami Heat's Tim Hardaway.

Finley convinced Letsebe's mother to let him make the trip, adding that "Thabo was blown away by it all, the chance to play in America."

"A crew from the 'NBA's Inside Stuff' covered the camp, and Thabo and a couple of the kids got to go one-on-one with Tim Hardaway," Finley said. "Hardaway said he was impressed with Thabo's determination. One scout called him 'the best player his age from Africa.' "

At the same time, Holmes, a self-proclaimed "basketball nut," said he was taken by the success of such players as George Washington's Patrick Ngongba, formerly of Mount Hebron and Calvert Hall, and Georgetown's Ruben Boumtje Boumtje.

Holmes said he became interested in "facilitating a similar opportunity for another foreign player" but one that would take that player "beyond his wildest dreams."

"It was on a lark, but I asked a friend who works for an international company if he had any contacts for bringing a kid to America, not specifically from South Africa," Holmes said.

The friend hooked up Holmes and Finley.

Holmes, whose niece is a recent graduate of Towson Catholic, directed Letsebe to Daniel.

"I've seen, up close, how Mike Daniel operates, and I knew he cared," Holmes said.

Letsebe arrived in January 1998, moved in with the Daniel family after plans to live with another host fell through, and enrolled at Towson Catholic.

"My only prayer for Thabo is that he goes to college or does whatever he has to to become all that God intended him to be," Holmes said. "If basketball is what takes him there, then so be it."

Pub Date: 3/04/99

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