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From Africa to Alexandria

The stars of Episcopal boy’s basketball team have been on a remarkable journey together.

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“Students just gravitate to them,” said Episcopal soccer coach Rick Wilcox of seniors Yao Sithole (left) and Given Kalipinde (right). The duo has starred on both the soccer field and basketball court after transferring to the Alexandria private school from South Africa last year.

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Given Kalipinde (right) and Yao Sithole (left) have led the Episcopal basketball team in scoring the past two seasons. In a 77-65 upset of Landon Tuesday night, Kalipinde poured in 25 points, while Sithole scored 14 points.

Living about 8,000 miles away from home, it’s hard to believe Episcopal’s Given Kalipinde and Yao Sithole say they don’t miss home all that much.

Then again, watching them comfortably answer a reporter’s questions over the din of teammates teasing them about the game that just ended, girlfriends, weird looking clothes, and whatever else teenagers think is worthy of postgame fodder — all while the senior duo suppresses their own laughter — could be enough proof for their claim.

“The team doesn’t look at us as outsiders, they just look at us as one of the guys,” said Sithole, a 6-foot-5 forward from South Africa. “They joke around a lot, but they’re great guys.”

Kalipinde and Sithole aren’t the average transfer students that attend the Alexandria boarding school. Each came to Episcopal before their junior year from the Durban Boy’s School in South Africa and have transformed the athletics scene on campus.

They were the two leading scorers on last year’s basketball team that finished with a 16-8 record, its best finish since a string of state titles in the late 1990s. The duo followed that up this fall as key members of the Episcopal soccer team that went undefeated and won the Virginia Independent School League state title. Kalipinde was even named All-Met Player of the Year as a result.

Heading into a Friday night showdown against IAC-leading Georgetown Prep, Kalipinde (23 points per game) and Sithole (12 ppg) are poised to propel themselves onto the basketball map — not that they haven’t been globetrotting for quite some time.

“We’ve been together for awhile now, and we just kind of see ourselves as brothers,” said the 6-foot-3 Kalipinde, whose Episcopal team vaulted itself into the IAC title conversation with a 77-65 upset of second-place Landon Tuesday night.

<b>AS SITHOLE TELLS</b> it, he and Kalipinde hit it off right away when they were back in South Africa. Sithole had already been attending Durban Boy’s School for a few years when Kalipinde arrived from his hometown of Lusaka, Zambia — that country’s capital. Sithole is originally from a rural area of South Africa, but as a child moved to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa — best known for an 1893 incident when Mahatma Gandhi was kicked off a first-class train car for being Indian, prompting him to fight racial discrimination there.

Both Kalipinde and Sithole were stars for the Durban basketball team early on, which led a coach to suggest they attend an NBA-sponsored program called Basketball Without Borders in the summer of 2007.

There, they were surrounded by some of the best high school basketball players from Africa as well as NBA coaches and players like the Lakers’ Luke Walton and the Spurs’ Bruce Bowen.

“From then on playing in Africa, there wasn’t that much competition because a lot of people play soccer and those camps challenged us,” said Sithole. “Basically we started working harder because we knew there are a lot of people out there that could play basketball.”

Also at the camp was Jeffrey Goodell, the director of counseling at Episcopal. He thought Kalipinde and Sithole were perfect for a school like Episcopal that features students from 17 different countries.

Both qualified academically and once the duo’s coach in South Africa got in contact with Episcopal coach Jim Fitzpatrick, the rest was just a matter of getting to America.

“We looked at the school and said, ‘Hey that looks like a good opportunity for us to not only better ourselves as basketball players, but also better ourselves academically,’” said Kalipinde.

<b>THE CULTURE SHOCK</b> of going from Africa to a buzzing suburb of the capital of the free world would be daunting for anyone. For Kalipinde and Sithole, used to “lots of black people” and traditional South African foods like goat, the transition was made easier as roommates.

“It kind of just became easy going through everything together,” said Kalipinde of how he coped with all the changes in his life.

“I think school was hard at the beginning because it was a different schooling system than what they were used to over there,” said Fitzpatrick. “But immediately from the day they stepped on campus, they’re nice, humble people and everybody loved having them there. Basketball and soccer have just been a plus.”

The duo’s soccer coach at Episcopal, Rick Wilcox, said the connection between the two was apparent from the get go. In the beginning of the 2007-08 school year when both were scheduled to arrive, Kalipinde got held up in South Africa with visa issues. So Sithole came to Virginia several days ahead of him and began practicing with the Maroon soccer team.

Wilcox said he could tell Sithole was not at ease and very introverted those first few practices. But when Kalipinde finally arrived several days later, Sithole “instantly became more comfortable,” according to the coach. “Now, students just gravitate to them because they’ve got these really warm, nice personalities.”

<b>ON THE COURT</b>, the love is mutual. Kalipinde and Sithole may be the catalysts, but they are by no means swaggering superstars that seem to highlight the AAU scene around here. Sithole says sometimes the two “just make eye contact” on the floor and know exactly what the other wants to do having built such a connection over the years.

But next season that will change. Sithole is undecided on where or if he’ll play basketball at an American college, but Kalipinde’s journey will continue on to Los Angeles where he will play in the backcourt for Division-I Loyola-Marymount. He could have played major-conference Division I soccer as well, but full scholarships are rare in that sport.

Ask him what he’ll miss most about his two years in Alexandria and Kalipinde thinks back to the first time it snowed. Surprising for someone whose hometown has an average yearly temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Then again, he never really missed home in the first place.

“When I was back [in Zambia], I was kind of dreaming about all this,” said Kalipinde. “The last time I realized it, I was like, ‘Hey, we’re in the U.S. and we actually had this dream of coming here and trying to make this opportunity work.’ And it’s a great feeling right now.”