By Duncan Mlanjira
At his peak from the 1980s to the 90s, Zitto Phillips’ contribution to Malawi’s basketball attracted huge crowds and made the game very glamorous.
Zitto is a man of few words and very modest to talk about himself when contacted but those who were close to him — those whom he inspired to give their best and are legends of the game themselves — do attest that the basketballer extraordinaire, is still regarded as Malawi’s greatest of all time.
As described by Victor Jere, apart from being amazingly talented, Zitto was disciplined and dedicated — “a fierce competitor, very patient, very good understanding of the basics of the game and a true leader.
“Not only did he always play well but he also made those around him play better. Falcons or Spitfire without Zitto was beatable but playing against the same guys with Zitto, there it was a different ball game,” Jere recalls.
Having watched Zitto play basketball from his primary to secondary school days, Jere got the chance to rub shoulders with this incredible player Malawi has ever seen after he had just written his Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) whilst playing for MCA Cardinals.
“Then when I went to Chancellor College where I played for Chanco Hawks and what followed were so many memorable seasons playing against my idol.
“Surprisingly, for somebody with his talent and achievements and accolades, he was — and still is — a very humble and sociable guy with so much wisdom to share. He is good company indeed.”
Jere recalls that Zitto was an all-rounder, who could shoot, dribble or pass with so much ease.
“At the same time, he was equipped with tremendous patience and wicked fakes. Many were the times when you thought I got him, only to realise he got you!
“He was just unpredictable but so much fun to watch or play against or alongside with.”
From his recollection, Jere says he used to cherish the rivalry matches between Falcons and African Bible College (ABC) that had another great talent in Albert Junior as well as that between Falcons and Bobcats which had the great Henry Gomani.
Another rivalry match was the Falcons v Bricks of Yamiko Samu fame.
Zitto’s roots are from Mozambique where basketball is advanced. He is of a Mozambican father and a Malawian mother and when he relocated to his mother’s roots, he joined basketball having had the vast experience in his father’s homeland.
And he did make a difference to Malawi’s game and he quickly settled in.
He is still very reserved probably because when he relocated to Malawi he hadn’t mastered Chichewa and when contacted to talk about his experiences, his answers were quite short.
But he disclosed that the teams he played for in Mozambique were Desportivo da Beira and Textil de Pungue and when he relocated to Malawi he played for Crazy Warriors, Spitfires and Falcons.
“After a close friend of mine, Mussa Laher, had some differences with some team members about the team’s performance dependence on Laher, myself and the former basketball national team coach Charles Burmeister, we were persuaded to form Falcons, which originally was sponsored by French Cultural Centre.
“The team had the best players in late Harold Mvula, Richard and Raymond Banda, Alberto Poxes Junior, Madano Thepetheya, Gabriel Mumba, Blair Phiri, Simeon Gama, Melvin Kadewere, Chrispine Makaka, Farai Powers Dube.
“That was the era that Malawi basketball was at its peak with teams such as Crazy Warriors, Spitfires and ABC before Bricks came on the scene and became Falcons’ greatest rival.
“We won many trophies and league titles and I must say I greatly enjoyed my contributions to Malawi basketball,” he said.
He finally retired in 2010 to concentrate on his business but he still does play the game at social level.
Melvin Kadewere, who was roped into Falcons by Zitto himself, described the legend as having the determination that was more than the definition of the determination itself.
“His was God-given talent,” he said. “But despite having this extraordinary talent, the man believed in practising and that’s what made him stand out.
“He sacrificed personal resources to make basketball tick; he used personal money to repair the boards, rings and bought ring nets at Blantyre Youth Centre because somebody had to do it.
“He even bought a floodlight at Blantyre Youth Centre so that we could train when the darkness fell since most of the players had to knock off from work at 5pm to come for training,” Kadewere said.
He said he learnt his basketball whilst at Thyolo Secondary School and during the holidays he was always at Blantyre Youth Centre where Zitto spotted him.
“But then it was not easy to get into the team but after I finished school I was drafted into the team but mainly I just enjoyed the training sessions’ game time until I impressed Zitto and the rest to make it into the main team.
“On the court, Zitto was simply amazing and because of his powerful work rate, it made all of us work harder to win trophies.
“He asked nothing less than a win all the time and we knew we had to give it to him. If we fell short he took it upon himself to lift the team up and deliver the results.
“The man was simply amazing and I am what I am today because of him and basketball since he built confidence in us when we were off the court,” said Kadewere, who is now based in Bangkok, Thailand.
Kingsley Gwaza, who played for the rival team Spitfires, recalls that Zitto being a forward he was unstoppable and feels he can still play competitively if he can come back.
“Then I played small forward and him being a good ball handler he ditched the ball unselfishly. And he was very good at three pointers and ball dribbling.
“Outside the court, Zitto loved fun and he was very sincere but rough when provoked.”
In his opinion, Kingsley, who played alongside Denis Ngosi, Frank Mvalo, Humphrey Chipilingu, David Flash Burger, Gift Phoya, John Keys, Moses Nthakomwa, Davis Mussa and Mbachi Munthali, believes Falcons’ greatest rivals were Crazy Warriors and Poly Bobcats.
This was seconded by Weluzani Chingota, who said his best moments watching basketball was the game between Poly Bobcats and Falcons but added that the game against ABC Lions was a must-watch.
Chingota was in the original Bricks team of the likes of Yamiko Samu and Henry Gomani et al before going to study at Chanco where he teamed up with Victor Jere, Kayakangu Malange and others.
“I heard about him long before I even met him,” says Weluzani. “He was nicknamed ‘Mr Last’ because he always came late to games but still made his team win.
“Then I had the chance to watch him play and it was against MCA Cardinals — he was just on top of his game. He made almost all the shots he took, and was simply amazing.
“He was just too good to play him one on one, so we had to double team him or even triple team him just that he could just pass the ball.
“Off the court, he was a very smart guy, very encouraging and always told us how to improve our game. I remember he coached us once for an All Star game and he simply said; ‘guys, go do what you do best!’
“Zitto had an amazing shot but was equally fast on the drive. He was the go-to-guy and some how he made the average players in his team look good.
“He was the complete player in that he could rebound, bounce the ball, beat his man, take the shot, or at some he even dunked!!” Weluzani summed it up.
As for Chrispine Makaka, he cherishes Zitto’s contribution to his basketball career, who spotted by Zitto in mid 90s when he was in secondary school but playing in the then junior championship during holidays.
“He used to pick me up to train with Falcons until I finished my secondary school and joined them.
“It was exhilarating watching him play, he had those fancy fakes, could shoot from any angle and he was also good at dunking — he was an all-rounder. It was like we were watching Michael Jordan.
How was he as a human being outside the court?: “Zitto is a good man, he was like a father to me. He taught us to always ask permission when we want something.
“He always said to us that it is important that we understand if we aren’t sure about taking or using something, it is always better to ask first.”
Playing along Zitto, Makaka said they won the Sprite tournament, Surf tournament, Chishango tournament, ABC invitation, Blue ribbon League just to mention a few.
He said when he joined Falcons, ABC was their rival team as they had a good crop of best players, who were mostly from Liberia and America their second most rival were the Bricks, a team full of talented players.