'He's exceptional in some ways and he's just a kid in others': Donovan Clingan, Bristol Central's 7-foot D-I basketball prospect, balances life in spotlight

Published on Friday, 13 March 2020 16:09
Written by MATT HORNICK

@MNHornick

“You can’t shoot,” Donovan Clingan turned and said to teammate Damion Glasper as Glasper set up to shoot a 3-pointer during a Saturday-morning basketball practice.

“You can’t either,” Glasper retorted before taking the shot, which was met with Clingan sticking his tongue out at his fellow sophomore.

For many, this is the Clingan they know; a 16-year-old who just wants to be like everyone else, play basketball with his friends and have fun.

However, unlike almost every other high school sophomore in the country, Clingan’s 7-foot frame and video game-like statistics have garnered him national media attention as a highly sought-after recruit for the class of 2022. He already has five offers to play Division I college basketball.

The hype surrounding Clingan is large enough to engulf a person, even of his stature, and is growing with every game he plays. Averaging 24.8 points, 17.2 rebounds and 6.4 blocks per game, he is the focal point of a Bristol Central team that finished the regular season 16-4 and qualified for the Division II state tournament as the fourth overall seed.

HIS ASCENTION AS A BASKETBALL PLAYER

Always the tallest kid anywhere he goes for as long as he can remember, Clingan’s pursuit of high-level basketball did not begin until his mother, Stacey Porrini Clingan, lost her battle with breast cancer when Donovan was in eighth grade.

“When Stacey passed it was a switch, it was immediate,” Donovan’s father Bill said. “He made up his mind and he just concentrated on getting better, not just at basketball, but at school, everything. He just immediately matured overnight. It was quite a sight.”

A former Division I basketball player at the University of Maine and Bristol Central graduate herself, Stacey and everything that motivated her began to motivate Donovan. It not only intensified his passion for basketball, but his pride in his hometown and his school. He posted two photos to Instagram on March 3 with the caption, “I play for the name on the front and the woman above.”

“I’m just trying to look good for our school, the coaching staff, my teammates and most importantly my family,” Clingan said.

He joined Team Spartans, an AAU team in Boston, after his freshman season at Central and his trajectory as a basketball prospect changed. It opened him to greater exposure and stiffer competition, which started to open doors for him into the whirlwind sophomore season he did not yet know he was in store for.

He received an invite to a minicamp at Syracuse University over the summer and Aug. 26 received an offer to play for the Orange, his first collegiate suitor.

“I knew my time was coming,” Clingan said. “Syracuse as your first offer is just crazy. I’m just humbled and blessed.”

This is when Clingan says everything began to take off for him. By Oct. 15 he received additional offers from UConn, UMass, Providence and Georgetown, and was arguably the most sought-after high school basketball prospect in the state.

With the attention from college coaching staffs came, the eyes of the public and the media. Word about Clingan only spread faster with every offer he received, and his sophomore season at Central was still more than two months away.

By the time the season rolled around, everyone was chomping at the bit to see him play. For those who saw him play as a freshman, they knew he had to be a different basketball player entering his second varsity season.

 “The one thing I noticed right away was how much stronger he got,” Central assistant coach Keith Lipscomb said. “Obviously he got a little taller, but he also got stronger. Last year, I feel like he finished soft at the rim a lot. He didn’t try to dunk a lot, not as much as he should have. This year, he goes in with the approach of trying to dunk everything, which is the goal.”

HANDLING THE PRESSURE

With every game, the crowd became larger and the attention from reporters only intensified, a combination that would distort the psyche of most high school students, but not Clingan. He is refusing to let any of his newfound attention impact the way he acts on or off the court.

“I’m trying not to build a big head and let it get to me too much and stay humble,” Clingan said. “A lot of people are trying to be my friend because I am who I’m trying to be. I’m not letting those kids get in my life. Around people, around family, around friends, around teachers in school, I’m just not going to let the attention change who I really am.”

While much of the attention stems from appreciation, like any other athlete receiving recognition for their achievements, Clingan also receives plenty of negativity. This can be much more difficult for a teenager to process, and for Clingan, this was an area he needed to improve on. He often hears chants of “overrated” or other disparaging words, but he learned to play through it and thrive in spite of it.

“When there was pressure and kids talking, I wasn’t on my A-game,” Clingan said. “So now I’m getting used to the pressure and how kids say that type of junk and it just fuels me. It gets me going more and I play better.”

“A lot of kids walking around [saying] ‘Go to UConn, go to Syracuse,’ or go wherever,” he added. “It’s just funny. I don’t respond to them, I laugh at it. Kids come here and chant ‘overrated’ [at me] and it’s just funny. That’s just pressure on me to make sure that I prove that I’m not overrated.”

Clingan has no obligation to interact with his hecklers, but the same cannot be said for members of the media and he knows that. Despite understanding the media attention will only grow from this point, he often seems uneasy during interviews, but he said it’s only because he wants to give the best answers he can to give the best outward impression of himself.

“He’s quiet around the reporters and college coaches and all that,” Central boys basketball coach Tim Barrette said. “He’s not that quiet when it comes to his family here at Bristol Central, he’s pretty outspoken then. He knows when to be serious and when not to be. He’s a great leader. His teammates love him. I think he has a very magnetic personality and people gravitate to him. Not just because he’s seven feet tall, but because he’s a goofball and he’s funny and he knows when to be serious and when to lighten up practice.”

To display this level of maturity as a teenager is an incredibly rare feat.

“He’s matured so quickly,” Bill said. “He was a pretty mature kid for his age before Stacey passed. When Stacey passed, it was just amazing, both of my children. He focused on basketball; he focused on school; he focused on being like his mom was. He’s an inspiration. I learn from him every day and I’m 50 years old.”

“Having to become a man before most kids have to become a man,” Barrette said. “That allows him to take all of this attention and notoriety he’s getting and stay grounded, stay family oriented, stay Bristol Central oriented. He just wants to be with his friends and be 16. One day basketball is going to take him to new levels and new heights. He’s going to see the world, hopefully, and be able to play at a prestigious university. His mother’s death forced him to grow up, to be a man in the house between him, his sister and his dad.”

Clingan’s ability to take full advantage of the opportunities he’s been given will only continue to help him long after the hysteria over his basketball abilities dies down. He not only works to be the best athlete he can, but the most complete person and is seeing great success in essentially every facet.

“It’s really important for me to step up as a leader because college coaches look at that and every team needs a leader,” Clingan said. “If a team doesn’t have a leader, how are they going to be a team? It’s just important to be vocal, but I’m just trying to keep a good bond between the team and make sure everyone is together [and] plays together and not arguing throughout the game.”

He’s built strong relationships with everyone on the team regardless of age or how long or well they knew each other.

“He’s a really, really good teammate,” senior guard Austin Brown said. “Everyone on the team loves him. He’s always making sure to get everyone the ball. He’s always making sure to show everyone how much he cares about the team. He’s always making the jokes, he’s really funny.”

PUTTING IN THE WORK

The first one in the gym by more than an hour, Clingan gets to practice early to get extra work in with his coaches. He works to hone his arsenal of post moves and his mid-range game, but has his most fun developing his stroke from behind the 3-point arc.

“He always works, I can’t stress that enough,” Barrette said. “He wants to get up 400-500 shots a day. He came in about an hour and 15 minutes early and got 400 jumpers off. He’s always working on his game, a new aspect of it, trying to expand it out from inside. He’s continuing to work on basically making himself a collegiate player to be ready for the next level.”

While rarely expected to leave the paint against high school teams without comparable big men, Clingan knows the importance of developing a jump shot for succeeding at the next level, when he’ll face a player of similar size in almost every game and be asked, if not expected, to stretch the floor.

Not only does he value the importance of adding that weapon to his game, he could not be more excited to get those shots up.

“In eighth grade I was probably the worst jump shooter that ever played, but over the summer I worked on my shot,” Clingan said. “I always thought I was a shooter, even though I wasn’t. I’m not scared to shoot the shot. There are a lot of bigs out there that are scared to shoot because they’re afraid their coach will take them out.”

Always focused on putting in the necessary work to make a successful jump to the collegiate game, Clingan has little interest in the superficial aspects of being a top recruit. He understands it is not going away and is only going to grow as college nears, but does not want it to interfere with his growth as a basketball player.

“He doesn’t want to be bothered by a lot of it,” Barrette said. “He does a great job of blocking it out most of the time, better than I probably would have as a child or a lot of his teammates would. He stays humble, he definitely continues to work hard and to push the envelope in terms of the player he can be in the coming years.”

Despite not wanting to be particularly involved with his own hype-machine, Clingan remains aware of the value that comes with spreading the word of his exploits. He uses his Twitter account to retweet highlights and other media concerning him and isn’t afraid to demand the largest media outlets give him the same recognition. When ESPN featured Clingan in a post on its Instagram after he notched 37 points, 28 rebounds and 10 blocks against New Britain on Feb. 27 in the first round of the CCC Tournament, he was quick to comment “tag me” on the post because he knows it is important to use such a large platform to his benefit. He still did not let that stop him from being awestruck that he caught the attention of the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

“[I’m] thankful,” Clingan said “I’m always watching kids on TV be all over ESPN and one day I’m there. It’s just crazy.”

All Clingan wants to do is play basketball. Being as tall and composed as he is, it can be hard to remember that he turned 16 on Feb. 23.

Having all of this extracurricular attention does not excuse him from his normal responsibilities as a student, which for many people would interfere with taking time for themselves, but Clingan and his remarkably sturdy support-system always ensure he can still be a kid.

“I love fishing,” Clingan said. “If I’m not playing basketball, I’m fishing this summer, which is nice. After school and practice I’ll go home and be a kid. Do my homework and hang out with my friends and have fun.”

This is one of the most important parts for Bill. He knows his son has the focus and drive to reach his athletic goals, but Bill is thankful his son hasn’t struggled to find time to decompress.

“I like to see him be goofy because then I know he’s just a normal kid,” Bill said. “He’s all over the internet, he’s on TV, but he’s so normal it’s unbelievable. He’s exceptional in some ways and he’s just a kid in others.”

As the weather begins to warm and the AAU schedule yet to be released, Clingan will have plenty of time to catch fish over the coming months as the CIAC canceled the state tournaments due to concerns over the ongoing coronavirus before the Rams had a chance to take the court.

Not only were they poised for a deep run as the fourth seed, but Clingan was a mere three points away from tying Central’s single-season scoring record. Individual records like that, however, fall by the wayside for Clingan as his disappointment stemmed from the lost opportunity to compete and the seniors who lost the end of their seasons.

“He was pretty upset,” Bill said. “He was very upset for Austin and Shane Ouellette. Donovan is very empathetic. He was very upset about that. That Shane’s and Austin’s season and careers had to end like that. That affected him the most.”

With two more years ahead, and, as Clingan says, a zero percent chance he leaves for a prep school no matter how often they call, Clingan has ample time to plaster his name all over the Central record books. As long as he continues to do what he’s already proved he’s very capable of doing. He wants to see himself improve his free throw shooting and continue to get stronger, but the most important part will be continuing to withstand pressure.

“I have two more years and what I’ve gotten in this time period is just crazy,” Clingan said. “I can’t imagine what is coming so I just have to keep working and keep getting better.”

For everyone around Clingan, they just continue to marvel at his consistent demeanor and are doing everything they can to keep him on the right path.

“He’s Stacey, he’s just like her,” Bill said. “He is absolutely the most genuine person, he’s nice, he doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but at the same time he won’t let his feelings get hurt. I can’t even explain it. My father passed away when I was young, I was like three years old, but to have a parent pass away as a teenager is different. The difficulty I went through when I was young, and I look at how he’s handled it, and I’m in awe.”

Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or mhornick@bristolpress.com



Posted in Newington Town Crier, Newington on Friday, 13 March 2020 16:09. Updated: Friday, 13 March 2020 16:11.