Donovan Clingan contends with basketball future, his late mother's memory

Already a 7-footer at age 15, Donovan Clingan has emerged as a national recruit at an unlikely place. Richard Messina for ESPN

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 18, 2020.

BRISTOL, Conn. -- It is 10 minutes before the Bristol Central High School boys' basketball team is set to square off against Maloney High School, and all eyes are on a 7-foot-tall, 15-year-old sophomore center named Donovan Clingan.

It's difficult not to stare, and it isn't just his uncommon height and skill set that make Clingan stand out. Most of this crowd knows Clingan has already attracted offers from UConn, Syracuse, Providence, Georgetown and UMass, but it's more than his status as a recruit that draws attention.

During warm-ups, Donovan and a few of his teammates wear electric blue T-shirts with bright pink block lettering that reads "Team Stacey" on the back. At Bristol Central, Stacey Porrini Clingan -- Donovan's mom -- was a famous basketball star once. A 6-foot-4 center, Stacey set the school's all-time rebounding record, fielded 67 scholarship offers as a senior and went on to play in three NCAA tournaments at Maine.

Stacey didn't live to see Donovan follow in her footsteps at Bristol Central. She died of breast cancer on March 27, 2018, when he was in eighth grade and his sister, Olivia, was in seventh. Since Stacey's death, Donovan's basketball abilities have made him a target of high schools and prep schools with better basketball pedigrees than Bristol Central, which has a recognizable name in football because of its unfortunate connection to alumnus Aaron Hernandez but has never been known as a factory for elite Division I basketball recruits.

Donovan is not really interested in those outside offers. He wants to break Bristol Central records like his mom did, to become the family's next icon at the school. This is a place where he can still feel a connection to Stacey.

"I'm staying because of my mom, and it's close [to home]," he said. "I have to do four years of college, so I don't want to do more than I have to, you know what I'm saying?"

Bill Clingan, Donovan's father, receives calls from prep schools, academies and AAU programs all over New England and elsewhere, trying to persuade him to move his son from Bristol Central and the Boston Spartans AAU program so Donovan can play for their teams. A newly widowed father of two teenage children and a field engineering designer for local energy company Eversource, Bill is navigating this world largely on his own and trying to do what's best for Donovan and the family.

"I'm conflicted because I don't want to force him to do something he doesn't want to do," Bill said. "But at the same time, I want to see him grow more, and I want what's going to help him succeed in the future. So it's a battle that we have. He plays on a great AAU team now, and he's getting the right type of experience. It's just hard to know what's best."

As Bill looks on, Donovan easily wins the tipoff against Maloney. He finishes the game two blocked shots shy of a triple-double. Bristol Central beats Maloney by 26.

Stacey didn't make the seventh-grade basketball team, her mother, Debbie, remembers. In eighth grade, she played in fewer than five games. Then she walked into Bristol Central on her first day of high school as a 6-foot-2 freshman. It wasn't long before the girls' basketball coach noticed her.

"He came up to her at school and said, 'You want to play basketball? Want to try joining the team?'" Debbie said. "And she said, 'Yeah, I'll try.' We had no hoop in our yard or nothing. She barely knew how to play. Basketball wasn't her sport. Swimming was her sport. But she tried out, made the team and worked very hard. She was that determined, goal-setting, hard-working kid."

Stacey found her footing in basketball, developing an intensity that grew with every game -- and one that those around her found both intimidating and mystifying.

"She played really hard," Debbie said. "She never missed a day of practice. She never missed a day of high school. That's just who she was. She gave it her all no matter what she did."

Stacey's undeniable athleticism and drive caught the attention of Joanne P. McCallie, then the head coach at Maine and now at Duke.

"What I saw was a very talented 6-[foot]-4 post player who had a lot of confidence," McCallie said. "At the time I saw her, she was not scoring prolifically or anything like that. She was just a solid post-up player, and she was working on her game. And the thing that was unusual about her, in my opinion, was that she was a fantastic swimmer."

Stacey graduated from Bristol Central in 1993 having earned all-conference honors in basketball, swimming and track and field. She left for Maine holding all-time school records in rebounds (1,032) and blocked shots (273). After that, she got even better.

Stacey wrote her name all over the record books before graduating from Maine in 1997. In addition to playing in three NCAA tournaments on teams featuring women's basketball legend Cindy Blodgett, Stacey remains top-five at Maine in career rebounds (929) and top-20 in points (1,128), and she owns records for blocks in a game (7) and in a season (79). She made the all-conference team three times.

"She helped put our program on the map," McCallie said. "But the thing that stands out the most is how beloved she was on the team. She was a mother-type player, caring for her teammates, always concerned about her teammates."

Current Maine head coach Amy Vachon, Stacey's former teammate, echoes that sentiment.

"When I was a freshman, she was a senior, and she was the mother of the team," Vachon said. "Even back then, before she was actually a mother, that was just her characteristic to take care of others before herself. She took it upon herself to make sure that we were comfortable."

"Her whole life, all she ever wanted to do was be a mom and a teacher," Debbie said of Stacey, who earned a degree in elementary education from Maine. "That's all she ever wanted to do."

Within six months of graduation, Stacey was back in her hometown of Bristol, working as an elementary school teacher first at Ellen P. Hubbell Elementary and then at Greene-Hills School, where she spent most of her career. Soon after returning to Bristol, she met Bill (who stood one inch taller than Stacey, at 6-foot-5), and she married him in 2000. She gave birth to Donovan -- all 25 inches and 12 pounds of him -- on Feb. 23, 2004.

Those who knew Stacey and have seen Donovan play note their similar mannerisms on the court and the similarities in their games. Bill sees it, and Debbie sees it. Stacey saw it, too.

"She always encouraged him and coached him," Debbie said. "And it's funny because she knew that his height would mean he would get fouled a lot. She was used to that herself. So she would say to him, 'You got to practice your foul shots.' She just knew that he would be on the foul line a lot. She always said to him, 'Free throws win ball games.'"

It was rare for Stacey to get vocal while watching Donovan's games, but every so often, she couldn't hold it in. During a club game about 20 miles from Bristol, Donovan went to the foul line and missed his first shot. From the stands, Stacey yelled, "You miss the next one, you're walking home!" The referee turned and looked at Stacey, after the game telling her, "You wouldn't have made him walk."

"He knows I wouldn't have made him walk," Stacey replied. "But you notice he didn't miss any more foul shots?"

The beginning of Stacey's battle with cancer came in 2010, when Donovan was 6 years old. She underwent intensive chemotherapy and surgery, and the doctors declared her cancer-free in that first year. Then, near the fifth anniversary of her diagnosis, she found out the cancer had returned. For three more years, she fought with the determination that defined her basketball career. In the spring of 2018, she finally lost the fight.

"I can't tell you how rough it was to lose Stacey," Bill said through the tears that come regularly whenever he discusses his wife. "It was very, very rough."

Sports helped keep the family together. Olivia developed into an elite volleyball player and championship swimmer, honoring that part of her mother's legacy.

Donovan started playing basketball at 5, but he admits that although he was always the tallest, he was far from the best. He surpassed his dad in height before his 13th birthday but didn't have the speed to keep up with the other players. When Stacey died, Donovan started to take the game more seriously.

"Going into freshman year, a lot changed," Donovan said. "I changed a lot. I started to love the game more. I was just trying to do it for her, to make her happy because that's what she wanted me to do."

After making the varsity team his freshman year, just months after his mom's death, Donovan initially struggled with his then-6-foot-8 frame. By the end of the season, he was averaging 22.8 points, 18.2 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game. And he was getting taller.

"I quickly realized that I should put a lot more effort into it because I could be good if I tried," he said. "And that's what happened."

"This year, he's grown as a player and as a person," Bristol Central senior guard Shane Ouellette said. "He's a really good kid and nice to everyone, and it's awesome watching him play because he's really going to succeed. He's going to do awesome in college, and I just can't wait to see what happens for him."

Even without his mom's physical presence, Donovan still hears her voice. In fact, when Stacey died and decisions had to be made about the words for the base of her headstone, Donovan looked at his family and asked, "Can we put 'Free throws win ball games'?"

"You bet your life we can," Debbie said.

ESPN national recruiting director Paul Biancardi said he expects Donovan Clingan to be ranked among the top 100 recruits for the Class of 2022, which places Clingan comfortably in the realm of elite collegiate prospects. Offers from the likes of UConn and Syracuse suggest the same, and those who follow basketball at this level know that Bristol Central -- and its competition -- might not be able to hold Donovan for long. That's why Bill Clingan's phone has been burning up with calls from suitors.

"They are relentless, especially now that the high school season is coming to a close," Bill said.

With every game, a larger crowd turns out to see Donovan play. He's a target for abuse in every gym he visits, with opposing students (and even rival parents, in some cases) chanting "Overrated" at a 15-year-old high school sophomore when he misses a shot. Donovan, Bill and Olivia (who films every game) try to remain unfazed. This is the new normal.

"I honestly try not to pay much attention to any of it," Donovan said. "I don't read the comments on social media. I don't pay attention to the stands at games. I try to just ignore it. I think it's funny most of the time."

On the court, three and sometimes four opposing players at a time attempt to guard Clingan. Many of them barely come up to his chest, but they try every trick in the book to stop him. It almost always gets physical. Donovan visits the foul line a number of times each game, echoing what his mother predicted years ago.

"A lot of the teams try to throw him off his game," Bristol Central coach Tim Barrette said. "And that's because when you have a dominant player like him, it's going to happen. I try to talk to him all the time about taking that as a compliment. They don't say that to the player that's not good. The chants of 'Overrated' have happened against every opponent. But his stats don't lie. I don't know how overrated he can be if he's averaging 24 points a game."

Sometimes, it gets more than physical. On Feb. 11, in a game in which both teams received technical fouls for jawing (including one on Donovan), a Maloney player confronted Donovan with a very personal and very vulgar insult about his late mother. Nothing, it seems, is taboo when it comes to testing Clingan's limits.

"I am just upset with myself for reacting on the court -- and letting it affect my game a little bit," Donovan said afterward. "I just have to use this as a mental test, though, and realize that this is what's going to happen. I can't let it get to me. But it does hurt."

Meanwhile, for Bill, events such as that beg the question: two more years of this? At a prep school or at an academy, Donovan would be challenged, but he wouldn't be a constant -- and primary -- target in this way. Then again, for a prep school, he would have to leave the only high school he has known, the only friends he has known, his teachers and maybe even his family.

Barrette understands the realities of Donovan's basketball future and knows there's a chance that he'll leave. He also knows Donovan has excelled at Bristol Central, has found himself within this school and basketball community amid an unfathomable tragedy for a child. Barrette wonders what might happen in a different setting.

"Donovan thrives on family," Barrette said. "In our Bristol Central community, Donovan is a major pillar in this school's family dynamic. He's put this school on the map again right now for positive things. We were a little bit negative because of some of the things that happened in the news in the past, but right now it's all positive. We try to build a family here at this school, and it's all about family with him."

As he weighs his son's options, Bill considers Stacey's four-year journey at Bristol Central and how it never held her back. He sighs deeply while looking at Donovan.

"I always try to keep that in the back of my mind when I have all this pressure and conflict about him leaving," Bill said. "I try to remember that Stacey did it. And he really wants to stay for her. So that means more than anything."

For his part, Donovan remains steadfast in his desire to not leave Bristol Central. He wants to stay with his coach, teammates, teachers, friends and sister -- his family. He wants to surpass his mom's stats and records. He wants to continue her Bristol legacy. No matter what happens next, it's hard to imagine anyone forgetting Donovan Clingan at Bristol Central. At this high school and in this community, they certainly haven't forgotten Stacey Porrini Clingan.

"She was just amazing in every way," Bill said. "She was an icon here for a reason. She was a hero here for a reason. And now, to see Donovan following in her footsteps, it's amazing. He's just like her. He has her drive. I know he's going to succeed because he's just like her."