UConn's Donovan Clingan and a journey of dominance marked by tragedy

BOSTON — IF THERE’S anyone qualified to recognize a lack of patience, it’s UConn walk-on Andrew Hurley. He’s the son of coach Dan Hurley and the grandson of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley, which gives him a generational familiarity with impatient DNA.

When asked for the defining personality trait of UConn star center Donovan Clingan, Andrew Hurley chuckles and mentions his close friend’s limited patience.

He’s always got to be the first one to be anywhere,” Andrew Hurley said, flashing the family‘s noted sarcastic chuckle. “We will be walking into team dinner tonight, he’ll be the first one into the restaurant. He’s always got to be the first one there.”

Clingan, a 20-year-old sophomore, starts his day with a cup of hot coffee from Dunkin’ that begins a caffeinated quest to be first. Be it going to a workout or meeting up with friends at the local hibachi grill, Clingan sprints ahead. “When people are late,” Clingan deadpans, “it bothers me.”

Clingan says his punctuality comes from his mother, Stacey Porrini Clingan, who instilled a simple lesson: “If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re 10 minutes late.”

As one of the breakout stars of this NCAA tournament, Clingan has emerged as an antithetical modern basketball prospect — getting ahead by sticking around. He has taken his impatience and made it a discipline, allowing him to deliver on time for UConn.

His four years at a local public school, Bristol Central High in Bristol, Connecticut, and playing for the home-state university, cast a throwback vibe to Clingan’s basketball development. He projects as a top-5 pick in the upcoming NBA draft and has led UConn to the cusp of back-to-back NCAA titles. It marks an on-time arrival of an atypical plan.

CLINGAN RESISTED THE temptations of the system and stayed local, the rare four-year public high school player to emerge as a high-profile recruit.

The decision ties to the death of his mother from breast cancer just over six years ago. Stacey’s passing left Donovan — and the community who revered her — reeling.

Porrini Clingan graduated from Bristol Central in the Class of 1993 as a three-sport star in swimming, basketball and track. While in high school, she wrote a poem for her creative writing class on what it was like to be recruited, comparing it to going “on a date and you don’t know what to say.”

Porrini Clingan chose Maine and, attending on a hoops scholarship, helped the Black Bears to three straight NCAA tournaments.

She ended up in the Bristol and the University of Maine Sports Halls of Fame, with her qualities as a teammate and friend just as distinguished as her athletic accolades.

After graduation, she taught first grade at Greene-Hills Elementary in Bristol and touched a generation of students.

“I want to play in her name, her honor and try to do special things so I can make her proud.”

Donovan Clingan on his mom, Stacey

A former English teacher at Bristol Central, Gale Dickau, who is the director of the school’s writing initiative, recalled Porrini Clingan as the “velvet hammer,” gentle but persuasive. She stood 6-foot-4, and Tim Barrette — a veteran coach at Bristol Central — said her stature made her “larger than life” to the first graders she taught.

Clingan says that before his mom died when he was in eighth grade, he didn’t take basketball particularly seriously. As he forged his way through a difficult period, he leaned into the sport — his mom’s best sport — and along that path came a support system.

Amid the loss, Donovan Clingan channeled his anger and focus into basketball, leaning into the lessons Stacey had taught him. The community rallied around Donovan, his sister, Olivia, and father, Bill.

“When she passed, I really just told myself I want to just take my game to another level,” Clingan said. “I want to play in her name, her honor and try to do special things so I can make her proud.”

While many of the top 100 recruits hopped prep schools to raise their profiles, Clingan stuck around and worked landscaping in his hometown — cutting lawns in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter.

He played four seasons at his local high school, stayed loyal to his lower-profile AAU team (Boston Spartans) and chose to stay at UConn when the promise of being an NBA first-round pick loomed after UConn won the national title his freshman year.

“How do you measure loyalty?” Barrette asked. “Especially in today’s day and age, the almighty dollar is what everyone looks at. Donovan is different.”

Staying for his sophomore season elevated his career and extended UConn’s dominance of college basketball.

AT 3 A.M. DURING snowstorms, Rich Brown would pull into Donovan Clingan’s driveway in Bristol and pick up the country’s tallest snow shoveler.

For nearly three years in high school, Clingan worked for Brown, who runs Rich’s Property Management LLC when he’s not working in security and as an athletics coordinator at Bristol Central.

Clingan would shovel his own driveway before hopping in with Brown in the predawn darkness. The gig paid between $15 and $20 an hour, plus breakfast at Dunkin’.

In the summer, Clingan would landscape yards for Brown, even leaving a souvenir dent on the side of one of Brown’s dump trucks when a lawnmower flipped during an ill-fated attempt to mow a hill. “Hey Mr. Brown, I dinged up the door on your dump truck,” Clingan recalled sheepishly. “I tried to be cute with the yellow mower. It didn’t work out. I’ll pay for it.”

“In the grocery line, pumping gas. Everyone is talking about Donovan.”

Former Bristol Central english teacher Gale Dickau

Mishaps aside, Clingan proved a diligent employee. But on the first day college coaches could legally call recruits — June 15 heading into his junior year — Clingan warned Brown he would get some calls that day. High-profile coaches buzzed his phone, and he continued to cut the lawns. “It didn’t stop him from working,” Brown said.

Shoveling the driveways and landscaping the lawns of Bristol illuminate the connection of Clingan to the city. It’s a story of reciprocal love, with his ties to the community deepening in the wake of his mom’s death.

“I think his decision to stay in Bristol is the heart and soul of that kid,” said Dickau, who began working as a student teacher at Bristol Central in 1967. “He so much values family. From losing his mom, he’s created this very strong connection to family, friends, the school community and the community at large.

“She was such a magnetic personality. She had legions of friends in town, and they helped take those kids under their wing. It’s such a strong bond.”

Barrette jokes that the powerhouse AAU programs would call him about Clingan joining their team. And the powerhouse prep schools would call his AAU coach, Joe Chatman. Both knew that Clingan didn’t want to go anywhere.

The coaches prioritized Clingan’s personal development as much as on-court development as he grew into his frame — he’s now listed at 7-2. While his competition wasn’t elite in high school, his choice to stick around was based on more than rankings and offers.

“I don’t think the dreams of being a top-5 pick in the NBA draft and all that were on his list at that point,” Barrette said. “Just being the best basketball player that his mom wanted him to be.”

Clingan led Bristol Central to a state title in 2022. The title game victory marked 43 consecutive wins for the school. (The prior season, the state tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.) He averaged 30.3 points and 18.4 rebounds in the season that ended with a banner.

“In town this week and last week, no one talks about anything else but Donovan,” Dickau said. “In the grocery line, pumping gas. Everyone is talking about Donovan.”

At age 20, there are signs Donovan Clingan is still growing up. He wears a T-shirt under his basketball uniform, the time-tested sign of an underclassman’s still-developing upper body. At the NCAA dais for interviews, Clingan’s eyes dart back and forth to the teammates surrounding him, his grin showing he’s still a bit unsure how to act in the spotlight.

UConn coaches note his awareness and youthfulness. Clingan went through a true recruiting process before committing to UConn, visiting Syracuse, Michigan and Ohio State.

Clingan knew exactly where he wanted to be. When he committed to UConn in July 2021 as a top-50 prospect, he was regarded as the school’s best incoming big man since Andre Drummond.

“At that point, all of these things hadn’t happened yet for this staff,” UConn assistant Luke Murray said. “So for him to be as acclaimed as he was, one of the top high school players in Connecticut the last decade or two, for him to stay home was huge for us.”

But everyone knew there would be a lot of work between his commitment and a spot in the NBA draft green room, and Clingan has embraced the journey. When the 2022-23 season ended with the Huskies winning the national title and Clingan contributing off the bench, he didn’t really ponder the NBA.

His name buzzed in the mock draft world, but he knew his game and body needed more time in the 860 area code. He averaged just 13.1 minutes off the bench and scored 6.9 points per game.

“He would have been a top-20 pick, but he knew he wasn’t ready,” Dan Hurley said. “Literally, the next day, he just came in and said, ‘Hey, Coach, I’m not ready. Let’s run it back.’ There wasn’t a meeting with the agent and a series of drama, you know. He is a special kid.”

That decision has paid dividends, as Clingan nearly doubled his minutes and scoring for the Huskies this season. He’s averaging 12.9 points and 7.5 rebounds, and his 2.5 blocks per game is No. 8 nationally. He has maintained his trademark impatience, as he called Barrette while getting into the dentist chair for a procedure last year to reattach one of his front teeth, which was knocked out against Georgetown in December. He buzzed at 10 a.m. to schedule a workout for 12:30 p.m., just as he’d be leaving the dentist chair.

The list of what he has worked on this season is long, as he has focused on his passing, finishing over both shoulders and expanding his range. (He’s quick to point out he hit a pair of 3-pointers this year, as he’s 2-for-7 on the season.)

“Really just trying to be as impactful as I can,” he said. “Set up better screens and just working on defense, moving my feet, protecting the rim and just really trying to be more aggressive in ball screens.”

The impact came slow at times. He battled a foot issue early in the season and missed nearly a month after hurting himself in late December.

Murray said that Clingan focused on his diet and came back lean, focusing on portion size and eliminating late-night eating. (Clingan used to drink a 32-ounce Brisk iced tea before high school games, a window into some needed nutritional tweaking.)

Clingan refers to Dan Hurley as an “enemy and your best friend at the same time,” appreciative of how he has pushed him hard in practice and embraced him off the floor. “He wants to get the most out of you,” Clingan said, “and he wants you to be on your A-game without being complacent.”

Hurley calls Clingan the “Jolly Green Giant,” appreciative of how he has endured and remained a positive spirit. “It’s just rare to see somebody that has dealt with what he has dealt with, the heartbreaking tragedy, and then has the personality that he has,” Hurley said. “He’s so vibrant, and he brings so much personality.”

THE SLOW BURN of development completely unfurled in the NCAA tournament, as Clingan blocked eight shots against Northwestern and emerged as the most dominant player on the floor against Illinois in the Elite Eight.

Clingan showed his mobility and defensive versatility by turning into a defensive buzz saw. He blocked five shots as the Illini went 0-for-19 on shots he contested. He scored the game’s first seven points and finished with 22 in 22 minutes. Illinois star Terrence Shannon Jr., another projected NBA lottery pick, became visibly hesitant, according to Hurley, after getting blocked at the rim so many times.

In the stands, Clingan said a crew of about 14 friends cheered him on. His father, Bill, family members and his longtime girlfriend and her family were flanked by friends and former coaches. Barrette and Chatman remained a unified coaching front, sitting next to each other in TD Garden.

His obsession with arriving early and insistence on staying home have both Clingan and UConn in rare territory. UConn is well-positioned to defend its title, potentially becoming the first program to do so since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Clingan and the Huskies meet Alabama on Saturday in Phoenix in the Final Four.

“Being born and raised from Connecticut, to put that jersey on and just to compete at the highest level … it’s special,” he said. “It’s a historic program that has achieved a lot of things, and so I’m just trying to be a part of it and just try to represent the state the right way.”

That patience will also pay off. Clingan’s recognition that he needed to stay projects to more than $20 million in guaranteed money — the contract difference between being pick No. 5 in this upcoming NBA draft as opposed to No. 20 last year.

But it has been priceless to have that journey unfold close to home, as a community and state have rallied around him. And Clingan knows his mother is happy with how it has all unfolded. Except, of course, his 57% free throw percentage.

“I know that she’s smiling down, I know she’s supporting me,” he said, before smiling himself. “And I know she’s definitely not happy with my free throws.”

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