ALBANY, N.Y. — Like a lot of boys, Donovan Clingan competed in many activities while growing up in Bristol, Conn.: baseball, basketball, fishing and soccer.
But when his mother, Stacey Porrini Clingan, died of breast cancer in March 2018 at age 42, Donovan, then 14, decided to channel his pain, passion and prodigious frame into basketball in her honor. A 6-foot-4 center, Porrini Clingan had starred at Bristol Central High School before attending the University of Maine, where she helped the Black Bears make three straight N.C.A.A. tournaments beginning in 1995.
“I really didn’t take basketball seriously when she was here, I just played it for fun,” Donovan Clingan, now a 7-foot-2, 265-pound, 19-year-old freshman center at UConn, said in the locker room after the Huskies beat St. Mary’s on Sunday to advance to Thursday’s West regional semifinal against Arkansas in Las Vegas.
“When she passed, I wanted a reason to make her proud and I wanted to be successful in some way,” he said. “So basketball it was.”
Porrini Clingan never got to see her son play basketball at her alma mater. But last season, he averaged 30.3 points, 18.4 rebounds and 6.2 blocks per game for an undefeated state championship team while helping to put Bristol Central back on the map. He was a two-time Connecticut player of the year.
He now plays a crucial and dynamic role off the bench for the Huskies (27-8), who are seeking their fifth national championship since 1999 and their first under their fifth-year coach, Dan Hurley. Clingan is averaging 7.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while overpowering opponents with rim-rattling dunks on offense and altering and blocking shots on defense. In Connecticut’s first-round win over Iona, Clingan had 12 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 13 minutes. In the win over St. Mary’s, he had 4 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists in 12 minutes.
“I just love it,” he said after the St. Mary’s game.
P.J. Carlesimo, the former N.B.A. coach and current television analyst, said Clingan would be an N.B.A. draft pick whenever he decided to turn professional, possibly after his sophomore season.
“He changes the game every time he comes into the game,” said Carlesimo, adding that he expected Clingan to be “an impact pro.”
Porrini Clingan’s death left Clingan and his younger sister, Olivia, 17, without a mother, and their father, Bill, a single parent. Bill Clingan, a 6-6 bear of a man with an infectious smile, shouldered the responsibility of raising two children and balancing his son’s emerging basketball career with his own hectic work schedule as an operations supervisor at an electric company.
Bill Clingan said he and his son had to balance summer A.A.U. basketball with recruiting trips, school and work, as well as taking care of Olivia, who didn’t travel with them.
“He’s a mom and a dad for both of those kids, and does a terrific job with it,” said Tom Moore, a UConn assistant coach, who began recruiting Donovan Clingan when he was a freshman in high school.
When Donovan was born, he weighed 12 pounds and measured 25 inches from head to toe.
“He was basically a toddler,” his father said.
Bill Clingan said he and his wife noted that their son would grow in fits and starts, getting pudgy just before a growth spurt.
“He would gain some weight and then, all of a sudden, he would go up three inches,” he said.
Donovan Clingan was 6-8 by his freshman year of high school, and as he grew taller and taller, his height prompted the usual ribbing from his classmates.
“How tall are you? How’s the weather up there?” they would ask.
When his recruitment began to heat up in the summer of 2021, his father took vacation days so he could take his son on official visits to Michigan, Ohio State, Syracuse and, eventually, UConn. Moore began recruiting Clingan during his freshman season, and Hurley soon followed.
The coaches had never seen anyone “that big who ran that well, passed that well and with shooting touch and hands,” Moore said. “I remember Dan saying he was like a unicorn.”
The Next Big Leap
With his son now an integral part of UConn’s run, Bill Clingan, 53, has requested additional vacation time. He took a train for the first time in his life to go to New York for the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“I’ve always watched it on TV and now to be totally invested in it with your son and your whole family, it’s incredible,” he said.
Clingan figures to have an even bigger role at UConn next season if the team’s junior big man, Adama Sanogo — who has racked up a combined 52 points and 21 rebounds in his last two games — turns pro. Clingan hopes to showcase his skills more next year to N.B.A. scouts by stepping out and shooting from distance, the way pro 7-footers do.
As for a decision on when his son might turn pro, Bill Clingan said the most important factor was his maturity.
“I get nervous about that much attention and money for an 18-, 19-year-old,” he said. “And as a father, I’ve got to set him up for success because I want to make sure that he’s mature enough to handle not only the money, but just the pressure and everything that he’s going to be under.”
Bill Clingan says he plans to move to be with his son when he does turn pro, and that he hopes it’s someplace warm.
By then, Donovan will be able to give back to his father for all he has done for him.
“I can’t imagine how hard it is for him,” he said of his father, “but he’s handled it very well.
“And one day,” he added, “hopefully, I’ll be able to pay him back with something nice.”