State basketball legend Wingfield finds peace, purpose as hometown mentor, coach
Dontonio Wingfield, a McDonald’s All-American basketball player in 1993 from Albany’s Westover High, speaks to kids at Henderson Gym, where he grew up playing. Wingfield’s NBA career ended in 1998 when he suffered debilitating injuries in a car crash. For the past 11 years, he has run the Albany Hawks/Pivot mentoring and basketball program in his hometown.
In an old basketball gym in Albany, a local legend concedes that he still has an ego, but that’s not what motivates him to say what he says. He’s a mentor and a coach to some 40 kids at a place where he grew up playing ball.
And he likes to tell it like it is, something he didn’t get often enough at their age.
‘’ ‘You’re looking at the best basketball player ever to come out of Georgia,’ ‘’ he says. ‘’I’ve told them that. I mean as far as high school basketball. Is that what an ego is?’’
But he’s probably right.
Twenty-five years ago, Dontonio Wingfield ruled Georgia high school basketball as no player before, nor since. A 6-foot-9 forward with 3-point range from Westover High, Wingfield didn’t just start on four state-championship teams, something no other Georgia player can say. He was the headline act on each of them, even as a freshman.
Derek Pace was a teammate on three of those. He’s now Westover’s assistant head coach.
‘’Honestly, I haven’t seen any athlete that can compare to Dontonio to this day, and I’ve been around this game 20 years now,’’ Pace said. “I’ve coached against Derrick Favors in the [2009 Class AAA] finals. He was dominant for that level, but I couldn’t compare him to Dontonio Winfield. Even the Brown kid at Boston now [the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown from Wheeler]. I couldn’t even put him in the same category. Dontonio had the mid-range, the 3-pointer. He could literally play all five positions. He was an awesome talent.’’
Considered the equal to Rasheed Wallace or Jerry Stackhouse from the celebrated national class of 1993, Wingfield went on to play at Cincinnati under Bob Huggins. He scored 30 points in his debut against Butler, breaking a first-game school record held by Oscar Robertson, and was the Great Midwest Conference newcomer of the year. Wingfield declared for the NBA Draft, a one-and-done player before the phrase caught on.
Wingfield has told his kids those stories, too, at his Albany Hawks/Pivot mentoring program for underprivileged children.
‘’I tell them why I can teach them,’’ Wingfield said. “I show them my jersey. I show them videos. I bring cards. I stop practice and say I was a McDonald’s All-American. That’s what these kids need to see. Kids today will ask you why. You have to be able to earn their respect and trust. I tell them what I needed to hear at their age.’’
Wingfield’s basketball career ended in November, 1998, with a car crash on a wet road just outside of his hometown. Wingfield spent three months in a hospital with shattered ankles and a broken back. It took him a year to progress from cane to walker to his own power again, though still limping.
Life then got worse. For about 10 years, Wingfield would become reclusive. He endured depression, drug abuse, destitution, even prison time. In 1999, he pled guilty to assaulting two police officers who responded to a domestic dispute with his girlfriend. A Cincinnati newspaper, in reporting his sentencing, called Wingfield a ‘’lost soul.’’
In 2005, Wingfield was diagnosed with diabetes. In 2010, he lost his a leg below the knee to amputation and began wearing a prosthesis.
Wingfield tells the kids the bad times, too.
‘’There’s nothing tougher than losing your livelihood,’’ he said. “All my life I’d been dreaming of taking care of my family, and I no longer could. It took 10 years to even be able to step out and be around people. It was a long, long, long haul.’’
Outside of Albany’s Henderson Gym, Wingfield has maintained a relatively low-profile. He hasn’t given an interview in 10 years, or since shortly after he began the mentorship program that he hoped might give him a sense of purpose if not redemption to those he felt he’d let down.
A decade on, Wingfield is confident that it has. He wants to share his story. An Albany company, Tomlinson Marketing Group, is planning a documentary, and Wingfield is writing a book that he hopes to publish this year.
‘’I didn’t want to damage it by releasing anything [in previous years] that wasn’t whole-hearted,’’ Wingfield said. “Now, I know it’s time to share my story. I’ve helped a lot of kids who grew up the same way I did. It’s not even a basketball story for me. … I hope this comes across as a never-give-up story. There is always a purpose for your life.’’
Wingfield grew up on the south side of town in an iconic Albany apartment complex called Willow Wood. The apartments are still there with their two basketball courts. Many of the kids that Wingfield works with and coaches today are from those apartments and the impoverished areas around them.
In Wingfield’s time, Willow Wood was a playground for Division I basketball talent during the era when southwest Georgia, and Albany in particular, reigned supreme on the high school hardwoods. Westover’s toughest opponents during the Wingfield days were often cross-town rivals Albany, Dougherty and Monroe.
Wingfield’s older brother, Banastreus, was among the first to stand at Willow Wood. He went on to play at Auburn-Montgomery. Others who came up there were former Albany State head coach Chris Cameron, who played at Tulane; Lavor Postell, who played for St. John’s and the New York Knicks; and Antonio Smith of Louisiana Tech. Brothers Greg Tinch of Louisville and Reggie Tinch of Georgia lived across a big ditch in another neighborhood and were regular players there, too.
Wingfield’s parents separated when Wingfield was in the third grade. His mother, Gloria, then worked in the evenings to support the family. With his older brother off to college, Wingfield didn’t have many adult male role models.
‘’Once I got to high school and got some notoriety, I thought I was the man of the house,’’ Wingfield said. “My mom worked at night, so I could do as I pleased.’’
Wingfield fathered three children while in high school. He has nine children today and says he’s a part of all of their lives, though it’s taken years to build and heal those relationships.
Wingfield’s biggest regret in basketball was leaving Cincinnati early and not discussing his decision with Huggins. With questions about his maturity, Wingfield surprisingly fell to the second round to the Seattle SuperSonics. His four seasons in the NBA were underwhelming, but he was still young and improving when his career was wiped out.
Huggins has coached Kenyon Martin, Nick Van Excel and Danny Fortson, among others. "Dontonio was the most talented, by far," Huggins once said. "He did amazing things." Wingfield and Huggins remain in frequent contact today.
For some 15 years now, Wingfield has written things down to help him reflect and make sense of the wild ride that has been his life. He answers questions quickly and candidly today, evidence that he’s processed these the roads he’s traveled many times over.
On life at Willow Wood: ‘’It was an impoverished area, but we wouldn’t have known at that age. I didn’t know many friends who had two parents in the house. There were a lot of kids who were alike as far as home life.’’
On basketball in Albany: ‘’We played basketball every day. It was a neighborhood thing. It’s extremely hot in South Georgia. That didn’t matter to us. We’d meet around 5 o’clock every summer day. It would be grown people, young people. You lose, you’re off the court. You had to be tough out there.’’
On the talent around in the area: ‘’We always had guys in the neighborhood who had the skill level but weren’t disciplined enough to play organized basketball. Some of the best players didn’t have the grades or the motivation. They had other things on their mind.’’
On his father: ‘’All my life I’ve been compared to my dad. They say I look like him. I was a daddy’s boy. He never went to any of my basketball games, ever. He was caught up in his own thing. Not that he wasn’t supportive, but that’s just how he was. I can make myself a hermit too. I can stay from around people. I can understand that with the alcohol and the drugs, and time just passed by. Dad is in a nursing home, in wheelchair, both legs amputated. I love my dad. It’s just tough to go visit him. It’s like I’m looking at myself. That’s tough for me.’’
On his mother: ‘’I always wanted my mom to be proud of me, even now. She never missed a game. Our relationship is stronger than when I was younger and growing up through high school. Our relationship now is A-1, the best. That was part of the 10-year process, fixing my relationship with my mother.’’
On high school: ‘’I felt like I was going pro. I felt special. By the time I got to my junior year, all I could think about was going pro and taking care of my family to where high school ball was almost boring. I’d have to challenge myself. I had an older crew of people [friends]. I would get paid for certain things I would do on basketball court. Kids or hustlers in the city would pay me for dunks and things like that.’’
On college: “I loved Cincinnati and Huggins. I got better and stronger. I would read different things the basketball world would say about me, and they would say I was a raw talent. Once I got to Cincinnati, I helped me realize what raw meant. He got me stronger, and I felt I was ready for the NBA.’’
On turning pro: ‘’After we got put out of the tournament, Hugs went on a recruiting trip, and he was going to have a conversation with me when he got back. Within that day or two, I went ahead and signed with an agent for the money. I was naïve and ignorant. It was easy to throw money in my face at that time because I thought that was the ultimate goal, to take care of my family. … I should not have signed those papers without talking to Hugs. I signed behind his back and felt guilty about that because he was so disappointed.’’
On Cincinnati: ‘’I feel like the city of Cincinnati kind of turned on me. I thought they knew I was going to be one-and-done. Once I decided to go, it went from loving me to now I’m going at the money. I thought that was the purpose.’’ [Wingfield still roots for the Bearcats.]
On his career if he had not been injured: ‘’Oh man, I think I would’ve done at least 10 years, easily. I was getting better and better. I wasn’t an expensive player, making $600,000. I could easily get that. But I couldn’t just accept a check. I wanted to play bad.’’
On his temper as a younger man: ‘’I was not the kind of person who would walk away from conflict it was brought to me. I wouldn’t start something, but I would not let things go.’’
On basketball and purpose: ‘’After all is said and done, the most fun that I can remember playing basketball was when it was for free. There wasn’t any money, no politics involved. That’s something you realize after the fact. Now that I’m 43, I realize what a rush I was in to be grown. I wanted to make it to the pros. As I look back now, college could’ve been the most enjoyable years of my life if that was where my mind was, if I had somebody to make me understand that. It’s tough when you have no father. A father is a person who should steer you in that direction. It’s a mentor. That’s what made me want to do the mentoring and not just make it about basketball. I have a basketball program, but it’s not just about basketball. It’s a mentoring thing.’’
Wingfield’s children became his lifeline. They pulled him out of years of malaise.
Wingfield began coaching son Dequan at age 9. That was around 2004. Four years later, daughter Jay began playing. Wingfield coached their AAU teams, and that brought him to Henderson Gym, where he began his youth program.
Dequan Green, now 23, and Jay Williams, 21, both played four years of basketball at Westover and then some college ball. Wingfield’s youngest child, Donjuwan, 16, also has been part of Wingfield’ program. Donjuwan, a student at Douglass High in Atlanta, has stayed with Wingfield in the summers since age 7 and gone to Wingfield’s camps.
Wingfield wanted each of his nine children mentioned, and he bragged a little on them. “All my kids are athletic,’’ he said. ‘’If they didn’t hoop, they were cheerleaders or dancers.’’
The oldest are Ashley, 25, and Bre, 24. They grew up in Albany.
Three were raised in Cincinnati – D.J. Wingfield, 23, who played basketball at Ohio University; Donovan Wingfield, 19, a student and former volleyball player at Tuskegee University; and Autumn ‘’Butterfly’’ Mason, 22, whom Wingfield didn’t meet until 2009, when she was 13. Another daughter, London, 21, grew up in Texas and California. Wingfield met her when she was 7.
‘’But now we are close,’’ Wingfield said. ‘’I’m close with all my kids.’’
Wingfield thought on that some more.
‘’I had to fix things,’’ he said. “My kids didn’t know the full story because my presence was not in their lives. I had to ask them what they had heard about me, how do they feel? They didn’t have a clue about the accident. Those conversations were priceless. It took me 10 years to regain their trust. That was part of fixing me.’’
Wingfield related a recent text he got from Donovan, who studies music at Tuskegee. It said, ‘’I love you. I need to tell you that more.’’
‘’I asked her why,’’ Wingfield said. ‘’She texted, ‘You never gave up.’ ‘’
Five of Wingfield’s children and one nephew have been in his basketball program.
Westover coach Pace has a niece in the program.
‘’He runs a really good program,’’ Pace said. “The majority of his kids are those not been able to make their school rosters. A lot of them are troubled kids, not doing well in the classroom. He enjoys being around those kids, and they enjoy being around him. They’ve gotten better at sports, but they’re more well-mannered, too.’’
Said Wingfield, ‘’I know God gave me basketball talent, but he also gave me the ability to communicate with those kids who are like me, in my same demographic, Willow Wood kids. They’re dealing with some tough things. I understand that because I’m cut from the same cloth. I know I’m providing something for them for nothing in return, just to get them to focus and hang in there. …
‘’Just the way they look at me and respect me, I’ve had some good feelings, but there’s no feeling better than that.’’
In 1999, when Wingfield was sentenced to serve six months in prison, his old high school coach, Willie Boston, had something good to say about his most famous pupil in his darkest hour.
“People have been writing him off all his life,’’ Boston told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “And I've learned from being around Don never write him off. I think when it's all said and done we'll be able to look at Don and say he's a helluva man.”
Willie Boston never knew how this story played out. He died in 2006.
Wingfield never knew his old coach said that. Newspaper stories about him weren’t that good in those days, so Wingfield rarely read them.
Made aware of it nearly 20 years later, Wingfield got a little emotional.
‘’Damn, that is deep and very heart-felt,’’ Wingfield said, responding by e-mail.
Then he thought some more and added, “But true!!’’