SOUTH PORTLAND — Four or five times a week, Matt Donahue will put down his paint brushes and leave the easel in his home studio. He’ll walk across the street to the gym at the Community Center and pick up a basketball.
With graying hair that curls past his ears and a full gray beard, he looks his 62 years. Until he dribbles the ball and shoots.
Again and again and again his shots barely ripple the net. Strangers can’t help but stare and ask:
Who is this guy?
A self-described gym rat, which only partially tells his story. On February 13, 1970, Donahue scored 57 points for Westbrook High in a big win over Deering. The 3-point shot wasn’t an option then. He scored 1,513 points in his high school career, a school record at the time. He set more scoring records at the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham (now the University of Southern Maine) while America was preoccupied with the Vietnam War.
Donahue is heading into the new Maine Basketball Hall of Fame next month, one of 22 men and women in the inaugural class. He doesn’t like to talk about that. Tell him you know and he’ll grimace slightly.
“Why me? It was the luck of the draw, I guess.”
On Thursday evening, the Community Center will host an open house in his honor. Donahue didn’t like the sound of that, either, even if it meant attention from those he knew best.
“We’ll keep it low key,” said Bill Cary, South Portland’s recreation superintendent and a friend. “We’ll show some of your paintings.”
Donahue reluctantly said yes. In a world of self-promotion, Donahue is fresh air. His passion is and always was art. Basketball was what he did for fun.
“Once kids got to know who I was, they started asking me what drills I did in practice. Drills? I don’t think so. I never did drills. I just liked to play.”
He liked to score. “My motto was, in bounds, in range.”
He laughed. He enjoys poking at a reputation established so long ago.
He was 17 when the late Eddie Griffin invited him to play on his men’s basketball team in a tournament at the Portland Expo. Griffin owned the legendary Griffin Club bar in South Portland and sponsored all manner of youth and adult sports teams.
Griffin befriended Boston Celtics players and lured them to Portland with promises of good basketball and all the lobster they could eat, all the beer they wanted to drink and a place to sleep above his bar afterward.
On this weekend in 1969, Jo Jo White, Wayne Embry and Hank Finkel took the offer. Finkel, a 7-footer, was added to the Griffin Club team. White and Embry played for their opponents. Donahue remembers the instructions Griffin gave Finkel: Just set picks for this kid and we’ll be all set.
Donahue scored 19 in the first half. Early in the second half he stripped the ball from White, who played on two Celtics championship teams and whose No. 10 was later retired.
“Jo Jo was just having fun in the first half, enjoying playing the game,” said Donahue.
“After I stripped the ball from him everything changed. I looked around for Finkel. He wasn’t going to set any more picks for me so the Celtics could lose. Jo Jo started to play some serious basketball.”
Cary has a black-and-white photo from that game in his office at the Community Center. A slender Donahue with a mop of hair is driving on Embry with Finkel setting a pick on White. It’s an image from another era when NBA players enjoyed finding an out-of-town basketball game to play.
Late Friday afternoon, Jack Fiorini was shooting baskets alone in the gym.
He’s a South Portland High junior who remembers first meeting Donahue in the gym five or six years ago.
First impression? Donahue was a crazy old guy, Fiorini says with affection. “He always wanted to shoot with us, show us the fundamentals. It became pretty obvious he could play basketball.”
Keegan Hyland, the South Portland star who returns to Bentley College next month for two more seasons of basketball, had a similar take on Donahue when they first met nearly 10 years ago.
“I always knew there was an older man in the gym, kinda watching out for everything. Me and a bunch of buddies were playing one day and one had to leave. Matt said, let me play.”
Hyland’s friends looked at each other. Would this old guy slow them down? OK, they said.
“(Donahue) stripped me every time I had the ball,” said Hyland. “I looked at him. Who are you?”
A gym rat, Donahue probably answered. Friday he explained: “I wasn’t going to outjump Keegan. There are other ways to stop someone from scoring.” His grin appeared through his beard.
Over time, Hyland would ask Donahue for advice. Hyland had dreams of playing NCAA Division I basketball.
“What did I know,” said Donahue. “I played at USM. After I was done, I said to myself, this basketball stuff is over finally. Now I can be the starving artist.
“My advice to Keegan back then? Start praying.”
Decades separate the two men but they’ve become good friends. Their talks went beyond basketball. Donahue has that impact on people. He asks for little and wants to share everything.
“My favorite memory growing up was my mother telling my older brothers when they left the house to play basketball somewhere: take him with you.”
Donahue will enter the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame with men and women he idolizes. He turns 63 in September.
He’s been married for over 30 years. His children are chasing their passions, be it spirituality, art, or music. Donahue fills the walls of his home with his paintings. He sells a fair number.
“I don’t paint for the money,” he says.
He didn’t play basketball for the attention, either.