Pictured: Donte Pope shakes hands with coach Rick Privott on Senior Night at Middletown High. The Blue Dragons beat Platt 73-47 in what turned out to be Pope’s final game in front of a home crowd.
Note: We’d like to tell the stories of senior student-athletes whose seasons ended suddenly before the coronavirus became a national emergency. Today, we spotlight Middletown High’s Donte Pope. If you know of a story worth telling, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Paul Augeri
The weight of disbelief that senior forward Donte Pope and his Middletown High basketball teammates first felt last Tuesday has begun to wear off.
That morning, Connecticut’s governing body for high school athletics canceled the remainder of the boys and girls basketball and ice hockey tournaments, as well as the championship swim meets still to come. That evening, Pope and the Blue Dragons were scheduled to play a first-round home game against Wethersfield in the Division II tournament.
Instead, players got together for a hastily called team meeting with coach Rick Privott after the school day had ended. The CIAC’s decision meant that Pope’s high school career would end without him ever enjoying the thrill of playing in the state tournament.
“It was definitely a hard day,” he recalled. “We have a basketball group chat and the moment I heard the news, we thought it was funny, a joke. Then it was just disbelief. I was speechless. I was still thinking maybe they’re just saying it was canceled for now and that the tournament would be back.”
When the team met with Privott, Pope said he remembered his coach did nearly all of the talking.
“It was crickets. I didn’t know what to say,” Pope said. “It was definitely an emotional room. We brought it in one more time, and that was pretty much that.”
Ever since, our way of life has been upended by the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Middletown and all other schools are now closed for the foreseeable future. The CIAC will meet on Wednesday to potentially announce the fate of the spring sports season.
Pope wants to play ball in college, but the recruiting process is in limbo, too. He has passed some of the down time on the courts at the Pat Kidney Sports Complex.
“It’s been one day at a time,” he said. “I am definitely starting to move on mentally and think about more stuff. I’m trying to figure out the next move. Everything is being canceled, like showcases and recruiting, and there’s nothing that I can do except just stay in the gym and prepare for whenever the next opportunity comes.”
The 6-foot-3 Pope was Middletown’s best player — if for only 31 games. He could shoot and finish around the rim. If he wasn’t scoring, he was setting up his teammates. His length made him an excellent defender.
Privott first saw his future senior captain play for Woodrow Wilson Middle School six years ago. The two-year wait for Pope to reach the MHS program ultimately became four when Pope enrolled at University High, a magnet school in Hartford. Pope was unknown to everyone there and had to prove himself from the first whistle.
“My freshman year I got onto the varsity roster seven games in, but the coach didn’t know much about me,” he said. “I was the sixth man. I don’t like to talk about myself, but I felt I carried the team.”
University had seven wins in 2016-17, one shy of qualifying for a state tournament berth. The following season, after a coaching change, the team won just four games. For a number of reasons, “it wasn’t really a good experience,” Pope said.
‘All I Wanted Was to Play for My Hometown’
Just days before the start of the 2018-19 school year, Pope said his parents decided he would enroll at Middletown High. To play immediately as a transfer, he would have to prove to the CIAC that hardship led to the decision to change schools.
“We didn’t think it would be an issue,” Pope said. “We sat in front of the CIAC staff, and then the day after, they denied us.” By rule, he had to sit out the first 10 games of his junior year.
“My family is built around Middletown,” said Pope, whose uncle, Wilbur Pope, was a three-time All-State player and star on the Middletown High Tigers’ state championship teams in 1968 and ’69. “All I wanted was to go to Middletown and play for my hometown, in front of these fans, in a Middletown atmosphere. It’s a thing I always wanted to be a part of.”
In his first game in a Middletown uniform, he scored 18 points in a double-overtime loss to Simsbury.
“Donte knew how to play basketball,” Privott said earlier this year. “He was one of those kids who came in and right away took over. He is easy to like and a quiet kid. He leads by example and works hard in practice. He’s a little more vocal now, but he basically leads with what he does on the court.”
With a 7-12 record, Middletown had to beat Berlin on the final night of the 2018-19 regular season to get into the state tournament. Again, for Pope, a moment of denial. The Redcoats sank a shot at the buzzer for a 62-60 victory.
Pope’s senior season was rewarding in almost every way.
On the final Friday in January at home, the Dragons defeated Berlin for their eighth win in 10 games, certifying that Pope would experience the state tournament (Middletown would go on to win 15 times).
Pope generated headlines with his game. He had a 32-point night against Bulkeley in January. In a February game at New Britain, he surpassed 1,000 points for his career (he finished his career with 1,129).
“The best part about that was everyone was waiting for it to happen and came out to the game for that,” he said.
Two games later, as the clock ticked down in Berlin, Pope’s turnaround jumper just before the buzzer beat the Redcoats 53-52.
“I feel Donte works for what he gets,” Privott said in February. “He doesn’t hoard the ball. He goes after the ball, he follows up a lot of shots – he was close to averaging double digits in rebounds as well – and he is a great finisher. He works to get what he gets.”
“Out of all the years I’ve played the game of basketball, I can truly say this was the most fun I’ve ever had playing the game,” Pope said. “Going through Woodrow, being able to grow up playing with my friends, having laughs with them, playing on the court with a smile. Coach Corey (Gordon Sr., a Privott assistant) would say, ‘You play better when you smile.’ I’ve never had somebody say that to me.
“What really hurts the most is I never had the opportunity to play in the state tournament.”
However, with the passage of a week’s time, Pope contemplates the good times he had playing with Mehki Toler and fellow seniors Jonathan Nkonoki, Kenny Fountain and Tyron Scharborough in particular.
“During games, in the locker room, on the bus, during practice, there are too many good moments I’ve had at Middletown to pick just one. There were no dull moments,” said Pope, who was voted onto the All-Central Connecticut Conference North Division Team along with Nkonoki. “We had some ups and downs, but at the end of the day we all still played with smiles. We just enjoyed each other. That’s the one thing we can definitely say looking back, we did what we could and it was a year to remember. we all just enjoyed playing with each other.”