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Wingfield enduring another trial of life

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

I'll be livin' this life -- I know you feel me -- There's so much pain.

-- Tupac

I have this memory of Dontonio Wingfield that comes to mind every time his name is mentioned.

It was the finals of the AAA state basketball playoffs during Don's junior year, and this gifted athlete had done so many amazing things on the hardwood for Westover High School people around here had come to take for granted the things he did that no one else could do.

And since that game was being played in Wingfield's backyard, at the Albany Civic Center, the 10,000 or so people in attendance were relatively calm given the drama that was unfolding in front of them.

With time winding down in a back-and-forth game and Westover looking for some big spark to clinch what would be the third of four consecutive state titles, the Patriots got a steal and kicked into overdrive for one of their patented fast breaks. Fans in the Civic Center groaned when a short Westover jumper hit the back of the rim and popped high up into the air.

Suddenly, as if by magic, the gifted 6-foot-8 Wingfield streaked toward the basket from the left wing and leapt high into the air. His head was almost even with the rim when he caught the ball one-handed at the apex of its flight and then slammed it through the goal in one lightning-quick motion.

There was a moment of eerie silence in the Civic Center as 10,000 people tried to take in what they'd just witnessed. Then, bedlam.

Of course Westover won that championship and another the next year, cementing the school's -- and Wingfield's -- place in Georgia high school hoops history. Of all the great plays Westover's All-American made during his unparallelled career, that became his signature moment.

I thought about that play again Thursday as I drove to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital to visit Don. He'd called me a few days earlier and told me he was at Phoebe being treated for complications related to Type 2 diabetes. I wasn't overly concerned at first because Wingfield's still a young man, in his 30s, and he still has that magnificent athlete's body that God only bestows on a precious few individuals.

You can imagine, then, how stunned I was when Wingfield told me he was going home for a few days before returning to Phoebe to have his foot amputated.

"I found out I had Type 2 diabetes six years ago," Wingfield told me as he calmly looked through some paperwork. "I was taking classes at Albany State and one day I just passed out. That's when they diagnosed it.

"Of course, there were signs when I was younger, but I ignored them. There was fatigue and soreness, things that would hit me at certain times. But I felt like I could play through anything, so I did."

The last few weeks and months, Wingfield's body started sending more urgent messages, ones he couldn't ignore.

"The Hawks (an AAU youth basketball program that Wingfield runs to give youngsters a positive physical outlet and an alternative to running the streets) had just played in a big Memorial Day tournament, and when I got home I knew I had to do something," he said. "I was so tired of the pain."

The prognosis wasn't good. Infection, a complication of Wingfield's diabetes, had set in. Two painful surgeries weren't enough to assure all the infection had been removed, so Wingfield was left with what would be a life-altering decision.

Take a chance on the infection or remove his foot.

"It was hard to even think about at first," Wingfield said, and for the first time during our conversation I noted a hint of the uncertainty he no doubt wrestled with during his three-week stay at Phoebe. "I didn't know what to believe, but I didn't want to believe what the doctor was telling me.

"But I thought about it, talked with my family about it and prayed about it. And I came to the decision that the best thing for me -- the best way to get rid of the pain -- is amputation."

Tears came to my eyes, and words escaped me. THE PLAY again flashed in my mind, out of place in this setting but there nonetheless, and I felt the edges of an unbelievable sadness start to overwhelm me. But Don's next amazing words changed that.

"The doctor told me my foot was not going to heal, and that's the last thing I wanted to hear," he said. "But after a lot of praying, I felt amputation would be the thing to do. I wanted the pain to end."

I made a lame joke about his pending surgery slowing him down a step or two on his drive to the basket, and Don offered the tiniest of smiles. Then he told me something that made me realize how much he'd grown up since his tumultuous days at Westover and his subsequent basketball days in college and in the NBA.

"As soon as I get my prosthesis and get used to it, the first thing I'm going to do is talk to my kids (in the AAU program) about taking care of themselves," he said resolutely. "I'm going to talk to them about eating right and taking care of their bodies.

"No one talked to me about anything like that. I remember when I was coming up how I'd eat chocolate cake and wash it down with Pepsi, eat all kinds of snack cakes and junk food. I'm going to talk to the kids about good eating habits and learning about their bodies."

I thought of the controversy that had swirled around Wingfield most of his young life as the people around him marveled at his basketball skills and ignored the fact that he was still just a kid who had grown up hard in a broken home.

There was a brief period of silence in the hospital room as I tried to digest what this man, the greatest basketball player ever in a town whose kids are raised on the game, had told me. Then Wingfield said something that I'll remember even longer than I will his great athletic skills.

"Kids ... you know they need someone to answer their questions," he said. "I think I can do that. I know about trials; I've been through so much in my life. But you know what? Everything I've been through has made me stronger, and everything I've been through has brought me to this point in my life.

"And I wouldn't change a thing."

Somewhere, Wingfield's old coach and father figure Willie Boston was no doubt smiling.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.