ATLANTA — ATLANTA - Mother knows best.
Four years ago, Donta Bright was the best player on the best high school basketball team in the land, but academics didn't come as easily. He wanted to go from Dunbar High to a junior college, but Patricia Bright told her son to sit out a season at a Division I school.
Four months ago, at the beginning of his final season at Massachusetts, Bright again turned to his mother for counsel. He was distracted, looking ahead to his chances in the NBA. She told him to focus instead on the task at hand: Taking UMass back to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Again, he heeded her advice. Junior center Marcus Camby is going to be the consensus National Player of the Year, but without Bright, he wouldn't be part of the most prolific single-season scoring combination in UMass history, and the Minutemen wouldn't be ranked No. 1 in the nation and be four wins away from a national championship.
"At the beginning of the season, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself," Bright said. "I wanted to have the opportunity to give my mother some security. We played an exhibition game, and I wasn't doing anything right. I talked to my coaches, about how I wanted to do some things for my mother, and they told me to give her a call.
"She said that if I made it to the NBA, that would be great, but that she wasn't worrying about it. She said that as long as I was in school and advancing toward a degree, she was happy."
His mother said: "I could tell Donta was depressed when he called. He was worried about me, about his sister, about his kids [three daughters]. I just told him to stop worrying, and to take care of what you can."
Unencumbered with thoughts of the future, Bright took care of the present and, lo and behold, became a better basketball player.
"The thing is, I started doing extra stuff after I talked to my mom," Bright said. "I started shooting extra foul shots, jogging after practice, doing some extra lifting and a lot of shooting. After a while, I saw some gradual improvement, and since then, I've been playing good basketball."
Bright, a 6-foot-6 forward, smiled at the understatement.
A first-team Atlantic 10 Conference all-star, Bright takes averages of 14.6 points and 5.6 rebounds into tomorrow's third-round East Regional game against Arkansas at the Georgia Dome. Camby has 613 points for the season and Bright 495, and their total of 1,108 is the most by two players in UMass history.
Would it have been impossible without his mother's advice?
"Earlier in the year, Donta was all uptight," UMass coach John Calipari said. "He was telling himself, 'NBA, I've got to make it, I've got to make it.' Patricia Bright has been fabulous about always telling him the right things, and what he heard from his mom was exactly what he needed to hear. Because of that, he's had a great year."
The talks with his mother didn't mark the first times Bright found himself at a crossroads. One of the reasons for their closeness is that his parents broke up when he was 10. Bright's basketball career took off at the Oliver Rec Center, but even though he made the Dunbar varsity as a freshman, his attitude wasn't the best. "It was never a real problem, but Donta tested me," said Pete Pompey, the coach when Dunbar was a national champion behind Bright, his first cousin Keith Booth and Michael Lloyd. "It was silly things, boyish things. You blow the whistle and tell the kids to hold the ball, and Donta's got to take another bounce.
"He was rebelling against a lot of things that were going on. He came from a house with no dad, and his mom worked very hard to hold on. We had so many talks about goals. He understood where he wanted to go; he just didn't know how to go about doing it."
Said Bright: "They say Aries are hard-headed. Seriously, that was me just growing up. I didn't think anyone could tell me anything, but I learned otherwise. Coach Pompey was the father I didn't have for about six or seven years."
A savvy, fearless center who outplayed guys a head taller, including Rasheed Wallace and Serge Zwikker, Bright was The Sun's Player of the Year in 1990 and '92. The game was a perfect refuge from an imperfect world, and he was reluctant to sit out a year when he failed to meet the NCAA standards for freshman eligibility.
"Not many things intimidated Donta, but the SAT process did," Pompey said. "He took it one time, and he wasn't close. He really took that hard. He's Player of the Year on one page, and on the next page it's huge news that he didn't qualify. That whole experience motivated Donta."
His mother's mandate that he sit out a year at a four-year school proved fortuitous, especially when Bright compares his college career to that of Lloyd, whose eligibility at Syracuse unraveled because of questions about his junior college transcript.
Bright is on course to get a degree in education this year. The grades of Umass basketball players were published by the Boston Globe in December 1994. Bright was one of four players reported to be on probation, but he just happened to make the honor roll that semester with a 3.0 grade point average.
Bright has also had to extend himself on the court. For the most part, he played with his back to the basket in high school, but fit right in as a starting forward two seasons ago, the same year the Minutemen added Camby. Bright was the sixth man last season, but without Lou Roe, the A-10 Player of the Year in 1994-95, Bright had to score more this season.
Spurred by a Kentucky publication that labeled UMass a one-man team, Bright had 17 points in a season-opening win over the Wildcats. He had 14 points and 10 rebounds against Maryland. When Camby collapsed and missed four games in January, Bright picked up the slack and worked on a free-throw streak that would stop at 40, the A-10 record. He is playing with a bruised index finger on his shooting hand, but his foul-line jumper helped the Minutemen beat Stanford to return to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
Does the motto, Refuse to Lose, begin with Bright? His combined record as a senior at Dunbar and UMass is 62-1, and he can duplicate the national double of another Dunbar grad, Reggie Williams, whose team won the mythical national high school title in 1983 and the NCAA the following year with Georgetown.
Williams is among the many players Dunbar has sent to the NBA. Bright has an outside shot at being drafted, but right now, he doesn't worry about joining those players.
His mother told him not to.
Pub Date: 3/20/96