Florida’s 2019-20 men’s basketball team is stacked with talent at every position. Gifted, high-flying playmakers who make the game look effortless at times.
Not every player gets to this brand of basketball based on talent alone, though. Some have to scrap and claw their way to the top.
That’s what UF veteran big man Dontay Bassett has done ever since he stepped foot in a gymnasium.
“I used to tell him growing up, ‘Are you the lion or the deer?’” Donald Bassett, Dontay’s father, said. “‘Which one do you want to be?’”
“I’m a lion, dad.”
Dontay had to be a lion. He had no choice.
Growing up in a family with young parents and four siblings in the Bay Area of California wasn’t always easy. Living in three different states and moving four separate times before the age of 18 was challenging, too. But that will and determination he had growing up turned a kid who didn’t start playing competitive basketball until high school into a high-class talent, garnering offers from Division I schools two years later.
At Florida, adversity has followed in the form of injury and time off the court, but he never once thought of dodging tribulations for better opportunities elsewhere, like many players do in this era.
Now, Dontay, a redshirt junior, finds himself in a leadership role, among a team flooded with freshmen and sophomores.
“I feel like I put myself and my family in a good position (coming to Florida),” Dontay said. “To become the first person in my family to graduate college was my main goal, and once I set a hard goal for myself, I make sure to follow through with it.”
Basketball has always been fun for Dontay, but growing up that’s really all he viewed it as.
“I used to always play with my dad and brother at the park and in P.E. at school… nothing too serious,” he said. “My 10th grade year was my first time being on a legitimate team. That’s when my love for basketball really grew.”
Donald was surprised Dontay decided to play competitively.
“We’d always play at the park, and he was good in school, but he started (playing competitively) so late,” he said. “He’d always throw on his Vans and go to the skate park growing up. Basketball was just something fun we’d do on the weekends, but I guess after a while, he just gravitated to it.”
Dontay started playing at San Lorenzo High School the summer before his sophomore year and later earned an opportunity playing AAU ball with the Oakland Rebels and coach Raymond Young.
A talented yet inexperienced player, Dontay came to him by chance early in his career and made the most of the opportunity.
“One of my coaches brought him to a practice, and I immediately thought he could help us,” Young said. “He just really rebounded the hell out of the ball.”
Young always considered himself to be a close mentor to Dontay.
“He’s like a son to me,” Young said. “We’ve always had a good relationship to where we can talk about stuff not related to basketball.”
As their bond grew, so did Dontay’s skillset on the court.
While he played for the Rebels, Dontay’s prowess on the defensive side of the ball was formidable.
“He was a competitor, and more than anything, he wanted the program to succeed,” Young said.
Dontay’s game continued to improve as his AAU career went on. He was known as that prototypical “glue guy” that kept the team together when it mattered the most.
At one point during the season, Dontay was having a breakout game — as Young described it — but an injury kept him off the court for the rest of the tournament. That’s when he knew how vital Dontay really was.
“I don’t know if we were the same after we lost him,” he said. “At that point, I realized just how valuable he was to our team.”
As Dontay grew as a player, so did his opportunities.
Before his junior year, Dontay’s AAU play drew attention from prestigious high schools.
Oldsmar Christian, a small private school near Tampa, was a powerhouse built by a young head coach in Jordan Fair.
Fair played at Oldsmar in the late 2000s and brought a struggling program back to relevance with an influx of Division I talent, including Dontay.
“I’d say I grew the most in high school at Oldsmar,” Dontay said. “I was playing against top-tier talent night in and night out. A lot of those guys are playing at the highest level of Division I or are in the NBA right now.”
Some of those players included Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner, Kansas center Udoka Azubuike and former Michigan State standout Miles Bridges.
“I remember one time in the SIAA Final Four, Dontay got a bounce pass inside and dunked it over Udoka (Azubuike) really hard,” Fair said. “That dunk kind of sealed the game up for us at the end.”
Playing stout competition during his final two years of high school allowed him to go from a mostly unknown player to a three-star prospect with multiple Division I offers.
“He really refined his skillset, learned the game and became a cerebral player while he played for me,” Fair said. “Dontay lined up with some of the best players in the world, let alone the country, and that certainly seasoned him and prepared him for the next level.”
In the two years he was at Oldsmar, Dontay was a part of two state-ranked top-10 teams that finished SIAA state runner-ups in back-to-back years.
His senior year, he averaged a double-double, scoring 13 points and collecting 10 rebounds per game.
“We were the first team in Tampa history to be ranked top 10 two years in a row,” Fair said. “Dontay was a big part of that.”
Despite Dontay’s late start, his progression while at Oldsmar helped some notable Division I programs take notice of him.
His list was narrowed down to Nebraska, Oregon State, Arkansas, Colorado and Florida, with the Buffaloes and Gators being the two that he wavered between the most.
“I was looking for a coaching staff that could understand me as a person and a player… Looking at the energy from the team, as well as the culture of the program,” Dontay said. “What place kind of felt like home most. So I chose Florida, and I feel like it was a great decision.”
Dontay chose sunshine over snow, and although some of the people close to him might’ve hoped he’d head back to the west coast, UF was a place that was tough to turn down.
“Initially, I was edging him towards going to Colorado,” Donald said. “I told him Colorado’s nice, and you might get a lot of playing time ... But ultimately it was his choice to go to Florida, and I think it was the best decision for him.”
Dontay made the commitment to the Gators in October of 2015 — along with fellow Oldsmar teammate Eric Hester and Australia native Gorjok Gak — to round out UF’s 2016 recruiting class.
Hester is now at Akron, but Gak has stayed true to his commitment to the program, just like his freshman roommate.
“We’ve had a great relationship since we first came here,” Gak said. “It’s been great to see (Dontay) grow as much as he has since we’ve been at UF.”
Dontay and Gak both played in the same league, so the familiarity with each other was there, but their decision to come to Florida wasn’t conjoined.
Gak had been recruited by the Gators, but a coaching change at Oklahoma State caused him to make the flip late in the recruiting process.
That allowed for past high school rivals to become future college teammates.
“At first, I didn’t think much of it, honestly,” Dontay said. “But we’ve formed a great bond since getting on campus, especially being a part of (UF) coach (Mike) White’s first recruiting class.”
Dontay found out quickly that the grind of high school basketball is nothing compared to what college puts you through.
“The attention you get from college basketball really shocked me at first,” Dontay said. “Oldsmar was really small. We only had around 350 kids, kindergarten through 12th grade, so having random people come up to me and say, ‘Hey,’ because I’m on the basketball team was surprising.”
Despite high hopes of contributing to the UF team early, fate had other plans.
A fractured foot sidelined Dontay for his entire freshman season.
“The injury really helped me reflect on myself. I grew so much as a person that year being away from basketball and not being able to work out and travel with my teammates.”
The extra time helped Dontay continue to be a student of the game. Being fastened to the bench allowed him to consume some of the information taking place that he wouldn’t have necessarily learned while on the court.
“My basketball IQ really rose, because I was able to watch, pick up on things, and see how the college game worked,” Dontay said. “The next year, I was realizing plays and actions taking place that I wouldn’t have the year before if I wasn’t on the sidelines.”
During his Florida career, Dontay has stepped up in big ways when UF was struggling with frontcourt depth due to injury.
“I had a big game against Auburn my redshirt freshman season,” Dontay said. “It was my first start ... I feel like that was my best game as a Florida Gator.”
Dontay scored 12 points and brought down six rebounds to help lead his team to a victory that solidified its NCAA Tournament berth in 2018.
For most of Dontay’s time at Florida, he has been a plug-and-play guy off the bench for the Gators. At times, fighting through injuries and limited playing time (averaging 9.6 minutes per game over 64 career appearances). Despite this, he has stayed committed in a period when many players in his position leave.
“Even when things weren’t going as well as they could, I told myself to just stick to what I know, which is to work hard,” Dontay said. “Leaving never really crossed my mind, because I started here, and I know what I can do.”
That mindset, paired with his work ethic, are big reasons why Dontay’s climbed to the point he’s at today.
And now, in his fourth year at UF, Dontay has fit into a role that’s necessary with the amount of youth around him this season.
“I learned a lot from Kevarrius (Hayes) and Jalen Hudson when they were here,” Dontay said. “They taught me how to be verbal in a positive way, especially when tensions were high. I just try to tell the young guys to take it game by game. and if you do everything the right way now, the outcome will take care of itself.”
Dontay’s rollercoaster of a journey to this point likely won’t end in Gainesville.
the resilience and willingness he possesses to accomplish his goals will likely take him wherever he wants to go.
“He’s a professional young man who handles himself accordingly and does the right things,” Fair said. “I think with the right opportunity, Dontay will be a great pro.”
Follow Evan Lepak on Twitter @evanmplepak. Contact him at [email protected]