John Donato’s relationship with Maine high school basketball dates back to his own interscholastic upbringing in Middleborough, Massachusetts, back in the 1960s.
“I remember going to the [Boston] Garden and watching Stearns and Morse playing,” he recalled, hearkening back to the 1963 New England tournament when Stearns of Millinocket defeated Morse of Bath to win that regional crown after Morse had outlasted Stearns in double overtime in that year’s Maine Class LL state final.
Fifty-six years later, both Donato and the two teams he watched battle in that 1963 New England final are set for induction into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame.
“When you start coaching way back, you don’t realize that you might put yourself in this situation,” said Donato, who was on hand at the Cross Insurance Center on Wednesday as this year’s list of inductees was revealed. “It’s quite an honor. A lot of bus trips, a lot of mileage, but I’ve had some great players and I’m honored to represent them as a coach.”
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Donato is one of 16 inductees who comprise the sixth class since the MBHOF was created in 2014. He’ll be joined by a variety of players and coaches whose careers are synonymous with memorable moments and eras in Maine basketball history.
This year’s class, which will be inducted during an Aug. 18 banquet at the Cross Center, also includes Jim Beattie, Jeff Bowers, Stephanie Carter-Thompson, John Conley, Matt Gaudet, Max Good, Gail Jackson, Doug Lisherness, Becky Moholland Ireland, Mark Reed, Scott Saft, Rick Simonds, Derek Vogel, Mari Warner and Linda Whitney.
Eight “Legends of the Game” who have impacted the basketball scene on a more local or regional level also will be recognized, with this year’s honorees consisting of Mike Bouchard, Bill Burney, Leigh Campbell, Hank Madore, John “Jeddy’ Newman, Jay Ramsdell, Dick Sturgeon and Al Halliday.
Also nominated by the hall’s 17-person selection committee are the 1963 Stearns and Morse high school basketball teams that fought for both statewide and New England supremacy.
“There’s a screening process and then the committee meets in December at Colby College,” said Tony Hamlin, chair of the hall’s board of directors and head of the selection committee. “There’s about 800 years of basketball knowledge in that room, and the basketball community is so small that we don’t miss too many names.
“It’s an informal, somewhat subjective structured process, if that makes any sense, and so far I think we’ve done a pretty good job of selecting those people who are worthy. There are still names out there that we know we have to attend to and we will over the next two or three years.”
Donato was a three-sport athlete at Middleborough High School and is a three-time inductee into that school’s athletic hall of fame.
He played basketball and baseball at the former Ricker College in Houlton, where he got his start in coaching, first in baseball and not long after that in basketball.
In his 42 years of coaching Maine girls varsity basketball, Donato has compiled a 557-244 record with 11 regional titles and five state championships.
Four of those state titles and nine of those regional crowns came during his 18 years at Houlton High School. Since then he has spent nine years at Messalonskee of Oakland, five years at Mount View of Thorndike, one year at Hall-Dale of Farmingdale, seven years at Lawrence of Fairfield and the last two seasons at Orono High School.
Donato guided Lawrence to the 2015 Class A state championship and a second straight North regional crown in 2016.
“I always wanted to coach,” he said. “I wanted to play basketball and baseball and I wanted to coach.
“I’ve had a lot of great players, and I just like to see the kids grow as individuals. That part of the process is really important to me.”