Dontay Bassett felt prepared to step into a new opportunity at Weber State after three seasons of limited playing time at the University of Florida.
With only seven years of basketball under his belt, the senior big man felt he now had the right mix of a moment, a coaching staff and a team to start the basketball career he envisioned when entering college — so a knee injury just before the season came as a shock. This wasn’t supposed to be how his senior year started after being recruited to log lots of minutes and play a big role for the Wildcats.
But Bassett leaned on WSU’s support staff and his burgeoning faith, and he’s become a cog in a Weber State machine that often, not always, fires on all cylinders — winners in eight of 10 games since Bassett became a starter, 11-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference after sweeping previous league leaders in Montana State.
Head coach Randy Rahe says Bassett is his most vocal leader on the court but it’s his affinity for work, which helped him get through his frustrating preseason camp, that might be even more impactful for the Wildcats.
“Everything I’ve wanted in my life I’ve had to fight for,” Bassett said. “You’ve got to fall in love with the process of getting better, that’s what I’ve told my guys.”
Bassett is 6-foot-9, 245 pounds. He’s shooting 43% from deep and 90% from the free-throw line while averaging 16 points and 2.3 blocks per outing in the last three games.
And he didn’t play basketball until the 10th grade.
He lived in Mississippi with his mom and siblings and was “heading down the wrong path,” he says. His parents decided he should move back to Oakland, California, to live with his dad.
In the first week of school, San Lorenzo High School basketball coach Brandon Parks encouraged Bassett to try out. Bassett worked with Parks and Oakland Rebels coach Raymond Young, the latter the same who was Damian Lillard’s AAU coach. He caught BART, the Bay Area’s rail transit system, to any available gym to work out.
“Because I was terrible,” Bassett said. “I always played hard and hustled but I had no feel for the game. I was just very raw.”
After a year at San Lorenzo, he decided to move by himself to Florida and enroll at Oldsmar Christian where he said he turned his life around, and Oldsmar’s relative prominence earned him big-time scholarship looks.
SUMMER OF CHANGES
Bassett checked into every game as a sophomore at Florida, playing 11.3 minutes off the bench. But an injury and a new roster makeup meant he only played 6.8 minutes per outing in 17 games as a junior.
He entered the transfer portal, built a relationship with Rahe and committed to Weber State on April 7, just less than a month after everyone’s 2019-20 season ended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Two months later, he and his girlfriend packed everything into a van and drove across the country with their two dogs — a dachshund/beagle mix named Honey, and a labrador/pitbull mix named Levi — and made their way to an apartment in the Ogden area.
During that process, Bassett officially converted to Islam. With a moderately religious upbringing and as a holder of a degree in African-American studies, Bassett’s interest piqued when reading about Malcolm X’s departure from the American group Nation of Islam, and his hajj to Mecca where he discovered “the true religion of Islam,” as Bassett put it — Malcolm X wrote that he saw “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans” interacting with each other like equals.
“I started falling in love with it. I felt this inner peace when I started learning about it and felt it was the best thing for me to do,” Bassett said. “Islam is a beautiful religion and I really didn’t know that until I started researching it and reading the Quran.
“I love the values that Islam brings upon me. Anything that makes me a better person, a better human being, that’s what I want. It was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I’m still learning the history and everything but ... it brings me peace.”
Bassett tries to keep himself in books “that can make me a better person or enlighten me about the past or present,” he says. Currently, that’s the esteemed 1953 novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin, and the 2020 Barack Obama memoir “A Promised Land.”
He’s studying with the goal to be a mental health social worker — but not before he goes with basketball as far as it can take him.
Bassett brings a unique mental combination of seeing the long-haul picture while living day to day. He describes himself as someone who loves practice, loves to put in the work and enjoins his teammates in embracing the daily grind.
But when he describes his own play, which becomes more impactful by the game, and the upward trajectory of his Weber State team, he takes a big-picture view.
“This is a foundation. We’ve had a little success but we can’t let it get to our head. We have to keep building on this,” he said after sweeping Montana State. “We can’t get too ahead of ourselves and worry about the scoreboard. We have to leave it on the floor every night.”
Working through a preseason speed bump helped cement those two outlooks together.
Bassett was running on a treadmill at his apartment complex when his knee felt weird. The next time he got on the court, he made a cut or some kind of basketball move, felt something wrong in his knee and couldn’t continue practicing. With a tendency to play through injuries, he decided doctors should look at his knee just in case.
It revealed a small tear in his meniscus. Doctors recommended a scope to clean up his knee and help it heal, which meant Bassett would miss the start of the 2020-21 season.
“I feel like that just made me work harder to prepare for the season. It kind of got my mind back into the mentality that this game can be taken away from you at any moment, so it made me put in the work more. It was kind of like a blessing in disguise,” he said.
He missed WSU’s first two games before getting on the floor Dec. 13 at Boise State, a game in which he was noticeably slow on defense, shot 0 of 3 from the field and grabbed one rebound in 12 minutes — an experience he described as “real awkward.”
He started 10 days later, key to an effort against a big BYU lineup that produced a result better than most the West Coast Conference can muster against the Cougars. Bassett has started every game since, in which WSU has won eight of its last nine, and his presence is energizing to his teammates.
By no means does he feel he’s arrived. It’s part of his longterm outlook as a young player, basketball-wise, who is finally getting the opportunity to showcase his talent and grow into something more. And, it’s why he’s already decided to use the free eligibility from this pandemic-impacted season to return to Weber State next season.
“It’s all a process. Nothing happens overnight,” Bassett said. “It’s continuing day in, day out to put the work into your craft and I feel like if I keep doing that, take it one day at a time, I feel like my game can get to the next level.
“I want to have a good resume of winning at a high level to make the next step, wherever that is, to be in the best position I can,” he continued. “If I really just lock in and put in the work, my game can really evolve and open up looks for after college.”
As Weber State prepares for a two-game road series at Montana, Bassett says recent success has reassured what he thought about his team entering the season: a multifaceted roster that can find different ways to win in different situations — “playing at Weber is everything I thought it would be and more,” he said.
But he repeated the same caution he shared last week.
“We can’t get too ahead of ourselves and worry about this game or that game, this record or that record,” he said. “I know it can get away from you quick, so you have to take it one game at a time.”