Basketball star finds passion in art

Whatever happened
Matt Donahue?
  • Matt Donahue, who
    still holds records at Westbrook High and USM, gave everything he had
    to his own difficult choices.


Staff Writer

Matt Donahue of South Portland does what he wants to do. Nothing more. Nothing less. At Westbrook High School in the late 1960’s, he wanted to play basketball. Even When his parents, struggling to support their nine children, wondered if he might consider a summer job, he shook his head. His time to enjoy basketball would be very brief, he said. Soon he’d be out of school, maybe in Vietnam. “In a couple of years the fun will be over for me,” he told them. “Just let me have basketball. Just let me work as hard as I can at it for a couple of years,” he said. “And it paid off,” he says now. Donahue, a 5-foot-9 guard, graduated in 1970 as Westbrooks all-time leading scorer with 1,513 points and “no one has touched that since,” says Peter Curran, Westbrook’s athletic director.

His 620 points in 1968-69 made him “the first local schoolboy ever to reach the magic 500 mark,” according to newspaper accounts. He added 502 his senior year.

“Marvelous Matt,” as he was sometimes called, still owns Westbrook’s single-game scoring record – a 57-point game against Deering on Friday, Feb. 13, 1970. Westbrook won 105-49, but Donahue recalls very little about that game. He does remember the Blazes losing the 1969 state title to Caribou on a last-second, half-court shot. His teammates were devastated, he says, but “I realized it wasn’t the end of the world. “People used to ask me, ‘How did you ever take the pressure to go out and score a lot of points every night?'” Donahue says. “I think the reason I could do that was because I was doing it simply to have fun.” Donahue gives much of the credit for his success in basketball – and since – to his family. His father, John, ran a security service, while
his mother, Sara, coped with five sons and four daughters. “We had no money or anything, but it was great, it really was,” Donahue says. “It’s still great because we’re all real close and everything.” That closeness would mean much more to Donahue in the hard years to come. First, though, he enjoyed an outstanding career at the University of Southern Maine, where he is second on the all-time scoring
list with 1,975 points.

Matt Donahue
Matt Donahue, a basketball standout who made the shift from athlete to artist, is surrounded by his work last week at his South Portland studio. Donahue still owns several records from his playing days.
He still owns six records: most field goals in a game (18) and in a season (287); best scoring average in a season (27) and in a career (24.4); most free throws in a career (381) and he is both first and second on the list of most points in a single season, 708 for ’70-71 and 622 for ’72-73.
Donahue set those records despite playing in only 81 games because of academic difficulties. He left USM just six credits short of a degree because he had another passion, one even stronger than his love for basketball.
“My plan was to paint,” he says. “College at that point was interfering with it really. I don’t think that I really deserved to graduate.” Becoming an artist was an easy decision, but a very hard life. Friends and relatives gave him shelter – for a while he slept in a cellar next to an oil tank – and often found him jobs, but then despaired when he couldn’t hold them. “If I could have done it, then I would have,” Donahue says. “I’ve always had an amazing amount of respect for people who could work. Because I couldn’t.”Painting, it seemed, was the only thing that drove him, he says. His situation worsened when his mother died in 1974, leaving him in “that little spaced-out, lost world where people go when they lose somebody like that,” he says. “She was actually about the only one who really understood completely me wanting to paint and not caring about anything else,” Donahue says.
If he’d had any money, he says, he might have spent it all on psychiatrists. Since he had none, he dealt with his pain alone or with help from family and friends. Yet he kept trying. For 10 years he never sold a painting. But he never lost faith in himself. Eventually, he began to find an audience for his work. Now he supports his family – his wife Patricia Brydon and children Joey, 12, Eddie, 11, and Sara, 9 – by selling his paintings. Donahue, 43, has no regrets about the hard years, but it does make him laugh when his friends – some of whom have toiled at the
same jobs for 20 years – tell him how smart he was to choose the life he did. They envy his time with his wife and kids; his creative life; and his ability to set his own pace. “I try to tell them it wasn’t a matter of being smart,” he says with a laugh, “It was kind of a matter of being stupid because I really couldn’t do anything else.”

–From the Portland Press Herald, January 9, 1995.