Donda Academy basketball team helped by Mamba Academy after Kanye West backlash

Donda Academy basketball team helped by Mamba Academy after Kanye West backlash

An elite training facility best known as Kobe Bryant’s destination the night of the fateful helicopter crash in 2019 that killed him, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others is currently a safe space for a dismayed collection of top high school basketball players.

The Sports Academy — known as the Mamba Academy under Bryant’s ownership before his death — in Thousand Oaks serves as the classroom, weight room, basketball court for Donda Academy, a prep school whose future is in the balance because of the recent inflammatory antisemitic rants of its owner, Kanye West.

They have their share of support. A game against Atlanta’s The Skill Factory at Morehouse College on Nov. 6 is still on, supported by Boston Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown, who’s been an outspoken advocate for players on Twitter even after severing a business relationship with West’s Donda Sports marketing agency.

The team gathered Sunday for a Zoom call with Brown, Celtics teammate Blake Griffin and Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who’s made his own fair share of headlines lately after tweeting and then deleting a post linking an antisemitic film.

“[The NBA players] were just telling us that they were going to have our back, and they were going to help us through the process,” senior guard AJ Johnson said.

When Donda Academy was founded a year ago, it pulled together top talent across the country. The school enticed players with the opportunity to build their brand in the name, image and likeness (NIL) era under West’s massive image while developing their collegiate and pro potential, according to the father of a player who requested anonymity because he is worried his son would be retaliated against.

Now, though, players are forced to reckon with the possible imprint on their image — and potential opportunity vanishing — as they remain under West’s brand.

“At the end of the day, with the Donda Dove on our chest, we’re basically playing for Kanye,” Johnson said. “It’s his school. So having our names tied to him could lead to some things: NIL’s wouldn’t want to do any deals with us or people wouldn’t want to sign us, or anything like that.”

At least four national tournaments dropped Donda Academy last week amid rumors that the school was closing. In the wake of the fallout, two players transferred — one having difficulty finding a new home, according to a family member.

For those that remain, Monday provided a glimpse of a typical day — even while circumstances swirling around them were anything but typical, and the potential still looms of a mass exodus.

They arrived at the Sports Academy before 10 a.m., spent an hour in the weight room lifting and doing agility drills, tossing a medicine ball off the wall while lip-syncing and bopping their heads to Lil Baby. They then headed upstairs to the classroom for two hours or so of online study sessions. Next came lunch, then practice on one of the four courts on the ground floor.

“We don’t know if it’s a good choice to just stay [at Donda], or is it just good to find somewhere else where we can go,” said Johnson, perhaps the top player on the roster who has not committed to a college. “But for right now, all of us, we’re just focusing on trying to get better, blocking out all that noise right now until we figure out what we want to do.”

Johnson said he understood the backlash against West’s hate speech, but still expressed frustration at tournaments cutting ties.

The Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., The John Wall Holiday Invitational in Raleigh, N.C., and the Play-by-Play Classic in Minneapolis all dropped Donda or declined to offer an invitation.

“I feel like it just doesn’t have anything to do with us. Like, we’re just going to play basketball. We don’t support the stuff that he’s saying,” Johnson said.

A schedule beyond Nov. 6 is uncertain. The team could host games at the Sports Academy, although officials said the facility is booked weeks in advance with everything from volleyball tournaments to fencing competition to youth basketball tournaments.

West, in fact, made an appearance at the Sports Academy on Friday night to watch his daughter play basketball. The parking lots and foyer were soon unexpectedly crowded with fans, and the Sports Academy decided over the weekend to beef up security for events involving West or Donda Academy.

“We aren’t allowing media access to the Donda players,” said Taylor Ramsey, a Sports Academy director of performance. “The comfort and wellbeing of the players is our first priority, giving them a place to study, train and relax.”

Donda players hail from all over the U.S. and live in apartments. Most have never set foot in the small Donda Academy campus set in a Chatsworth industrial complex for students that aren’t basketball players. The teams is largely a separate entity — players and their parents did not receive the email sent to families announcing Donda Academy’s closure last week, the anonymous father said.

The school is not accredited and while the team is not sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation, it is one of many similar elite teams that compete in high-level tournaments and showcases to provide players with exposure to college recruiters.

Two players, J.J. Taylor and Chuck Bailey, announced last week they were leaving. Taylor was at one time a top-10 prospect in the country, but his ranking has slipped. Bailey, meanwhile, lost a handful of 15 Division I offers after transferring to Donda for his junior season.

Guards Robert Dillingham, a consensus top 10 player in the country, and Johnson, a consensus top 20 player, are holding firm for now, although Johnson said they’re considering leaving.

“I’m not going to say it’s 100% that we’re staying,” he said. “But it’s not 100% that we leave, either. We’re just trying to see how things are going to be and how things go so we can make our decision.”

Meanwhile, the Sports Academy will continue to serve as a sanctuary and home away from home. The players have a lounge well-stocked with sports drinks and food, computers and televisions, couches and chairs. The smoothie bar is first-rate.

The vision Kobe Bryant had of a top-notch training and performance facility when he became owner in 2018 and branding it as the Mamba Academy hasn’t died in the eyes of the current Sports Academy staff. Providing stability and comfort to the Donda players during an uncertain time not of their making is fulfilling.

“It’s unfortunate to see their situation even though they don’t express much frustration,” Ramsey said. “They come in and do their work. We always say that whenever a door gets closed, 10 more will open.”

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