What’s going on with Ye’s Donda Academy basketball team? Head coach Dorell Wright, a former NBA player, is a sitting duck as he watches players leave and games get cancelled
There was no sign of Kanye West here recently.
“Our kids were being sucked in by the lifestyle of the rich and the famous,” said Kenny Hooks, whose son, Jalen, played for Donda Academy last season. “They were around stars all the time.”
But that was then. This is now. So what’s going on exactly?
Players calling it quits
Dorell Wright, presiding over the most beleaguered prep basketball team in the country, stood inside a training facility on November 3, and stared at his phone, as if willing the arrival of good news.
In 2006, Wright won an NBA championship ring while playing for the Miami Heat. He later set pre-Steph Curry three-point records with the Golden State Warriors. After his 11-year career in the NBA ended in 2015, he played in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany and Russia.
Yet nothing prepared him for this. Wright, 36, is head coach of the basketball team at Donda Academy.
That November 3 morning, the team’s top player officially transferred. In the afternoon, the team’s second-best player transferred.
The third-best player bolted a week earlier on October 28, after four major high school basketball tournaments disinvited Donda Academy. Since then, Morehouse College cancelled a tournament that would have featured Donda Academy, and the team was replaced in yet another tournament.
Oh, and two backup players have left.
More bad news
Donda Academy, scheduled to play Keystone Athletic Academy on November 8, in Erie, Pennsylvania, was replaced again.
So it goes for Wright, who wore a black Donda Academy hoodie and a rueful smile when he told USA Today Sports, “I’m just trying to figure things out.”
It’s unclear how many players are on the roster, in part because Wright declined to provide details or grant an interview. Shayla Scott, athletic director at Donda Academy, did not respond to requests for comment left by voicemail and text message.
“It’s been crazy. This is kind of a movie-type thing,” said Jacob Bannarbie, a 203cm (six-foot-eight) centre who was with teammates during the morning but had transferred schools later in the day.
There is no indication Wright is jumping ship, the one that was commissioned by Ye and attracted players from across the country. They have lived in upscale flats and had meals prepared by a private chef. While Wright and the players try to salvage their season and their luxury trappings, oddities about the programme have come to light.
Never stepped foot on Donda Academy’s campus
The team trains at the sports academy, a cavernous centre that includes five basketball courts. Previously it was named The Mamba Sports Academy and co-owned by Kobe Bryant. It’s where Donda Academy’s players practice and take their online coursework since the school abruptly shut down October 27, for the rest of the school year.
Donda Academy is about 24km (15 miles) away in Simi Valley on a 160,000 sq ft plot of land. It features two black buildings, empty classrooms and an outdoor basketball court near the school’s front entrance.
“What is that?” Braedon Moore, who played for Donda Academy last year, said when he saw a photo of the school’s campus.
It turns out Moore and other Donda Academy players have never seen the school, much less stepped foot on its campus. Moore also said last year’s team never visited the school.
“You would think since there is a physical school, the kids would have spent some time there,” said Jason Smith, in his 23rd year as the head basketball coach at Brewster Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire with 35 former players reaching the NBA. “But nothing surprises me any more.”
“There have been a lot of academies and ‘prep schools’ that have come and gone, and they haven’t been able to sustain a level of continuity and success.”
Donda Academy is an unaccredited Christian school with tuition of US$15,000 a year and about 100 students, according to reports from the Daily Mail and Rolling Stone.
Although it bills itself as a K-12 school, the only high school students are the basketball players, according to Moore and Tirone Cruz, father of former Donda Academy player Zion Cruz.
Moore noted his diploma read that he graduated not from Donda Academy but from K through 12 Online. “It was not that hard, but it was fun,” Moore said.
Chuck Bailey Jr, whose son played for Donda Academy last season and transferred a few weeks ago, said the players did not come for academics. “They just came to increase their earning potential,” Bailey said, adding that name, image and likeness (NIL) deals were one way the players hoped to cash in.
According to Sam Weber, senior director of brand communications at Opendorse, of players who were on Donda Academy’s 2022-23 roster, only five-star point guard Robert Dillingham had a publicly disclosed NIL deal – with Kinlo, a skincare brand launched by tennis pro Naomi Osaka.
From first class to coach
Academically, Donda Academy featured some unconventional curriculum. Instead of Black History Month, Moore said, Ye helped lead the students during Black Futures Month, because he doesn’t like to focus on the past.
“He came up and talked to me,” Moore said. “Asked how I was doing, how was school. How I felt about basketball. He spends a lot of time around the kids and spends a lot of time doing things for other people. And I feel like deep down, you’re a good person if that’s who you were.”
But not everything worked out as planned, with a national schedule that required more than 24 flights.
Moore said when Donda Academy recruited him away from Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville, he was promised everything would be first-class, including air travel. But when the season began, Moore said the players found themselves on commercial flights, in coach.
The issue quickly got the parents’ attention, said Cruz, whose son Zion is now at DePaul.
“And believe me, when we were in the (parents’) group chat, that was a hot topic,” Cruz told USA Today Sports. “Those kids flying back and forth, not having much (leg room), expected to play at the highest level. And when things got off rocky, everyone starts complaining, pointing the fingers.”
Fingers stayed pointed at Frank Robinson, the head coach during the programme’s inaugural season. With Ye periodically dropping in to watch the team, players decked out in his Yeezy high-tops, the Doves started 2-3 and finished 11-9, according to theseasonticket.com.
Robinson was out. In came Wright.
Where did all the talent go?
The roster looked solid: Dillingham, who had committed to Kentucky; A.J. Johnson, a four-star guard from Woodland Hills in Southern California; and Javonte “JJ” Taylor, a four-star small forward from Chicago.
Now Dillingham is playing for Overtime Elite in Atlanta, Johnson has moved on to Southern California Academy in Northridge and Taylor has transferred to San Ysidro High School near San Diego.
Bannarbie also transferred to Southern California Academy, and reserve guard Chuck Bailey III transferred to Hamtramck High School in Hamtramck, Michigan.
“It’s a shame,” Bannarbie said.
Bannarbie indicated new players are coming in. Kimberly Hicks, mother of Donda Academy starting forward Justin Johnson, said the same thing.
“They’re supposed to be bringing in players,” Hicks said. “They haven’t arrived yet.”
Derrick Taylor, the head boys basketball coach at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, said Donda Academy contacted one of his players last week. It has already snagged two of his players – A.J. Johnson and Keyon Kensie, a small forward.
“I won’t have anything left if Donda (keeps recruiting),” deadpanned Taylor, who declined to identify the player whom he said was contacted.
Donda Academy’s critics include Kenny Hooks, father of Jalen Hooks, a 6-7 forward from Indianapolis who was among the first to commit to Ye’s team. Early on, Hooks said he saw his son’s career “going down the drain” and tried to convince him to transfer. But even though Jalen Hooks had fallen out of the starting line-up, he refused to leave until after the season, at which point he had lost scholarship offers, according to his father.
Hooks said his son declined to be interviewed for this story. But Moore, who played with Jalen Hooks, confirmed the players met a host of celebrities, such as rappers Gunna and Moneybagg Yo as well as Antonio Brown, the former NFL receiver who was working for Ye’s Donda Sports marketing group. There were also movie producers and models, according to Moore. “It was wild,” he said.
Among the players remaining at Donda Academy is Justin Johnson. His mother is a probation officer in Miami and is tracking things with regular calls to her son and the coaches.
“I trust Dorell Wright by making a decision for the boys,” Hicks said by text message.
For his part, Wright returns to the Sports Academy day after day, along with his fluid roster of players. The captain of an apparent sinking ship.
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