“Most of us knew each other from Instagram and playing against each other,” says Jalen Hooks.
The four-star forward is sitting beside a few of his newfound teammates—Jahki Howard, Chuck Bailey and Braeden Moore—explaining how exactly they all ended up at Donda Academy, the prep school created and backed by Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. It’s December and the Donda Doves have just wrapped up practice at the team’s training facility.
Most of the players say they found out about the school after someone from Ye’s camp reached out to them and their families. “We had to make sure it was the right position for us [with] so many of the top players playing with each other,” says Hooks, lounging in a pair of YEEZY slides.
Inside the meeting room on the second floor, the rest of the team still has on the YEEZY 500s they were practicing in. Howard claims that he and Robert Dillingham were the first on the team to start wearing them in games, rocking them in the season opener against Minnesota Prep at the Target Center back in November. Ye was sitting courtside that day. Soon, the whole team caught on.
“[They’re] mad comfortable,” he says. “Only shoe I could really hoop in.”
Down the hall, Dillingham and Bryce Baker are getting a quick haircut, while the rest of the team is still downstairs, lingering around the court. There’s a pair of newly released adidas “Amber Tint” QNTMs sitting unclaimed on one of the black chairs courtside, which features a clean black and white aesthetic.
Ye’s impact is everywhere around the gym, from the team’s sleek Balenciaga-produced jerseys to the adidas sneakers to the fact that all of these elite prospects—Dillingham, Zion Cruz, JJ Taylor, Brandon White, Omarion Bodrick, Seven Bahati, Bryce Baker, Hooks, Bailey, Moore and Howard—are here because they’ve trusted his vision enough to leave their respective high school programs to play for Donda Academy instead.
And yet, there’s a lot of mystery behind what exactly Donda Academy is or why the kids have all chosen to come here. People have questioned whether it’s even a real school or if the kids take actual classes. And that’s not even the craziest thing the players have heard.
“A lot of my teammates, when they left [their hometowns], they had some bad reactions,” explains Moore. “People called them clout chasers and said the [school] offered them money.”
So allow us to fill in some of the actual facts. The very existence of Ye’s Donda Academy is an honor to its namesake. After all, it was Donda West, a professor for 31 years and chair of Chicago State University’s Department of English, Communications, Media and Theater, who wrote in her memoir, Raising Kanye, that her hope was for more kids to get exposure to travel, different cultures and customs.
“I always think, I got Donda looking down on me. I gotta make this right,” says Shayla Scott, the school’s Vice President and Director of Athletics. A former four-year starter at the University of Pittsburgh who served as an assistant coach at La Salle University and most recently athletic director at The Ellis School before coming to Donda, Scott elaborates on what makes the school special. “That’s one thing that we’re constantly thinking about—how can we do things in a way that is beneficial to who we are and what we have going on. And that might not mean that it’s traditional.”
The school’s official mission statement speaks of using ethics, integrity and care to “prepare students to become the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators by providing them with a world-class education.”
The program has a lower school that has in-person classes and serves students from age 3 through eighth grade, and the educational program is powered by K12 Private Academy, an NCAA-approved online curriculum. The players, who all live together in luxury apartments with chaperones, start their daily workouts, which occasionally involve weight training, as early as 8 a.m. Classes start at either 9 or 10 a.m. (depending on the day) and are hour-long blocks with breaks in between, and the online curriculum gives them the option to take them wherever they may be. Scott says that sometimes the players take them in their apartment complex, and when they’re on the road for games, academic support staff accompany them.
As for meals, at one point the team had Ye’s personal chef cooking for them.
Practice is from 1-3 p.m. with additional workouts afterward, but the players say that the gym—which is a short walk from the apartment complex where they stay—is available pretty much whenever they want it. At any given moment Ye might pull up to a practice, and, as many have seen, he’s there at the games, too. This past December, Ye was spotted dapping up a few of the Doves at their “Homecoming” event at Whittier College.
Scott admits that when she was first brought on to serve as AD, even she wondered what exactly Ye’s involvement would look like. But through her conversations with him, and what she’s seen firsthand, it’s become clear that Ye is invested in every aspect of the program, as well as the players themselves. On one of the first calls that she was on with him and the school leaders of the K12 curriculum, Scott says that Ye was “passionate and loyal” as he expressed his vision for Donda Academy.
“When I have opportunities to talk with [Ye] about his vision for the school, it’s by no stretch of the imagination something that’s out of reach. He wants to do all the things, and big things,” she says. “I get really excited whenever we have a chance to just sit down and talk about what we’re doing and how it’s so minor in some respects to what he wants to do.”
When it came to designing the team’s uniforms, Ye brought in his Innovation of Apparel team to get the players’ direct feedback on what style and cut they’d prefer to wear. (They said “not too baggy” and requested a slim fit.) In early October, the team held a media day-style photo shoot and Scott says Ye was there, too, adding his creative perspective and specific ideas into the portrait sessions.
As the Donda album played in the background, Ye directed the entire shoot, dictating different looks and poses, and he brought out what Scott called a “bag of goodies” with accessories for the players to wear. Inside were wristbands and the same all-black sunglasses that some of the players chose to rock at their SLAM cover shoot, too.
Aside from photo shoots and courtside appearances, Ye will often check in to see how the Doves are doing both athletically and academically. A few of them got to meet him on their initial visit, while Scott reveals that Ye has even made it a point to call some of them on the phone just to talk one-on-one. “I remember watching JJ [Taylor] talk on the phone with him for the first time,” she says. “That was really cool that he took that time, and obviously they share a bond of [being] from Chicago together.”
For many of the players, this is their first time being immersed in an environment of this magnitude. They’re spending significant time away from home, living in Los Angeles and playing in front of sold out crowds littered with other high-profile celebrities. They still make time to be, well, teenagers, when they’re not training or going to school; they all mainly hang out together, going to the movies or taking trips to Six Flags and the Santa Monica beach.
“In actuality, anybody can do school this way,” says Scott. “But, to know that we’re doing it because of the support we have from Ye and all the parents and players, I think is really, honestly, going to build for future years.”
The Donda Doves will be the first to admit that it took a minute for them to learn to play together—most of them were the best players at their previous schools—and in the beginning, a few players told us they were too focused on being ballhandlers and scorers.
There were some healthy arguments, too, and as a result, the coaches had them in the gym one night, running and working out.
“Ever since, our bond and chemistry has been like this,” Howard says, crossing two of his fingers.
“That’s how you build bonds with people, especially when you got elite athletes around and a lot of alphas,” Bailey adds. “Everybody is going to go at each other.”
Having lived through all the noise surrounding the start of their season, and with tons of eyes on each game, the Donda Academy Doves are learning what it’s like to live and play in a special kind of spotlight, all while making history along the way. And each of them is ready for the challenge.
Robert Dillingham had already made a name for himself in North Carolina long before he came to Donda Academy. As one of the top point guards in the Class of 2023, he averaged 21.1 points, 4.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1steals per game last season at Combine Academy. Still, he felt like he needed a change.
“I really just wanted to get out of North Carolina. It was just, like, a lot of stuff going on with my parents, my dad and my coaches from the school for transferring out here. To keep myself sane, I just blocked all of them out and kept playing basketball. I wasn’t really listening to it. It didn’t really matter to me.”
Instead, he says he’s been learning from his new teammates and adding a thing or two to his already well-equipped bag.
“JJ [Taylor] teaches me how to get to the rim and not stop…Jahki [Howard], he just dunks on people, so I guess he’s teaching me how to dunk a little bit. Zion Cruz, he’s teaching me the aspects of dribbling, going faster, slow, changing different speeds.”
It was Rob Dillingham, the self-proclaimed “GM” of the team, who originally texted Zion Cruz about Donda Academy. “He broke everything down,” Cruz says. “It was a no-brainer for me.”
At the Patrick School, Cruz averaged 16.7 points and 2.1 assists. Still, he felt like making the move thousands of miles away from his hometown of Jersey City would allow him to completely dial in on his game.
“In Jersey, I feel like you see a lot of people outside every day, but here you don’t see a lot of people,” he says. “[There’s] not too much distraction. I don’t got a lot of [other] friends around.”
At Donda Academy, the No. 2-ranked shooting guard in the country, according to 247 Sports, found the kind of environment he was looking for. “I just wanted to be in the gym 24/7 and I knew I could do that here,” he says. “Anytime I want to get in the gym, I can get in.”
But he’s also been learning to navigate the mental side of the game, especially now that he’s playing with other high level players. Cruz admits he’s been working on not being in his head so much. “When you go to college, you’re playing with a lot of good players, so it’s good to know that I can do it on any level.”
Cruz recently announced the colleges he’s deciding among: Memphis, Western Kentucky, Xavier, Georgia and DePaul.
JJ Taylor says he never thought he’d leave his hometown of Chicago. The five-star guard was doing his thing at Kenwood Academy and had solidified himself as one of the best small forwards in his class. Ranked No. 5 in the country by ESPN and 247Sports, he’s the first player from Illinois to be ranked in the top 10 since the class of 2014’s Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
And yet, Taylor felt like the chance to play for Donda could give him something new. “A lot of stuff here, they don’t have in Chicago. The training is different. This is all basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball. I’m just falling in love with it.”
Taylor says he’s had to adjust real quick: “I was pretty much the last one. I had to almost fit in, get adjusted faster, and learn everything faster than everybody else.”
Equipped with an all-around game and absurd athleticism, he’s already starting to see the move pay off. “For me, I like getting other players involved because we all can score. That’s my whole thing, playing unselfish,” he says. “I feel like I’m even [getting] better at making others better.”
Five-star shooting forward Jahki Howard kept it real when explaining why he chose to transfer from Norcross High School. “To be honest, I really just came out here to get better. I’m already a top-five player in my class, [so] for me, I wanted to come out here and get better at my level.”
Still, he admits that when he first came out to the school, he wasn’t too sure what everyone would be like. “I’m really anti-social with people [and] I think I thought a lot of us would be the same way,” he says. “But no, [everyone] is chill.”
He’s become especially close with Bailey and Hooks, whom he calls his twin, and during their SLAM interview, the three of them excitedly talk about seeing the new Spider-Man movie together. With so many eyeballs on the team, Howard knows that a little hate is what comes with playing at this level.
“If I go to college or the NBA, it’s going to come with it,” he says. “I like it. It’s gotten to the point where it’s entertaining. It motivates me to just do better.”
Jalen Hooks, who averaged 11.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season at Crispus Attucks, might have had the wildest initial visit to Donda Academy.
Hooks’ first time in Cali went a little something like this: he hopped on a 6 am flight, saw the Hollywood sign, and went out to eat right after he landed. Next thing he knew, Ben Simmons was walking right up to him and sat at his table. “He was like, What’s good, Hooks?”
Then Hooks hopped on the phone with Kevin Durant. “He was like, What’s up, killah? Just keep working,” he recalls. “I met KD and Ben Simmons in my first 10 minutes.”
And while he and Dillingham were working out at another of DSTRKT’s gyms nearby, Hooks says he met Ye. “He was like, Thank you for trusting the process, and then he started praying with us.”
So, yeah, between the training sessions and the meet and greets, Hooks’ visit out west was a movie. He was sold. “I was just like, if I can get this every day for the next two years, that’d be nice.”
After fracturing his nose and injuring his ankle last April, Hooks says the main priority since he’s arrived in Simi Valley has been getting healthy. “I’m still a four-star. I’m [looking] to get back to where I was.”
Brandon White, or B-White as some of his teammates call him, is already regarded as one of the best shot blockers in his class, but at 6-10, the big man from North Carolina says he came out to Donda Academy with one mission in mind.
“I want to do everything, play every position,” the four-star center says. “Dribbling, shooting, just doing stuff that I’ve never done before.”
White’s versatile game has already caught the attention of a handful of DI schools across the country: Wichita State, Illinois, Purdue and LSU. As he continues to build out his game, he’s sure to be a scary sight at the next level.
Chuck Bailey says that when he first heard about Donda Academy, he didn’t fully believe it.
“My dad told me. I thought he was joking at first when he was like, There’s a school called Donda. They want you to [go] there,” he says. “Then I saw it on the news with Rob [Dillingham] and I’m like, Oh, shoot. It’s a real school.”
While he says he wasn’t a huge fan of all the cameras and media attention at first, he knows that this is what comes with it, and it’ll be there at the next level, too. Whether it’s supplying the room with energy during his SLAM shoot or holding his own against his teammates in practice, it’s clear that Bailey is ready for the bright lights.
“The thing that surprised me is how good I fit in and play at this level, [though] I knew I could. I’m really seeing it every day in practice. I actually see I can play at this level, and I can play really well.”
And, after spending the entire summer and the start of the season dealing with an injury, the 6-3 guard is back and looking to evolve his game even further. “I really just came here to balance out my game [and] learn how to be a true point guard, because that’s what I’m gonna be in college.”
Omarion Bodrick is another player from down south who decided to link up with his former Combine Academy teammates and shock the world by heading to Donda. From the looks of it, it seems like the senior forward has been finding his rhythm out in Cali.
The day after his SLAM shoot, Bodrick’s athleticism was on full display at the team’s homecoming game against Veritas. During the third quarter, he had the entire standing-room only crowd at Whittier College, including King Combs and OT Genasis, on their feet when he caught a transition pass from JJ Taylor and levitated to the rim for a two-handed dunk. That wasn’t all he did; throughout the game, O was everywhere on the floor, diving for loose balls and dishing out dimes to Taylor on the wing for three-pointers.
Bodrick will take his talents to Youngstown State University next year.
Braeden Moore was one of the last players to join the team. A standout at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville and a TSSAA Mr. Basketball finalist, he’d always joked that he plays better on the West Coast—he was born in California and has relatives there, including his grandparents, who live only 20-30 minutes away from Donda Academy’s gym. Since he’s arrived at Donda, Moore’s impressed his new teammates from the get-go.
“He’s cold. I didn’t even know he was that good,” Chuck Bailey admits.
After decommitting from Rutgers, a decision he felt he’d “rushed into,” Moore says he’s looking for a program that will not only use his height and sharpshooting talent to “the fullest ability,” but will also offer him an all-around experience. He’s interested in business and entrepreneurship, and now that he’s at Donda, he’s already put himself in a position to be one step ahead.
“I know how important education is and I have goals that surpass basketball,” Moore says. “That’s another reason [why] I came here, like with Justin [Laboy] and Ye, creating these relationships not only sets me up for success in basketball, it sets me up for life.”
We already knew Seven Bahati was on his own wave when he pulled up to his SLAM interview rocking a pair of all-black square-rimmed shades—and kept them on the entire time. “I was already making a name for myself, so I was just going to stay in my situation,” Bahati admits when asked how he ended up at Donda. “But my parents saw a great opportunity.”
Although the California native didn’t have to travel very far, now that he’s here, he’s already started to evolve his all-around game. The 6-5 guard has DI offers from programs like UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Marymount.
“I’m more of an efficient scorer, so I shoot and then I’ll drive,” he says. “I don’t really use shifts or anything like that. I just get to my spots and elevate. But being here with Rob and Z, and seeing how they dribble, it’s more like putting it on [top of] my skills and getting to my bag.”
This isn’t Bryce Baker’s first time playing on a highly competitive squad—he suited up alongside Dillingham and Bodrick at Combine Academy before coming to Donda Academy. And yet he says this is definitely a first for someone that’s from where he’s from. “I come from a small town in North Carolina,” he says. “Really, nobody has done nothing like this.”
Baker gives a major shoutout to his mom for letting him take advantage of the opportunity, knowing that he’d have to move across the country. “She trusted me and my judgement. And I felt like this was the best path for me to take to get myself to a different level.”
Now that he’s out in Cali, the 6-4 guard who can effortlessly knock down jumpers from behind the arc and block shots on the other end of the floor, says he wants to “grow himself as a person,” on and off the court—especially as he gets ready to head to Old Dominion next year.
“I’m about to go to college, so I feel like this is the necessary step for me to take. Having my friends here and making new friends, this is basically my family now.”