Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Academy dream lives on as last protégé joins teammates at Sage Hill

Amalia Holguin of Sage Hill School is a freshman point guard playing varsity basketball
Amalia Holguin of Sage Hill School is a freshman point guard playing varsity basketball who played for Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Academy team. She was the last player to be coached by Bryant with Mamba Academy to reach high school.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Stephen Curry has his mouthguard. Amalia Holguin has her gum.

By this point in her freshman season at Newport Beach Sage Hill, defenders have started pressing so close in Holguin’s airspace, they could guess the flavor. It’s usually mint. Sometimes orange. Holguin started with gum in the sixth grade; didn’t like mouthpieces but had to be chewing something. So she pops in a new piece before every quarter.

“Keeps it fresh,” Holguin said, grinning.

In a mid-January game against Orange County power Santa Ana Mater Dei, Holguin is hounded every time she touches the ball, picked up full-court, face-guarded. She goes coast to coast for a layup, hits a deep three.

All the while, she chomps her gum.

Sage Hill coach Kerwin Walters doesn’t want robots, he says. He wants “swagger.” And Holguin has it, flinging one-handed, cross-court passes, cashing threes with a slingshot form reminiscent of Chino Hills-era Lonzo Ball. She creates highlights. She makes mistakes. But her confidence is extraordinary, never a hint of frustration passing over the 14-year-old’s face.


“By the end of her time in high school,” Walters said earlier in the season, “she’ll be one of the best guards that’s ever stepped on the court.”

You can’t teach confidence. But you can mold it. And more than four years after she walked into her first Mamba Academy practice, Holguin’s mentor still motivates every day. In every drill. One more rep for him.

Kobe Bryant’s lessons still echo in her head.

Even though you’re young, I’m going to put you in there. You’ve got to push it.

Even if you’re missing, keep shooting, it’ll fall.

At Bryant’s funeral after the Jan. 26, 2020 helicopter crash that killed nine, including his daughter Gianna, Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli — all Holguin’s teammates with Mamba — Holguin’s father, James, remembered someone saying, “there’s 11 girls in the world who have been coached by Kobe Bryant.”

Holguin is the last of them to reach high school. And she came to Sage Hill, in part, because she was the last piece of an old puzzle scattered by tragedy: Bryant’s plan for an elite group of girls to play together through high school.

The last piece of a legacy.

The final words in Holguin’s Twitter bio, now introducing her at Sage Hill as part of the class of 2026, is a hashtag: “#4the8” — signifying the eight passengers on board the helicopter who died.


“I’m doing it for them,” Holguin said.

The team was getting ready to play a game that morning when players heard the news, said the mother of one girl, Emily Eadie. After that, she added, they never left each other’s side.

Bryant’s vision, Eadie’s father said, was to have all the Mamba girls play together at Sage Hill, just minutes from the Lakers legend’s Newport Coast home. And juniors Eadie, Zoie Lamkin, Annabelle Spotts and Kat Righeimer have stuck together from their Mamba days, now the core of the Lightning. The Holguins strongly considered Mater Dei, but Amalia’s former teammates had been lobbying for Sage Hill since middle school, Eadie said.

Together they’re keeping the Mamba mentality alive and doing what Bryant coached them to do: get wins. The Lightning are off to a 16-8 start, including 3-0 in league play.

“I just wanted to continue on that journey and get all these dubs,” Holguin said, “and carry on Kobe and Gigi’s legacy.”

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The journey began in May 2018, back when the Mambas played under the name “Riptide” and had a game against Holguin’s youth-ball team. Afterward, Bryant came up to her father, who still remembers the conversation.

“Is number 10 your daughter?” Bryant said.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“She’s really special,” Bryant said. “I can make her great.”

Bryant identified the chip on her shoulder, Mamba trainer Alex Bazzell remembered. Saw Holguin competing against girls two or three grades above her. Saw a special mentality. And so he invited her to the next day’s practice.


The team needed a tall girl — a “big” — and Bryant assured Mamba parents that he was looking to recruit one. Instead they got Holguin, a tiny 10-year-old walking onto a team of 12- and 13-year-olds.

“The girls were like, ‘This is not a big,’” Holguin said, smiling.

One of Holguin’s first experiences with the Mamba Academy girls was what Bazzell called “hell week.”

“I just wanted to continue on that journey and get all these dubs, and carry on Kobe and Gigi’s legacy.”

— Amalia Holguin, Sage Hill Academy basketball player

From left, Emily Eadie, Amalia Holguin, Zoie Lamkin and Annabelle Spotts cheer on their Sage Hill teammates.
From left, Emily Eadie, Amalia Holguin, Zoie Lamkin and Annabelle Spotts cheer on their Sage Hill teammates. Eadie, Holguin and Spotts played together on Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Academy team.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

These were middle-school girls doing three-a-day workouts for a weekend: starting in the morning at 6, then moving to yoga and weight training. Then self-defense class. Then more workouts. On and on. It was Bryant‘s way of instilling in them his legendary work ethic, with Bazzell his drill sergeant.

“It was kind of an interesting tactic,” Bazzell said. “People may say that’s a little over the top, but [Kobe] always had a rule: If you don’t want to be here, if you don’t want to show up, that’s your choice.”


The purpose, Bazzell remembered, was to judge just how great the Mamba girls wanted to be. Want to play Division I? Want to play in the WNBA? This is what it takes.

So Holguin pushed. Eventually, Bazzell remembered, the girl broke down from sheer exhaustion. Collapsed into tears. Didn’t want to stop — just couldn’t continue.

And Bryant went and picked her up, made Holguin laugh and canceled the rest of the weekend, Bazzell said.

The coach had seen all he needed to see.

“It was more of an affirmation, than anything else, that she was willing and able to get herself to that point of being uncomfortable,” Bazzell said.

Initially, Bryant’s plan was to create multiple Mamba teams and have Holguin play with a lower age group, Eadie’s mother said. But Holguin fit right in with the older girls, and stuck. And Bryant’s decision to bet on her gave her fearlessness, her father said.

“[Kobe] gave me that confidence,” Holguin said.

Sage Hill point guard Amalia Holguin drives to the hoop during a game against Laguna Hills.
Sage Hill freshman point guard Amalia Holguin drives to the hoop during a game against Laguna Hills on Tuesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

She was the young one then and still is, now tasked with running the show for a Sage Hill team hoping to compete with top dogs Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, Etiwanda and Mater Dei in the Open Division. The former Mambas are the program’s core, feeling complete with Holguin.

Trying to carry the torch for the ones they lost.

“As a group, there’s a legacy and a commitment to excellence that was instilled in them,” Walters said, adding: “I think that it will never go away for them. Not even when they have their own children. I think it’ll still be ingrained into them.”

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Holguin’s talent can take her anywhere, Bazzell said. And there have been jaw-dropping highs in her freshman season, Holguin averaging 15 points and 2.7 steals a game. There also have been lows: occasional missed reads, turnovers, poor shot selection.

Mistakes will happen. She’s young, Walters said, and growing. But the coach has watched Holguin from a distance since she was in the fifth grade, taking on older Mambas in practice. He’s known the potential Bryant saw in her. And Walters knows the confidence won’t waver.

“She’s a fighter,” Walters said. “And she doesn’t quit.”

So Holguin unwraps the next piece of gum.

VIDEO | 06:20
LA Times Today: Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Academy dream lives on with last protégé

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