Amber Melgoza overcame dyslexia on her way to pro basketball in Italy’s top division
Recess at Vieja Valley School never came too soon for young Amber Melgoza. It’s where life made the most sense.
“I’d rush out to play ‘Knockout’ with all the boys, be the first one on the court,” she said, referring to a playground variation of basketball. “And I wouldn’t lose.”
Jaime and Robin Melgoza’s little girl grew up to break the girls all-time scoring record at Santa Barbara High in 2016. And by last March, the 5-foot-10 guard had scored 1,717 points at the University of Washington to rank eighth in the school record books. It was enough to earn her a pro contract in Italy’s top division.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing basketball professionally, ever since I was a kid,” said Melgoza, who will leave next week for the town of Battipaglia in southern Italy.
But while scoring big numbers came fast and easy, reading words came slow and hard. Dyslexia was the toughest opponent that Melgoza ever had to face.
“I had to go to a different classroom when I was in elementary school, which was the most embarrassing part for me,” she said. “I really didn’t even know why at the time. It’s hard for parents to explain that to a kid.
“When I was younger, a lot of people didn’t think I’d be able to do the things that I’m doing now at 22. People will always doubt you in life, but that just made me more determined to prove what I could do.”
She did that by making Washington’s Dean’s List four times. She was also selected to two Pac-12 All-Academic teams before graduating a quarter early with a bachelor’s degree in communications and a minor in diversity.
“I got my degree from one of the top-10 schools in the country, and it was an unbelievable ride,” Melgoza said. “I loved every second of every challenge. You’re always going to face challenges in your life.”
Sports have always been her release, whether it was riding bikes or playing football. At age 6, she beat an all-boys field of competitors to win a national BMX race in Kentucky. By 11, she was quarterbacking the flag football team at Vieja Valley.
Her younger brother Buddy is now the starting quarterback at Bishop Diego High. Her older sister Candace played soccer, and Amber dabbled in that sport for a while. But she felt most free when playing basketball.
“I knew that when I’d go onto the court, I wouldn’t have anything to worry about,” Melgoza said. “I could just have fun with what I was doing.”
Her father, a contractor who coached football at Santa Barbara High, made sure to equip his daughter’s dream.
“He built a sport court just outside my bedroom, and I’d pretty much be out there every single day, getting up shots,” she said. “I’m very grateful for that.
“He also bought me a shooting machine when I was in high school, and I was constantly on that, too.”
Melgoza’s passion did get her into trouble with the neighbors late at night.
“That actually just happened,” she said. “I was shooting outside and didn’t realize how late it was. The bouncing ball can be noisy, but I have my headphones on and can’t hear anything.
“It was like 11:30 at night, way past everybody’s bedtime.”
She made an early impact at Santa Barbara High, gaining CIF-Southern Section 3AA Player of the Year honors as a sophomore. She averaged 22.3 points to lead coach Andrew Butcher’s Dons to the division championship and the school’s first trip ever to the state finals.
Melgoza scored a school-record 1,015 points (33.5 per game) the following year and broke another mark by netting 50 in a playoff game against Summit High. Only three other girls in section history — a group that includes Basketball Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller — have ever eclipsed 1,000 in a season.
Her success went hand-in-hand with Bolden Brace, a classmate who led Santa Barbara’s boys team to the CIF-SS 2A crown in 2016. Their fathers, Jaime Melgoza and Billy Brace, kept their families close after having played football together at Santa Barbara High.
“Bolden and I have been best friends ever since we were born,” Amber said. “We’d constantly work out with each other, play pickup games and shoot with each other. It’s pretty cool having somebody who’s as competitive as I am for a best friend.”
Brace, who recently completed a successful basketball career at Northeastern University, signed a pro contract last week to play in The Netherlands.
“He’s only going to be like two hours away,” Melgoza said. “It’s like only a $60 plane ride from Italy.”
Melgoza averaged 26.3 points per game as a senior at Santa Barbara High before heading off to Washington. She admitted that her first year in Seattle “was a struggle.” She played barely eight minutes per game on a veteran team that advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.
And then there was the dyslexia.
“They’d throw 50 different plays at me,” she recalled. “I’d be sitting there, not really knowing what’s happening. That got me into trouble a lot. I needed things to be more visual because it takes my mind longer to read through it than others.
“I was a good player when I was let to play with a free mind.”
Melgoza got that chance when Jody Wynn took over as coach the next season, ranking second in the Pac-12 with a 19.0-point average. She eventually became only the third player in school history to score at least 500 points in three seasons, making the All-Pac-12 team each time.
“Amber leaves UW as one of the greatest players in Husky history and has a long and bright pro career ahead,” Wynn said recently. “There is no doubt in my mind that Amber has what it takes to play in the WNBA, and this is a great first step in her professional basketball journey.”
Melgoza’s career was reaching a crescendo when she scored 22 points with five assists on Senior Day to help beat eighth-ranked UCLA, 74-68.
“I had like 35 people from Santa Barbara come up for that,” she pointed out.
She scored 30 more points in the Huskies’ Pac-12 Tournament opener in Las Vegas, but Utah pulled out a 72-63 victory to end their season.
“It was very hard not knowing when I’d play next,” Melgoza said. “A week and a half after that game, everything was shut down because of the pandemic.
“I wanted to get drafted (by the WNBA) and see if I could get into a training camp, but nothing was happening.”
But she plugged away, putting up shots on her backyard court and working out at the P3 training facility “every single day.”
And now her next game will be played halfway around the world.
“Ever since I was a little girl, with this learning disability, I’ve had to learn how to figure things out, what’s best for me and what’s not best for me,” Melgoza said. “I’m now going to have to figure out a lot more things, like what to eat, and the language, and putting myself in their world.
“But I’ve been through so much adversity in my life, I know I can handle this.”
She plans to take her best shot, and it usually goes in.