Being named a McDonald’s All-American is a validation for Bianca Cuevas — proof that she has moved beyond her personal tragedies and answered her critics.
“It makes me feel better as a person,” the Nazareth senior point guard said. “I have confidence that I did something.”
That was always the vision for her ever since she was noticed as a basketball prodigy at 11 years old. But tragedy and heartbreak filled the journey to signing with South Carolina and playing at the United Center in Chicago on April 2 in the premier high school basketball all-star game.
Cuevas’ mother died when she was 2 years old, her grandfather when she was 11, and her father has never been part of her life. It’s something she is still uncomfortable talking about, and many outside her circle weren’t aware of. That led to her being unfairly judged by people who didn’t know the whole story.
Cuevas was taken in by former Nazareth and Exodus travel ball coaches Apache Paschall and Lauren Best when she was 11 and given basketball as an outlet. No one ever questioned her hoops skills. It was people’s perception of her character that they felt could derail her at some point, according to Best.
Tragedy struck again in 2012 — twice. First when Paschall, her father figure, died of cardiac arrest and age 38, leaving a deep hole in Cuevas’ life. She then moved in with her uncle in the Bronx, but eight months later, she found him dead after he passed away in his sleep.
“She called me panicking because she didn’t know what to do,” Best said.
The emotions all led to her junior season being the worst of her career. The normally joyful Cuevas was suspended for the remainder of the year last February for fights on and off the court. Without her, Nazareth dropped into the Class A playoffs after consecutive Catholic AA crowns and a state Federation title her freshman year. This again left people criticizing Cuevas, without taking into account the circumstances.
“People thought I was a different type of kid,” she said.
Best said Cuevas snapped out of it gradually. The anger and sadness was out of her eyes this year, and she no longer let the smaller adversities get to her.
“I was just trying to get over the little humps,” Cuevas said.
Her joy for the game returned. Cuevas kept playing and kept pushing her teammates to give her a little bit more. She demanded the ball and led Nazareth to the Catholic High School Athletic Association AA state final this season with a 50-point performance against Christ the King in the semifinals.
“There are not enough words to describe this kid — what she’s overcome and who she is,” Best said. “She has probably faced every adversity possible at this stage.”
I’ve known Cuevas since she was in seventh grade, and it was refreshing to watch her become a leader and a confident talker during interviews after years of one-word answers.
Her worldview changed with college ahead. Cuevas decided on South Carolina because of coach Dawn Staley — a women’s basketball Hall of Famer who promised to push her, not coddle her.
Being named a McDonald’s All-American was the final sign to the outside world that she made it.
Cuevas didn’t let down those who helped her. She didn’t let the misfortunes in her life swallow up her talents and suppress her potential. Over time, she proved her true character to everybody.