Bianca Cuevas looks like someone’s little sister. Her hair tied up in a ponytail atop her 5-foot frame, she looks every bit the seventh grader. Cuevas is rail thin and, when talking to people for the first time, painfully shy.
But all that goes away when she steps on a basketball court. With a few dribbles, it’s plain to see she’s a prodigy. After a step-back jumper, it’s clear she’s a phenomenon. Upon the completion of a circus layup, it’s almost like a surreal experience.
“At this age, you could say this girl has the full package,” said Apache Paschall, who coaches Cuevas with the Exodus AAU program.
The tiny Bronx native, a student at MS 22, was brought to him in September 2007 by Rodney Russell, the father of Exodus player Shayla Russell. Paschall threw her into the fire right away. He took her on the road with his top team, Exodus NYC, the summer after she completed sixth grade.
Paschall has taken players like Shannon Bobbitt, Kia Vaughn and Anjale Barrett on the road with Exodus NYC before they reached high school. But never when they were in sixth grade. Last year, Cuevas was the youngest player in program history competing against the nation’s top teams.
“Every kid I’ve done it with has turned out to be a superstar,” Paschall said.
Cuevas didn’t play a whole lot last season, but she sat and watched and learned from the older girls. She lists George Washington-bound senior Janine Davis as one of her heroes. But junior Jelleah Sidney remembers one game Cuevas got into at a tournament in Alabama against a squad called Team Unique.
“She crossed over this girl so bad,” Sidney said. “The girl was a senior, too – I don’t remember her name. But she saw [Cuevas], thought she was small and tried to reach in and steal the ball. And she got crossed over so bad. … That was the funniest thing ever.”
This summer, Cuevas won’t just play regular minutes with Exodus NYC, she might even start some games. Paschall has had her in the starting lineup at the Nike Rose Classic and she has responded, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd after breathtaking moves and her explosive first step.
Cuevas says she feels weird getting all this attention at such an early age, but is excited by the opportunity.
“That’s how you get known,” she said.
Cuevas started playing basketball when she was 3 years old. Dribbling became a hobby – it was something she did every day for hours after school. She has honed her skills on playgrounds in the shadows of Yankee Stadium. Sound like a familiar tale? Cuevas is from the same borough and has patterned her game somewhat after Manhattan Center star China Crosby, who competed in the McDonald’s All American Game last week.
“Bianca loves China,” Exodus coach Lauren Best said.
When asked what she likes about Crosby, Cuevas looks up with her big eyes as if to say, what’s not to like?
“Her game – everything,” Cuevas said.
She wants to follow in the Virginia-bound Crosby’s footsteps, get a college scholarship and play in the McDonald’s All American Game. There’s a long way to go before that, though – five years to be exact.
Cuevas is not quite on the national radar yet, but Paschall is certain she’s one of the best seventh graders in the country.
“Whoever don’t know,” he said, “is gonna know this summer.”