Bianca Cuevas, Nazareth still reeling from loss
For Lauren Best, two conversations stand out vividly -- like scar tissue on the mind -- from the day in January 2012 when Robert Paschall died. One with Bianca Cuevas, then a sophomore guard ranked 20th in her class by espnW HoopGurlz, seems easier for her to talk about. Maybe because it’s easier for the current Nazareth (Brooklyn, N.Y.) basketball co-coach to look through memory’s telescope and relive someone else's pain than relive her own.
Cuevas, unlike many of her teammates, does not come from a single-parent home. She comes from, as Best put it, a no-parent home. Paschall and Best had been her de facto guardians since they recruited her to their AAU team, Exodus NYC, at age 11.
Standing in the hospital just after Paschall passed away, Cuevas turned to Best with tears in her eyes.
“What am I going to do now?” she moaned. “What if something happens to you?”
A ‘father’ is lost
Best had been with Paschall, her mentor and boyfriend, every day during his battle with cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation had left him weak but supposedly on the mend. On Jan. 3, 2012, she walked into her bedroom to find him incapacitated. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. Nazareth assistant coach Ron Kelley called the players down to the coaches’ office.
The girls headed there confused and a little nervous, wondering who was in trouble, what they’d done wrong and how they were going to have to pay for it. Sprints? No one guessed the truth. Their coach’s prognosis had been great, even though he was fighting skin cancer in his throat area and congestive heart failure, too. He had suffered a stroke the previous year. But when Kelley couldn’t even get the words out, they understood the terrible truth. Paschall -- “Apache” to everyone who knew him -- was dead at 38. He was three days away from what was supposed to be his final radiation treatment.
An hour after the ambulance reached the hospital, a swarm of sobbing girls broke through the door. Paschall had been much more than a coach to so many. The girls of Nazareth are from every corner of New York City, and some of those corners aren’t great places to be from. Many don’t have fathers. For some, Apache was their father.
I think a lot of the kids are still dealing with it now. You can see it in their games, the way they carry themselves.Thomas Davis
In the hospital room, the girls wept. A day earlier, the No. 2 team in ESPN’s national rankings had been invulnerable. Standing there, heads buried in hands and shoulders and chests, they were the most vulnerable assemblage of athletes in the country.
Paschall had found these girls on the playgrounds of New York and brought them together, first at Exodus NYC and St. Michael Academy in Manhattan, and later, when that school closed suddenly in 2010, he shepherded most to Nazareth. They won a state and federation championship the first year, setting up great expectations for the 2011-12 season. Three games in, their leader was gone.
“I think a lot of the kids are still dealing with it now,” said Paschall’s cousin Thomas Davis, who grew up with Paschall in a cramped apartment in the Lillian Wald housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “You can see it in their games, the way they carry themselves.”
Cuevas, a star junior considered one of the two best players in the city, is in many ways a reflection of her former coach. She is talented and polarizing, dedicated and alienating. She’ll travel an hour and a half by train and bus to get from her Bronx home to the school, yet there are times when she won’t run up the court to defend a fast break. Best says the latter is not selfishness but frustration stemming from an uncontrollable desire to win.
“Apache always used to find the bad kids,” Cuevas said. It’s unclear if she was including herself. A girl of few words, she is not prone to elaborate.
Paschall used his own background -- an incarcerated mother, a childhood home shared with relatives who’d spent time in prison for serious crimes -- to attract and teach troubled players. Basketball was his way out, and he wanted them to know it could be theirs. He sent dozens to college, including WNBAers Kia Vaughn, Epiphanny Prince and 2012 lottery pick Samantha Prahalis. He angered fellow coaches with his aggressive approach to recruiting, and faced charges for illegal recruiting at Nazareth (an investigation cleared him of wrongdoing). On the court, he did little but win.
A player plays on
Cuevas was thrust into the lead role at Nazareth this season after Brianna Butler, the No. 14 prospect in the 2012 class, left for Syracuse. The scoring ability of the 5-foot-6 guard was never in doubt. She can dribble in traffic and is fearless on forays to the basket, looking less to beat defenders than to absorb contact in the air and finish dexterously off the glass. The range on her jump shot is seemingly infinite; for better or worse, she’s not afraid to launch NBA-range 3s.
“She’s one of those kids that, even on the first shot of the game, if she pulled up from that far I wouldn’t say much,” said Davis, who has taken over as co-coach with Best. “I’ve seen her miss 50 but hit a lot more than that.”
Tennessee, Louisville, Ohio State, Kentucky, Syracuse, St. John’s, Notre Dame, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, Florida and Florida State have all expressed interest. One prominent Division I coach, scouting an early season game against rival Christ the King, mentioned he’d like to see her make her teammates better.
Nazareth is struggling this season, going 7-7 through January to match its loss total from the past two seasons combined. Fair or not, the burden falls to Cuevas to right the ship over the final seven games and live up to her current 24th-place ranking in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2014 class. Best attributes the slump to a large number of graduations last summer forcing role players into major roles all at once. It’s also easy to imagine a hangover from everything that’s happened.
The struggles continue
Shortly after Paschall’s death, Nazareth announced it would shutter its doors in the summer of 2012 for lack of funding and low enrollment. Players such as Shanice Woodson, who’d transferred from St. Michael after it closed, were stunned they’d been blindsided again. Already playing with a heavy heart, the team closed out its season with the assumption that the players would all have to find a new school without the man who’d brought them, as a group, to Nazareth.
“My reaction was, 'How much worse can it get?'" recalled Best. “Our team is a family. We lost the father and now we were losing our home. It was terrible.”
They vowed to repeat as state and federation champions in Paschall’s honor and because it was perhaps their last hurrah together. They ended up with a CHSAA state title but lost in federations. Near the end of the school year, a donor stepped in with a financial gift to save the school for what the administration says is five years. But the team couldn’t exhale even then. Kelley was diagnosed with the same type of cancer that had killed Paschall, and spent the summer undergoing treatment.
It’s hard to imagine the girls being able to trust any positive messages the doctors put out on that front. Paschall was still coming to every practice, still coaching every game, right up until the end. He was supposed to be getting better. He was supposed to keep taking care of them.
The second conversation Best remembers from that day was with Paschall. That morning, they’d talked about how they were going to conduct practice. Paschall ended by saying, “I feel great today. Today is going to be a good day.”
Those were the last words he spoke, and his extended family is still trying to make sense of it.