Even though it’s been about 15 years since he attended a Father/Son Camp held by the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program, it’s an experience Courtland Cuevas never will forget.
Cuevas brought it up recently during a conversation with Badgers assistant coach Alando Tucker. Back then, Tucker was a player at UW and served as Cuevas’ instructor at the camp.
The dreamer in Cuevas always wanted to somehow, some way, find a spot in a program he grew up adoring. It’s took a circuitous route, but the former Madison East High School athlete got there.
When the Badgers take the court for their first official practice on Friday, Cuevas will be there with them. The 6-foot-5 senior joined the team as a walk-on this fall, an opportunity he’s still trying to wrap his head around.
“Things have come full circle,” Cuevas said. “It’s pretty crazy.”
Cuevas is realistic about his standing on the team. He’s there to help in practice, a much-needed body for a program caught in a numbers crunch due to some injuries deep on the roster.
Sophomore Owen Hamilton didn’t practice much last season because of a back injury after arriving from Northern Illinois, where the 7-foot center spent his freshman season. Hamilton’s status entering the 2019-20 season is unclear, according to a team official.
Meanwhile, another walk-on, redshirt freshman Carter Higginbottom, is working his way back from injury. That explains why UW held a tryout Wednesday night to potentially add another walk-on to the roster.
There was no tryout required for Cuevas, who had reached out to the staff two years ago to see if there was room for him on the roster. The Badgers didn’t have any spots open, but the letter Cuevas wrote was so impressive that UW coach Greg Gard held onto it.
Last spring, Gard had assistant coach Howard Moore reach out to Cuevas. After a call that Cuevas said “came out of nowhere,” he met twice with Moore and was told there was a spot for him if he wanted it.
“He’s an excellent student in the business school on campus and he understands exactly the role of a walk-on,” Gard said. “The time was right for him to help this team.”
Those who pay close attention to high school basketball in the area might not even recognize Cuevas’ name.
He began his career at Madison Memorial and spent his freshman year on the varsity team. After deciding to transfer to East as a sophomore, Cuevas had to sit out a year per WIAA rules and didn’t make his debut with the Purgolders until his junior season.
Finally, he felt some momentum building, but he hit another road block between his junior and senior seasons when he sustained a fractured vertebrae in his back while playing on the AAU circuit. He didn’t post big numbers at East, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a valuable team member.
“He was a great defender,” East coach Matt Miota said. “His athleticism and length really helped us. He was really physical, too. Sometimes he’d get in a little bit of foul trouble, but we loved it because he’d protect the rim, he’d rebound and he’d play really tough (defense).”
Among the schools Cuevas had considered attending was Princeton, but he had UW in his blood. Both of his parents, Luis and Lisa, attended UW law school and his mother had earned her undergraduate degree there as well.
UW’s Grainger School of Business was a perfect fit as well for Cuevas, who has known for a while that he wants to work in an NBA front office or become an agent. He’s majoring in marketing.
But Cuevas’ passion for basketball never went away. As a freshman, he’d get up in the morning and go shoot at the Natatorium. He continued working on his game the next two years, partly as a way to stay in shape but also because it made him happy.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing at the Kohl Center or some little gym,” he said. “I just want to play.”
Cuevas would have joined the Badgers during their eight-week summer session if not for a previous engagement. He spent the summer as an intern at the NBA league office in New York.
When he wasn’t working — among his duties in the global media department was helping out with big events such as the NBA draft and the rookie photo shoot — Cuevas worked out with Harvard senior forward Robert Baker.
“My biggest thing was coming back in shape,” Cuevas said. “I didn’t want to come back and be winded every two minutes.”
Cuevas said it’s been easy to fit in with his new teammates. He knew junior guard Trevor Anderson after playing against him in AAU ball. He’s developed a brotherly bond with sophomore wing Kobe King.
As for expectations, Cuevas is realistic. He wants to make life as difficult as possible for whoever he’s going against in practice, whether it’s King, junior Brad Davison, senior Brevin Pritzl or another perimeter player.
“It’s like my mindset with everything: Work hard and just be the best version of who I can be every day,” Cuevas said. “Play hard, give it everything. If I’m here for one season, I want to make it memorable. I don’t want to have a season where it just passes by. I want to make an impact in practice in some way. Just be a good teammate and do the right things.”
Miota called Cuevas “a perfect candidate” for this type of role on the team.
“Just the way he approached everything (at East) was everything you’re looking for in a student-athlete,” Miota said. “He’s just one of those kids.”