Destiny Castillo is a 9-year-old resident of Union City who will begin the fourth grade at Washington School in a few weeks.
And young Destiny is a big basketball fan. Her favorite team now is the Brooklyn Nets, ever since the Nets signed prize free agent Kyrie Irving, the New Jersey native.
How much does Destiny like playing basketball?
“I stay in school late, so when everyone leaves, I can shoot around,” Castillo said. “I just love playing basketball. It’s my favorite sport.”
So it made sense that Castillo would attend the Carlos Cueto Basketball Camp that was held recently at Union Hill Middle School under the watchful eyes of Cueto, the Union City head girls’ varsity basketball coach.
“I wanted to get better with my passing,” Castillo said. “I think I’m getting better with my shooting. I also learned how to pivot properly.”
Castillo was one of 60 local kids who participated in the week-long camp for both boys and girls. There was a fair amount of both boys and girls at the camp.
“I want to play basketball now a lot more,” Castillo said. “I was practicing and playing all week. I never had a break.”
Maleah Ocasio is also 9 years old. She will be in the fourth grade at Secaucus’ Clarendon School in a couple of weeks.
Young Maleah is a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and of course, her favorite player is LeBron James.
“I like playing basketball a lot,” Ocasio said. “I have another camp I’m going to next week. I just want to keep playing more and more.”
Ocasio said that there was one specific aspect to the game that she learned recently.
“I learned how to dribble with either hand,” Ocasio said. “I could never do that before. I also learned a lot more about passing. I learned a lot from him [Cueto].”
Cueto was a standout player in his heyday, playing first for St. Anthony High School and later for the University of Richmond. Cueto had Hall of Famer Bob Hurley as a coach in high school and had current Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein as his coach at Richmond, so Cueto learned from two of the very best in the business.
But Cueto, who was raised in Union City, knows that most kids from Hudson County cannot afford to go to the high-priced basketball camps throughout the country.
“I wanted kids to experience a week of basketball camp at an affordable price,” Cueto said. “Most kids around here can’t go to a basketball camp, so they end up not learning.”
It marked the seventh straight year that Cueto held his summer camp in Union City, giving a slice of himself back to the community. It’s a camp that both of his children, daughter Alyssa and son Ethan, participate in.
And it’s a camp that featured 2019 Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Gabe Johnson as a counselor and coach. Johnson, who led Union City to its first-ever Hudson County Tournament championship last March, is headed off to Caldwell University to play college basketball in a few weeks.
Johnson was an energetic and enthusiastic head coach during the week-long session.
Johnson and Cueto have an excellent working relationship, going back to his childhood days.
“He calls me and texts me,” Cueto said of Johnson. “He asks me if he can get a couple of shots up together. So I immediately asked him if he wanted to work the camp and he said he did.”
Cueto doubles and sometimes triples his time coaching different teams in Union City. As part of the St. Michael’s CYO program that Cueto helps to oversee, he coaches several different youth teams as well as his own high school team. Cueto manages to spread himself around quite nicely.
“I coach all different age groups,” Cueto said. “I do it because I’m nuts. I just love the game. I just make sure I always have a good assistant coach with me.”
Cueto said that his camp is definitely instructional, but adds a certain twist.
“It’s all about having fun,” Cueto said. “We have games and contests. If it’s not fun, the kids will not want to learn. I think it helps tremendously that we have the high school kids here working as coaches. These little kids can go to the high school games and see their coaches play. That means a lot.”
Skylar Guilliod is also a 9-year-old fourth grader who attends Our Lady of Grace School in Fairview. She’s a fan of the Memphis Grizzlies and that team’s standout forward Kyle Anderson. There’s a good reason, because Anderson is Skylar’s uncle.
“I learned about shooting with my right and my left hand,” Guilliod said. “I think that’s a good thing to learn in basketball.”
Jordan Gonzalez is an 11-year-old resident of Kearny who attends the sixth grade at St. Aloysius School in Jersey City. He’s also a fan of the Lakers and LeBron.
“I learned how to pivot, then shoot,” Gonzalez said. “It encourages me to play more basketball. I can’t want to go back to school and play.”
Wait a minute! Jordan can’t wait to get back to school? What’s wrong with that picture?
“I’ve really had so much fun here,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s really a great week,” Cueto said. “Most of these kids have parents who have Hudson County roots, so that really helps. It’s a great week that has become very competitive and that’s good for the kids.”
And not bad for the coach either, who is all over the place coaching all these different teams. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com