Cheyenne McEvans was born into a basketball family.
So it was hardly a surprise when McEvans asked her parents if she could pick up the sport at age five. It was all she knew at the time, bouncing around between the high school gym her mother coached at and family gatherings, where the only thing her cousins wanted to know was when they could go outside and shoot some hoops.
McEvans has basketball in her DNA, and she’s considered a budding maestro at her craft. In recent months, the Detroit native was considered a possible candidate for 2020 Michigan’s Miss Basketball and signed with UB on a full basketball scholarship. But at Southfield A&T, she is known for much more than just her athletic prowess.
She’s a straight-A student with a 4.2 GPA.
And her drive, both on the court and within the classroom, is evident in every arena of her life.
“Basketball is the reason I do everything I do,” McEvans said. “It’s why I act how I act. It’s why I move how I move. I hold myself to such a high standard, because you never know who might be watching. And so basketball is that hold on how I live my life.”
By the time she graduated high school, McEvans held nearly 20 scholarship offers from schools as varied as Wichita State and Butler. She saw offers roll in from about half the Mid-American Conference, and a number of Big East schools.
But while it was a good problem to have, McEvans struggled to make a decision. She was overwhelmed by the gravity of her choice. She was afraid of making the wrong one.
At a certain point, things got clearer for McEvans. She visited Buffalo, and told her mom that it was “probably the best place I have been.”
McEvans had a lot to like about Buffalo. She was impressed with how head coach Felisha Legette-Jack “coaches with a hard love.” She noticed early on that UB has been successful under Legette-Jack, making the NCAA Tournament a number of times. And she liked how the campus felt like a community — “it means a lot to me,” she said.
“Cheyenne had a wish list of things she was looking for in a program,” her mother Anika said. “She wanted to play for a female coach, or a majority-female coaching staff. She was hoping to even play for an African American woman, if possible. She wanted to be in a high academic environment. She wanted a program with a winning attitude. And she wanted to go to a place where she could come in right away and make an impact.”
Not too long after she visited UB, she was in her car with her mom when she announced her intent to join the Bulls. While she was hesitant at first, she now believes she made the correct decision.
“From then on, UB has given me more reasons and comfort as to why I wanted to be there,” McEvans said. “I just like the coaching staff and how they interact with everyone. The players continue to talk to me. It’s just somewhere I feel I fit in and want to be and really enjoy.”
McEvans signed with UB at the same time as 5’9” Swedish guard Sophia Ӧjhammar. She will be joining a crowded backcourt that already includes Dyaisha Fair, Hanna Hall and Jessika Schiffer. There’s nothing certain about her playing time in year one.
But if there is anything she is certain about, it’s this:
“I’m just ready to come in and win.”
‘I just wanted to be different’
A few weeks ago, McEvans was minding her own business in her backyard when she noticed something strange.
She saw two Southfield Police cars drive by, followed by what seemed to be an endless procession of other vehicles. She had no idea what was going on, but at her father’s urging, she went to the front of the house, where she was greeted by teachers, friends and family.
Speaking into a loudspeaker, an officer said, “This announcement is to congratulate Cheyenne Mackenzie McEvans for earning the honor of being the valedictorian for the class of 2020.”
McEvans was shocked.
“It was a surprise,” McEvans said. “I wasn’t supposed to know, and I didn’t know until my dad was like, ‘That’s for you.’”
Sporting a white headband and a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, McEvans spent the next few minutes waving to passersby from her driveway. She always knew her grades were near the top of her class; she just didn’t know that she was actually at the top of her class.
Seeing her community rally behind her that day, as they constantly did when she stepped onto the court, made all her time in the classroom worth it.
“I feel really grateful to know that people support me,” McEvans said. “To see that many people lined up — family, friends, staff members, police officers — to congratulate me, with everything that is going on, it was just a good moment.”
From a young age, Cheyenne and her two siblings have been heavily involved in the Southfield Public Schools. Her parents have always stressed how lucky they are to have faculty and neighbors who are so supportive of them.
“We’ve always said that our children have been very fortunate to be surrounded by a community that has supported them,” Anika said. “For her to get that award and see all these different people come out and rally behind her, it was just amazing.”
As a kid, McEvans vowed to hold herself to a “high standard.” She has always had good grades, constantly ranking near the top of her class. In high school, she began noticing her grades weren’t just very good; they were some of the best in her school.
Coming into her senior year of high school, she knew she was close to being at the top of her class. Her family encouraged her, telling her, “You got it. Keep going.”
For McEvans, her academics are a reflection on her as a person. Throughout high school, she knew she had the basketball skills to make it to the next level, good grades or not. But to her, there’s no reason she can’t be successful in the classroom. Even if she didn’t have basketball, she could have made it academically. Starting this fall, McEvans plans on studying to become a physician’s assistant.
“Cheyenne is competitive in everything that she does and she always pushes herself to be the best,” Anika said. “Of all three of our children, Cheyenne always wanted to be number one.”
Cheyenne hasn’t just strived to be the most successful sibling; she has always strived to be the best version of herself.
“I don’t want to be known as the typical athlete, who is good at their sport, but is their GPA good? No, it’s terrible,” McEvans said. “I didn’t want to be just another athlete. I wanted for people to look at me like I’m a great person — in the classroom and outside the classroom.”
‘Basketball is my world’
In the summer of her freshman year of high school, McEvans was ready to call it quits.
She was looking forward to playing AAU basketball, which would have given her exposure to high-level talent evaluators. That summer was “going to be a real breakthrough for me,” she said. But right before she got a chance to play, she suffered a gruesome leg injury. Her dreams of a breakthrough summer were shattered.
She was devastated.
But eventually, she came back, and she felt really good. Not only did she feel good, but the offers started rolling in.
“Everyone was like, I didn’t even know you got hurt,” McEvans said. “And at that point, I was like, maybe this is my sport. Maybe I can get somewhere with this, because I just pushed through the injury and saw my game develop. I was starting to pass people I was behind when I was younger.”
By the time the next summer rolled around, her mailbox was full of letters from Division-I basketball coaches, all looking to add her to their teams.
Legette-Jack saw something in her, too.
“We are thrilled to have Cheyenne join our Bulls family,” Legette-Jack said in a press release. “She will help us on a multitude of levels. She is a great character kid who stands for all the right things and has a high academic integrity. On the court, Cheyenne has a very high IQ for the game. She can shoot the three ball, has a great pull-up jumper and her defense is relentless.”
McEvans seems to share a lot of qualities with Legette-Jack. One of them is her insistence on being a role model for other people. She says her goal in life is to inspire children to be productive both in the classroom and on the basketball court. Seeing her community react so positively to her being named the valedictorian was meaningful to her.
“Sometimes you don’t know if you mean something to someone else other than yourself, but to see the appreciation other people have for me, it was really humbling and I was just so grateful for everyone who came out and supported me,” McEvans said.
McEvans may have had coaches from around the country lining up to recruit her, and she may draw comparisons to her new leader, but her basketball journey began when she was a little girl with a couple very special coaches.
Her mother, Anika, coached the sport at the high school level. Her father, Tarrence, has coached basketball and football. And her brother, Cameron, is currently a Division II basketball player at Henry Ford College.
Cheyenne grew up “right behind” Cameron, who is 19. As a kid, she would pick up a ball and “try to follow his moves,” mimicking what she saw in an attempt to be just like him.
“They always played together,” Anika said. “When she was five and she was playing with him, you could clearly see even then that she was dominant, even playing with all the boys.”
She played basketball with the boys until the fifth grade, which allowed her to play alongside Cameron and receive coaching from Tarrence for a number of years. Then, in sixth grade, she switched over to the women’s team, where she quickly became a serious prospect.
Growing up in the northern suburbs of Detroit, McEvans found solace in her sport, which has given her a name in the crowded halls of Southfield A&T, where she has become a recognizable presence.
On the court, McEvans is fearless. She tries to emulate the late Kobe Bryant, who is remembered among other things for his “Mamba Mentality.”
In that vein, McEvans takes no prisoners. She isn’t interested in making friends with the other team. She is filled with aplomb, stemming not so much from cockiness but confidence in her own abilities.
“I’m aggressive,” McEvans said. “I have confidence through the roof. I’ll try different moves, different types of shots, everything. Because I’ve got this. No matter what, I’m going to give it my all. Even if we don’t come out with a win, I know I will have pushed through it. And they will walk up the court, and say, she killed us. She did her thing while we were out there.”
McEvans was a true winner at Southfield A&T, where she became a regular at the Michigan Division I girls basketball state championships. In 2019, she had a big role on the state runner-up team, sharing the court with current Marshall University forward Alexis Johnson and University of Toledo guard Soleil Barnes.
“We saw sparks of how great Cheyenne can be as a basketball player during her senior year,” Anika said. “I think that she has only just scratched the surface of that. I’m really excited for her to get to work with a college staff, so that we can really see all that she can be.”
Last month, Southfield A&T lost in the district semifinals. McEvans’ four-year high school career — state championship appearances, over 1,500 career points — was over, just like that.
Then, a week later, her high school shut its doors completely, due to COVID-19. In the span of a few days, the two things she had made a name for herself for — basketball and school — were finished.
But McEvans doesn’t really mind. She thinks of her time in quarantine as an opportunity to “relax.” She says she isn’t one to fuss about missing prom or even her valedictory address, because she isn’t “really a speech kind of person.”
Instead, the one thing she is upset about is not being able to go to the gym.
“What am I supposed to do other than work out or play basketball?” she asks rhetorically. “Basketball is pretty much my world.”
Justin Weiss is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jwmlb1.
Justin Weiss is the The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald.