Bucks Back When ... Charlie Villanueva

Villanueva labels his time at Blair
Academy as some of the most
formative of his life.
(Getty Images)

February 20, 2007
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

If you are a fan of David versus Goliath stories -- the kind in which the diminutive one slays the imposing giant -- then this story might not be for you.

Before you turn away, though, you should be aware of a couple of things: The giants in this story are friendly ones with engaging smiles and personalities. And they have no known connections to the Philistines.

This is the tale of two of the National Basketball Association's most promising young forwards, dating back to their days as high school teammates at Blair Academy, located in the nondescript city of Blairstown, N.J., Its students are required to dress formally for dinner three nights a week and follow a structured routine designed to foster a sense of community and prepare them for college.

Charlie Villanueva of the Milwaukee Bucks and Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls look back on those days as some of the best and most formative ones of their young lives.

“There were games we played where I could have the worst game of my life and Charlie could have an OK game and we’d still win," Deng recalled. "There were other times where we both played great and we were unbelievable.

"When we were there and experiencing all of it, we really didn’t think about it. We were just good. But now, it’s like, man… if I go and talk to high school kids, I tell them, ‘Cherish every moment, because it’s a special time.’"

Villanueva learned a lot about transition before he even reached high school. And it went far beyond fast-breaking and getting back on defense.

When Villanueva was 10 years old, his hair started falling out. First it came off in small patches, then it came out in clumps. It grew back and then fell out again. By the time he was 12, he was completely bald.

"I got teased," he said. "Kids will be kids. It was tough. I would wear hoodies or hats to cover my head. There were times when kids said things that really burned me up inside. I tried not to let them know it was bothering me, but my mom knew I was hurting."

Villanueva had been stricken with alopecia areata, an autoimmune skin disease resulting in hair loss. The disease affects more than 5 million individuals in this country. It can lead to total scalp hair loss or complete body hair loss.

Villanueva has the latter form -- he does not even have eyebrows.

He found refuge on the basketball court, where he could release his anger and frustrations. He took solace in the fact that his boyhood hero, Reggie Miller, shaved his head.

God had given Charlie an unbreakable will, and his disease became a blessing in disguise.

"I I think if I wouldn't have had this condition I wouldn't be here today," he said. "I wouldn't be the person I am now. I think everything happens for a reason, and I actually consider it a blessing now."

Villanueva began his prep basketball career at Newton High School in his Queens, N.Y. borough. At the time, he was a 6-foot point guard.

Then came another major transition. He shot up to 6-7 between his freshman and sophomore seasons.

His ever-changing world took another spin during a conversation with one of his playground basketball colleagues, Royal Ivey, who would go on to play at the University of Texas and with the Atlanta Hawks.

"Royal Ivey was from Queens, the same area where I'm from," Villanueva said. "We were close friends. He was going to Blair Academy, and he told me about the school. I went up for a visit and they accepted me."

Blair Academy, a $35,000-a-year prep school of about 400 students which had only recently begun to upgrade its athletic programs, presented Villanueva with a scholarship.

When Villanueva arrived, he was not far away from home geographically, but he was in a vastly different world than the one to which he had grown accustomed.

"Academics were definitely tough there, and the school was in the middle of nowhere," he said. "There was nothing but school and basketball.

"But my mom always told me, 'In order to get what you want, you've got to make some sacrifices.' So I sacrificed. I was definitely homesick the first year that I was there. But it worked out."

It worked out, in large part, because Charlie Villanueva met Luol Deng. Their coach, Joe Mantegna, had recruited Villanueva largely because he wanted Deng to have someone of comparable size to compete against every day.

Deng had attended Blair as a freshman and had experienced the same homesickness that he observed in Villanueva. Charlie considered going back to Queens, but Deng encouraged him to stay, and he did.

"Luol Deng was my roomate my sophomore year," Villanueva said. "He came from London and I was from Queens, but we hit it off really well.

"It was good for me to have a guy like him around that I could relate to. We became a dominant team with Deng and myself on the same team."

Indeed. Blair's Buccaneers won three straight New Jersey Mid-Atlantic Prep League championships and were back-to-back state tournament runners-up during the Villanueva and Deng years.

Their early years together produced some extremely one-sided victories, because Blair was playing primarily area schools at the time before later upgrading its schedule. Picture what it must have been like for run-of-the-mill high school players to have a pair of 6-7 opponents with 7-foot wingspans staring them down.

And when the ball went to the other end of the court, these were not two stationary beanpoles who could be easily roughed up or knocked off-stride. They could run, they could jump, and they could drift out to the perimeter and knock down 3-pointers. They flat-out dominated.

Deng was amazed at the guard skills his teammate possessed, honed during his days back in Queens when he stood seven inches shorter less than a year earlier.

"That's why Charlie was so skilled -- he was a guard," Deng said. "He’s now one of the most skilled big guys in the league, the way he can shoot and dribble.”

Villanueva averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 assists and 3 steals as a senior, and he and Deng became the only prep teammates in the country named to participate in the prestigious McDonald's All-American game.

Deng was unable to participate due to an injury, but Villanueva scored 17 points, playing alongside the likes of future NBA rivals LeBron James, Chris Paul and Travis Outlaw. They led the East team to a 127-107 victory over the West.

Villanueva also competed in the EA Sports Roundball Classic, scoring 18 points and joining James once again, this time leading the West team past the East, 120-119.

Villanueva and Deng were selected first-team all-state by the Newark Star Ledger and chosen to the USA Today All-USA High School Basketball Team.

The victories, the gaudy numbers and the honors were rewards Villanueva and Deng both enjoyed at the time. But as they look back on their glory years together, they treasure their friendship and memorable moments much more.

“What a lot of people don’t know is Charlie’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around," Deng said. "I got the chance to be his roommate. You could never take those times back.”

They went through a couple of absolutely terrifying experiences together, too.

"One day, a squirrel got into our dorm room," Villanueva said. "It was jumping and flying all over the place. We were, too, and we were yelling."

“I was scared of squirrels," Deng said. "That scarred me for life."

On another occasion, Villanueva and Deng thought their lives were in jeopardy. In mid-winter, someone had turned their room thermostat all the way up to the top as a prank. They were asleep at the time, and when they awoke ...

"I couldn't see," Villanueva said. "At first I thought the place was on fire. It was steam. It was like a sauna in our room."

Deng won't forget that morning, either.

"The first thing in my mind was, it was a fire," he said. "I started yelling, ‘Charlie! Charlie!’ He woke up and he actually got a burn on his arm when he tried to reach up and turn the heat off. He still has a scar, but I told him it’s a good scar -- it’s a scar of the memories we had together.”

Yes, Charlie Villanueva and Luol Deng became scarred for life during their days as prep basketball teammates. And today, they wouldn't have it any other way.