In the community: Making a difference for 40 years - Part II

Making a difference for 40 years - Part II
The Milwaukee Bucks in the community
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

Charlie Villanueva has been very involved with the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. (Getty)
Print RSS Feeds FastBreak Tix

March 17, 2008

MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Bucks just released their 40th anniversary team – the best 20 players ever to wear the Bucks uniform. The team was determined in an online vote by the fans and local media.

If the Bucks were to name their all-time community team, recognizing the players who have made the greatest impact within the community since the franchise was founded in 1968, Desmond Mason would have to be one of the captains.

“The Cowboy,” whose trade to the Bucks from the Seattle Super Sonics was a rather rude awakening for him back in 2003, gave Milwaukee a chance when he arrived, and he has never regretted it.

Shortly after his arrival, Mason and his wife, Andrea, began reaching out to the community in a wide variety of ways. The community’s warm reception and response have established lasting bonds all over southeastern Wisconsin.

The Masons made an immediate difference with their commitment to the St. Michael Hospital Community Foundation Peace Program, in which they encouraged area children to consider the consequences of their actions and prevent violence. They provided youngsters with the tools necessary to construct positive and peaceful solutions to conflict in their lives.

Mason has also been a leader in the Bucks’ Read to Achieve program, a year-round NBA initiative that encourages youngsters to develop a lifelong love for reading. The program reaches an estimated 50 million children nationwide each year. The Bucks partner with Sam’s Hope and Northwestern Mutual Foundation on reading projects throughout the year.

When the Bucks traded Mason to the New Orleans Hornets in 2005, the news was a devastating blow to both Mason and the many friends he had made in the area, not to mention a legion of Milwaukee fans. The high flier with the dynamic smile and warm heart had become one of the most popular sports figures in Metro Milwaukee.

Bucks management scored big points with the local fan base when it brought Mason back into the fold last summer, and his Bradley Center homecoming was met with one of the loudest ovations this season.

Throughout their 40 years, the Bucks have strived to maintain a strong commitment to community outreach, and the first segment of this series detailed how extensive their agenda of activities around town really is. There are group initiatives, and every one of the players and coaches is involved in at least several other programs as well.

Mason and teammate Charlie Villanueva, however, have each tackled solo projects as well, because they have unique backgrounds that connect them to an audience they have made their own.

Aside from his other endeavors, Mason become involved during his first Bucks tour of duty with the Wisconsin Alliance for Fire Safety, a program that promotes and educates local communities on fire prevention and safety.

Specifically, Mason made a guest appearance at the Alliance’s summer camp for burn-injured youth at the Timber-Lee Christian Center in East Troy, addressing close to 90 campers ages 7 through 17. His message hit home, because when he was 3 years old, he felt their pain.

His story originated 27 years ago when he was in the back seat of his father’s car. There was a radiator explosion in an adjacent car, and the radiator fluid flew through the open window of Mason’s father’s car and into the back seat, where Desmond was sleeping. He was scalded. His legs had sustained most of the burns.

Mason spent the next six months or so in a hospital, where he underwent skin grafts, plastic surgery and rehabilitation. His doctors told his parents that he would never be able to run again.

They obviously underestimated Desmond’s determination. Within a year, he was not only running, but playing football and basketball.

Mason not only told the children at the burn camp the story of his traumatic ordeal, but showed them his scars and said, “Look at me now!”

His young audience, according to one observer, was awestruck. Anyone else who witnessed his presentation probably was, too.

“I told them about what I had to go through when I was young and I got burned,” Mason said. “It was in the same situation, and it’s something that kind of messes with your head a little bit. Kids are so young, and they can be brutal and say whatever and make you feel like an outcast sometimes.

“When I visit these camps, I’m around people who are in the same situation I was in.”

Mason told the campers to enjoy their time at the camp, look past their painful experiences and focus on the future. And he stressed to them the importance of working hard and believing that they could accomplish anything they set out to do.

“I got a lot of responses – e-mails, cards, letters – from the kids,” Mason said. “It feels good when you get feedback and know that people really took to heart some of the things you talked about.”

That is obviously because those “things” came from the heart.

Charlie Villanueva has never been a burn victim, but he can certainly relate to Mason.

Something that happened to him as a child, through no fault of his own, altered his life and forced him to deal with issues that his classmates, his friends and his family never had to.

When Villanueva was 10 years old, his hair began falling out -- first in small patches, then in clumps. It grew back, but 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 comfort in the fact that his boyhood hero, Reggie Miller, shaved his head.

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

"I think if I wouldn't have had this condition, I wouldn't be here (in the National Basketball Association) 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 has become a spokesman for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation in order to help others are are growing up with his condition.

In 2006, the NBA recognized his efforts by presenting him with the league's Community Assist Award for the month of February. He received the Toronto Raptors' Community MVP Award in October of 2005 and again the following month.

Since being traded to the Bucks during the ensuing offseason, he has continued reaching out to alopecia areata victims.

“What I’ve been doing my first three years in the league is inviting kids to come to games on the road," Villanueva said. "We have groups of anywhere from 10 to 40 kids who have alopecia, who are dealing with the same thing that I dealt with.

"They come to the game, watch me warm up, and I spend about 10 or 15 minutes with them. I’ll ask if they have any questions for me, sign pictures, take pictures, sign things for them … just make them feel comfortable. I tell them they can accomplish a lot if they put their mind to it, and try to add some healing to the whole process.”

Villanueva, who still remembers the cruel jokes directed his way when he was first stricken with the condition, has also spoken to youngsters to address bullying and promote conflict resolution.

“I’ve done that," he said. "That’s kind of slowed down a little bit right now; it’s going to pick up in the summer. Right now, the whole thing I’m concentrating on is helping kids with alopecia.”

Villanueva has not rested in his outreach, because he continues to receive positive feedback from his beneficiaries.

“I get a lot of feedback, on my Web site, in fan mail and things like that," he said. "The response is great, man. It just keeps me hungry to do more. It makes me feel real good that I’m making a difference. That’s huge.”

Villanueva wishes there had been someone who could have related to his condition and helped him when he was a youngster.

“It was hard for me," he said. "I didn’t look up to anybody who was dealing with it, who was in the spotlight, who played sports."

As the years have passed, though, and Villanueva has made his way into the highest echelon of basketball in the world, he sees his experiences in an entirely different light.

“You know, I’m a firm believer than everything happens for a reason," he said. "Back when I was dealing with it, I didn’t know why it happened to me, but once God blessed me to be in this position, I realized why it happened to me.”

"It was something I had to overcome by myself. It was tough. I know what those kids are going through.

"But now they have somebody to lean on, somebody who’s been through it.”