Villanueva learning to stay motivated

Updated: July 28, 2004, 4:37 PM ET
By Myron Medcalf | Special to ESPN.com

Charlie Villanueva has an NBA body, three-point shooting range and enough versatility to play all five positions.

What he lacks, however, is consistent motivation.

Charlie Villanueva
Charlie Villanueva will be a centerpiece for defending champion UConn next season.
"(There have been) times when I haven't been intense," said the UConn sophomore power forward, competing for Team USA at the World Championship for Young Men, which began Wednesday in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"But that's all about maturity, growing up and having discipline, and definitely, I'm learning that from coach (Jim) Calhoun."

Villanueva's recent performances at a Reebok ABCD Camp counselor game and the USA team trials were nothing short of dominant. One NBA Eastern Conference scout said the 6-foot-9, 240-pound power forward was the second-best player at the trials after Wake Forest's Chris Paul.

Villanueva's valuable minutes off the bench (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) helped the Huskies win the 2004 NCAA crown. Although he made the Big East all-rookie team, he ended his freshman season with one unanswered question: What if he was a more passionate player?

"He's not ever going to play like that. The problem with a guy like Charlie is that everyone wants him to," said USA and Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson. "He's not going to. It's not his personality."

Sampson and his coaching staff don't doubt Villanueva's desire to play and to get better. He's never shy about voicing his disappointment whenever he misses a shot or is in the wrong position on defense.

"I never knew Charlie before this event, but the thing I've been most impressed with is you can tell he loves basketball," said USA assistant coach and Marquette head coach Tom Crean. "And No. 2, he takes mistakes personally, which means he wants to get better. There are a lot of players in the world today that get a lot of accolades and don't take mistakes and getting better personally."

Basketball has always helped Villanueva fit in, something he struggled with at a young age. The Queens, N.Y., native grew up fighting for playing time on local playgrounds. His older brother, Rob, wanted to toughen him up fast, so he made Charlie play with bigger, stronger players.

"Everybody out there on the playground had something to prove," said Villanueva, whose family is originally from the Dominican Republic. "One thing they said was 'no foul, no blood.' It's real competitive out there."

Basketball came naturally to him, and he even had the new look for athletes, promoted by NBA legend Michael Jordan in the '90s. But Villanueva's bald head and bare face have nothing to do with style. He has the autoimmune disease Alopecia, which causes hair loss.

At age 10, he started losing his hair. Some of it came back when he was 11, but at 12 he was bare again and it hasn't returned since.

Villanueva's athleticism helped him escape some, but not all, of the elementary school torments most of the 4.7 million Americans with the disease endure. His physical toughness on the blacktop in Queens was less important than the mental strength he needed to get through the stares and questions about his odd appearance.

But soon, the path of his basketball career changed for the better. Villanueva grew seven inches during the summer after his freshman year of high school to 6-8. He transferred to Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., the next school year and went on to become co-state Player of the Year with former teammate and Chicago Bulls rookie Luol Deng as a senior. After becoming a highly touted prep, Villanueva entered the 2003 NBA Draft but withdrew in time to maintain his eligibility.

But he had to sit out six regular-season games while his school and the NCAA discussed his situation and when he would be cleared to play. Villanueva was frustrated during the process because he wasn't told about his suspension until after the season started. But his decision to go to college helped him earn a ring and his stock continues to rise going into next season.

His life has been intense. He may never show as much enthusiasm as fans and coaches would like but playing the game isn't hard for Villanueva. It's one of the easier things he's had to do.

Myron Medcalf can be reached at myron.p.medcalf.-ND@espn3.com.

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