BY ALEX FUMELLI
When Milwaukee Bucks power forward Charlie Villanueva sunk his first two points against the Knicks on November 2, at least a few dozen denizens at Madison Square Garden were celebrating. They were the “90 or so,” as Villanueva estimates, friends and family who ventured across the East River for the Elmhurst native’s homecoming.
Nate Blue, a self-proclaimed “jack of all trades” of Queens youth basketball - part coach, part scout, part manager - is among the 24-year-old’s sizable entourage. He first came across Villanueva after local rumors swirled about the pre-teen’s talent.
Blue noticed Villanueva was a special player “when I first saw him,” he said. “He wasn’t overly tall. [But,] he was a very high-IQ kid on the basketball court. He was 12, playing 17-and-under. And, there was really no difference between him and the 17-year-olds. He knew how to get away with being physical at times, just a lot of little things…. He’s only in the seventh grade and he’s totally outplaying [some] guys.”
Yet, as is the case for so many athletes on the way to professional stardom, Villanueva’s focus was not limited to one sport. Even while he was drawing the attention of local basketball circles, baseball was drawing much of Villanueva’s own.
“It was baseball at first,” Villanueva said. “I have a Dominican background, so baseball was definitely a sport that I loved to play.”
By the time high school rolled around - Newtown High School in Elmhurst to be exact -Villanueva’s conversion to basketball was complete. Part of the reason was his desire to be like his older brother Rob Carlos. The rest was his obsessive competitiveness.
“I always wanted to be like my brother, [so] I just fell in love with basketball as well,” Villanueva said.
Not the Knicks, though - they were his brother’s team.
“I used to hate the Knicks,” he said. “My favorite player was Reggie Miller - that’s why I wear 31. He was a Knick killer.”
To hear Villanueva wax poetically about Miller, who retired from basketball only three years ago, is to remember just how young Villanueva actually is. When Miller eliminated the Knicks with 34 points in the 2000 conference finals, Villanueva was in high school. When he scored 25 in the fourth quarter during New York’s 1994 playoff run - just yesterday, wasn’t it? - Villanueva was nine years old.
So, when Villanueva talks about his memories of Queens, where he grew up in a bilingual household, one realizes quickly that the adversities he describes are not of times long past.
“It was tough growing up in the projects in Elmhurst,” he said. “There were a lot of kids playing sports … to stay away from the drugs and the violence.”
According to Villanueva, Nate Blue was a big part of his own survival story.
“He’s my mentor,” Villanueva said. “I knew him growing up in Elmhurst, and he took me under his wing. He pushed me to the limit. I was just like his son. He would always look after me.”
Blue, a basketball chameleon even then, served as Villanueva’s assistant coach at Newtown, where Villanueva played for two years. In his first season, he played point guard behind current NBA player Smush Parker. The following summer, he grew seven inches.
As a sophomore, then, Villanueva made no secret of his abilities. He played every position. He was a minor celebrity at Newtown High School. To hear Blue tell it, the stardom took a toll on Villanueva’s academics.
“It was just a distraction. He was like the big man on campus. It was a little hard for him to focus,” Blue said. “The school is mostly kids that he grew up with from the neighborhood, and his grades weren’t up to par.”
So, Blue suggested a move to greener, more academic pastures. He went with Villanueva and his parents to Blair Academy, where he said it was “kind of like a silent decision” among all parties that a change was in order.
“Nate Blue played a big role in that,” Villanueva remembered. “I needed to get my academics in order.”
Villanueva liked Blair. He played alongside Luol Deng, another current NBA star. To succeed while living in a dorm room in Blairstown, NJ, he admits he had to “grow up real fast.” But, he thrived. ESPN columnist Seth Davis wrote in 2002 that “he puts up nice numbers, and he does so in a way that only a kid who grew up watching fellow Queens native … Lamar Odom could: with everything from 20-foot Js to 12-foot leaners to powerful facials to every now and then - back-to-the-basket moves.”
Villanueva has not changed much since then. In his two years at the University of Connecticut, and in his three full seasons in the NBA, he has shown off a diverse set of offensive skills.
This year, his third with the Bucks, he is averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds. Moreover, his Alopecia Areata - a highly unpredictable, autoimmune skin disease resulting in the loss of hair on the scalp and elsewhere on the body - and anti-bullying charity work have won him some major community awards.
“Six summers ago, he was one of these kids,” said Blue, who runs a small collection of youth tournaments and camps these days. “He’s not that far removed from a lot of these kids. He’s definitely a role model.”
Against the Knicks on November 2, Villanueva scored 16 points and tallied 8 rebounds. Think he wasn’t happy to be back home, looking a little bit like Reggie Miller in a 94-86 victory?
“It’s a thrill. I love coming home to the Garden. I think it’s the best arena,” he said, slipping on his customary suit jacket and tie in the locker room.
“Queens is the best borough by far,” he said, still smiling.