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Raptors draft pick Charlie Villanueva. (SUN/Michael Peake)

Raptors draft pick Charlie Villanueva. (SUN/Michael Peake)

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:13 AM ET

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Five years ago, Joe Mantegna ventured into a tough part of Queens, N.Y., not knowing what to expect.

The coach of the Blair Academy high school team in New Jersey had heard all the great stories about Charlie Villanueva, the basketball player.

But just what would this kid from the rough and tumble inner-city be like off the court? Could a teenager with a not-so-great academic record, who spoke Spanish in an apartment which rattled every few minutes when the subway rumbled by, fit into an intense academic boarding school in the middle of nowhere? Was Charlie Villanueva really worth the risk?

"I knew right away, just from the way he treated his mom and younger sister, that this was a good person," Mantegna said of the Raptors' latest top draft pick.

"He has that scowl on his face and people see he is from Brooklyn and maybe they make inferences. But they're false. They don't know him. He's an ultra-talented, versatile player and there is no downside to him as a person."

Yes this potential "cancer," as one scouting report labelled the Villanueva, has more than a few fans. For all the bad stuff that has been said about the quiet Villanueva, there is an equal, or greater, amount of good.

Villanueva, the son of Dominican immigrants, and his family are living the American dream because of their sacrifices, their determination and their tight-as-can-be bond.

"A lot of people Charlie grew up with turned out the wrong way," said Nate Blue, a fixture in the New York basketball community and a close friend of Villanueva's. "He's one of the kids who made it out.

"People get killed every second, but he always stayed around basketball. He never got into any trouble."

Villanueva grew up with his mother, Dora Mejia, his older brother, Robert Carlos, and his younger sister, Genesis. His father, Roberto, was in and out of his life.

As a teenager, when image and appearance often mean everything, Villanueva was diagnosed with a skin disease called Alopecia Areata, resulting in hair loss everywhere on the body. While Villanueva shed some tears with his mom at first, he took it in stride.

"I was already a freak of nature, big hands, big feet, towering over everyone," Villanueva said on his website. If there was any 13-year-old that could deal with this condition, it was me."

Villanueva's family of four moved around the New York area during his childhood, looking for better opportunities. It usually was a struggle. But Dora, who speaks little English, is the family's rock and she raised a fine son in Robert Carlos, who recently graduated from a college media studies program. Three years older than Charlie, Robert Carlos took his younger brother to the street courts, where he regularly competed against older players.

"I was blessed because I was always with him," Charlie Villanueva said. "He always brought me along and I played with the older guys. He was never into drugs or alcohol and that's a blessing because I looked up to him. He didn't do that and he kept me away from it."

Sometimes, however, Villanueva saw things with his own eyes.

"I've seen people get stabbed around my neighbourhood," he said. "We go back and we see some of our friends who are probably locked up in jail, guys still smoking, doing drugs."

Not wanting Charlie in that kind of environment, Mejia started looking into Blair Academy. Tuition at Blair is more than $30,000 US and to help cover that, Mejia took a job as a custodian.

Blair was a challenge for Villanueva in more ways than one.

"I remember he saw a squirrel for the first time and he just jumped," Mantegna said, recalling one of Villanueva's first visit to the countryside.

And then there was school. Villanueva thought about leaving in his second year, but Blair teammate and current Chicago Bull Luol Deng encouraged him to stay.

It turned out to be the right decision. Villanueva thrived on the court, leading Blair to two state titles, including one without the injured Deng. He didn't experience any academic problems and expanded his horizons, biking the trails of the 315-acre campus and taking a role as a bodyguard in a school production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

"I wasn't used to living in the middle of nowhere and I'm a mama's boy," Villanueva told the New York Times last year. "Being away from my mom hurt, but I overcame it."

While there was a setback when Villanueva flirted with the idea of entering the NBA draft out of high school, he pulled out in time to retain his college eligibility and then spent the next two years working with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun at Connecticut.

Villanueva won a national championship in his first year. This past season, he played his best basketball of his career in the final 10 games, after a big blow to his family.

In November, Mejia, standing at a bus stop, was hit by a truck that jumped the curb after the driver had suffered a heart attack. It shattered her right elbow and Mejia still is recovering.

The accident stunned Villanueva. One of the reasons he left UConn early was so he could buy a new house for his mom in a better part of Queens. He also wants to make sure his mom doesn't use public transportation again.

"My mom has been there since Day 1," Villanueva said. "I just love her. She's my best friend and she's always supported me, even through the hard times. She's doing a lot better. She's recovering well."

Along his way to becoming a millionaire, Villanueva hasn't forgotten the people who mean most to him. Never was that more clear than last month when, during a period of workouts from NBA teams in several cities across the continent, Villanueva took time out to fly back to New York to attend his sister's Grade 8 graduation.

Family will remain front and centre when Villanueva begins his NBA career. His half-brother, Robert Elias Villanueva, is coming to Toronto to live with him.

"A lot of people have been thinking this was a gang guy or something (because of where his background), but he's the complete opposite of that," Robert Elias said. "He's really humble and really family oriented.

"You won't know Charlie until you meet him."


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