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Villanueva leads by example for ABCD stars

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Charlie Villanueva stood off to the side, his 6-foot-11 frame towering over nearly everyone. Reebok’s ABCD basketball camp was in full swing, and the gymnasium at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. was alive and dripping with the site of money and prestige mixed in with high school basketball.

The panorama was overpowering: college coaches stood on one side of the gym, separated by a velvet rope, while blank-faced teens sat on the other, waiting for their turn to play.

Villanueva, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut, who played two years at Newtown High before leaving for Blair Academy in New Jersey, stood in between the sections — literally and figuratively — caught between hobnobbing with the kids and keeping a serious veneer for the coaches and NBA scouts on hand.

He was there as a counselor at the camp, a chaperone for the younger players, a fitting position for Villanueva to find himself in. The players could learn much from him.

Not too long after he played here, Villanueva a resident of Corona, was suspended by the NCAA for taking part in a workout for NBA scouts. The exercise was set up by an agent and the NCAA, believing he had crossed a line, said Villanueva was guilty by association. Villanueva was put on ice for the first six games of his freshman year at UConn.

“When I went through that whole process, I learned a lot,” he said. “I realized that basketball is partly a game, but it is mostly a business. I understand what these players here at the camp are going through.

They have to make sure that they make the right decision. They have to make sure it’s their decision and not someone else’s. I would tell them don’t go to school for somebody else.”

Villanueva was invited three times to play at the ABCD camp. His final year he won the MVP award and verbally committed to the University of Illinois.

The story could have ended there, except that the head coach Bill Self and top assistant Norm Roberts (now at St. John’s), departed for Kansas.

Feeling he had been misled, Villanueva reneged on his commitment and eventually chose UConn, but the process of picking a school had not been easy. He flirted with going straight to the NBA — a brief romance that cost him six games in college.

“I came a long way since then,” he said. “Playing for coach [Jim] Calhoun has taught me a lot. I am a whole different player from the one I was before. When I was making my decision of where to go after high school, a lot of people were pressuring me.

I tried to keep my circle tight, with my brother’s family involved in my decision. People you don’t know who try to get involve usually have their own agenda. After going through the whole process, I knew I wasn’t ready for the NBA. Now I’m just taking it a year at a time. Whatever happens, happens.”

Reach reporter Mitch Abramson by E-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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