Toronto Raptors rookie Charlie Villanueva sat slumped at his locker before a recent game at New Jersey, picking at his bare, bald forearm as he reflected on the taunts hurled at him in his youth. “They’d say a lot of mean things,” recalled the Queens, N.Y., native. “Just stupid stuff.”
“The balding eagle,” he said with a laugh. “It’s funny now, but back then it was painful. I didn’t understand why it was happening to me.”
True, kids say the darnedest things, and they were especially cruel to Villanueva. Not only was he teased for his height (he was nearly 6 feet tall by age 12) but also for a mysterious skin disease known as alopecia universalis, which would slowly render him hairless.
Basketball was Villanueva’s escape, and it has given him a sense of belonging. Now the taunts have turned into cheers as Villanueva has found success in the NBA.
Initially written off as a lottery bust coming out of Connecticut, the soft-spoken Villanueva has been perhaps the biggest surprise among rookies and is the prohibitive favorite to finish second behind the Hornets’ Chris Paul for Rookie of the Year honors. Moved from power forward to the wing to better showcase his pillow-soft shooting touch from outside and instincts as a slasher and finisher, Villanueva, 21, ranks second among rookies in rebounding (10.8 per game) and his 12.9 points per game are a scant 3.5 behind Paul’s.
“I’m not surprised,” said Paul of Villanueva’s success, specifically the career-high 48 points he dropped on Milwaukee in an overtime loss last month. “Charlie has been this great of a basketball player since we were in high school. He can dribble the ball up the court, pass, shoot — everything.”
Villanueva’s fast-improving play has the Raptors looking forward to a bright future. In the meantime, he is using his heightened profile to bring awareness to a relatively unknown disease. He is one of five million Americans who suffer from alopecia, the wildly unpredictable skin disease that tricks the immune system into attacking hair follicles on the body, thereby stymieing hair growth. After struggling with self-esteem issues throughout his adolescence, Villanueva has come to embrace his condition and this season has become the spokesman for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. He frequently visits with afflicted youngsters to talk about the disease, logging some 18 stops so far.
“Being able to bring a smile to a child’s face and show them that those with alopecia can succeed,” he says, “brings joy to my life.”
A Challenging Childhood
Alopecia tends not to discriminate by gender, race or age, taking root most often in childhood. Villanueva started noticing small changes in his appearance as early as age 10. “I used to get little bald spots here and there,” he recalls.
His parents, both Dominican immigrants, didn’t freak out at first. “In our culture, our parents always made assumptions that it might be the rain or the pipes in the building,” says Rob Elias, the eldest of Villanueva’s three siblings. “We’d get a lot of recipes from the Dominican Republic for teas and other stuff like that. There was always some aunt or some aunt’s friend who thought she had the cure.”