UPDATE: JR Smith recently said the best basketball team he’s ever played against was a HS team that featured Charlie Villanueva and Luol Deng (eat your heart out, Warriors!). Back in the early 00s, we actually featured that team in SLAM 66 (Feb. ’03)—and the story was later re-published on this site in 2007. Read it below. —Ed.
Words: Ben Osborne
Taking I-80 West out of Newark on a fall afternoon, the gray turns to green and then orange as the buildings fade into mountains. Getting off Exit 12 for Hope/Blairstown, not long before the Pennsylvania border and about an hour removed from New York City, there are two signs: one for the Land of Make Believe, and one for Blair Academy. Just a few miles off the highway, Blair is a distinguished prep school with a picturesque campus that rivals most colleges. A couple of miles in the other direction, the Land of Make Believe is a small family amusement park, shuttered for the season. And you can’t help but wonder, for Blair Academy seniors and soon-to-be household names Luol Deng and Charlie Villanueva, is there any difference between Blair and a land of make believe?
Luol is a 6-7 small forward from Sudan, via Egypt and London. Charlie is a 6-9 combo forward with Dominican roots and a Brooklyn-Queens upbringing. These are not your typical preppies by any means. “When I first got here, I was so homesick. I felt separated from my family and my friends in England, and it was like I was already in college,” says Deng, who will be in college soon—most likely at Indiana or Duke, pending an announcement as this issue of SLAM went to press—and, assuming LeBron James makes his expected jump, probably as preseason Freshman of the Year. “I was so shy, I didn’t speak to anyone. The change of culture was big. I struggled to make friends and I struggled with my classes.”
Three-plus years after arriving in the U.S. as a well-traveled 14-year-old, Deng has finally fallen in love with his dreamlike surroundings. “I realized, when I went home to Brixton [in South London] after my freshman year, that Blair was a better place for me,” he says. “The teachers have helped me in my classes, and Coach has helped me with basketball. Now I like that it’s a mini-college.”
Villanueva, who came to the New Jersey hinterlands as a repeating sophomore a year after Luol, has had a similar arc of experience. “Even though I was Luol’s roommate and he helped me with stuff during my first year, whew, I still called my mom every day and told her I wanted to come home,” says Villanueva, a consensus top-10 senior who might also end up a Hoosier—Illinois, Seton Hall and Villanova are also on his list—if he doesn’t go straight to the NBA. “It’s a different world out here, and it was hard to adjust coming from the city. But I kept in there and kept fighting, and now I’m happy to be here.”
Deng, with his clipped but well-spoken proper English, and Villanueva, with his laugh-heavy city-speak, sound similar when speaking on the strides they’ve made, but it’s one of the few things they have in common with each other—or, for that matter, with many other high school players in the country.
Playing in a surprisingly intense after-class scrimmage in mid-October, Luol and Charlie display the same diverse skills they’ve been showing shoe camp (Deng at Nike and Villanueva at adidas), AAU and high school followers for the last few years. Background notwithstanding, Luol’s game has more polish than the players’ parking lot at an NBA arena, with athletic shine to match. A wing forward at Blair, Luol packs 221 pounds quite nicely onto his 6-7 frame, allowing him to muscle past defenders on offense and lock them down on D. He’s got a nice enough jump shot, a tight handle, athletic moves around the hoop and the ability to seemingly never lose control. He projects as a solid three in college and a potentially deadly two in the League. “Not to be cocky, but I don’t think I’m there yet with my athleticism or skills,” Luol—known around the Blair campus as Louie—says after the scrimmage. “I’m not satisfied because I think I’m behind where I could be. I don’t know if I’m even near the point of being satisfied. Even just the scrimmage you just watched…I’m going to go back to my room and think about the shots I should have made.”
While Deng’s mind and skill set seem like they’d belong more to a kid from a hoop haven like Indiana, further examination into the path he’s taken explains things pretty well. Deng was born into a Dinka family in southern Sudan in 1985, but by ’89 the ongoing civil war between the Islamic north and the non-Islamic south had escalated to the point that his mother and siblings fled to Egypt in the wake of a political coup. Luol’s dad, a member of the Sudanese parliament, stayed behind until ’93, when he was granted political asylum in England. Still, basketball was seeping into the Dengs’ war-torn life, thanks to his brother’s interest and their fortuitous run-ins with fellow Sudanese Dinka Manute Bol in Egypt. “My brothers saw that I was tall so they started working me out from the time that I was 7,” explains Deng. “I also played a lot of soccer, which helped with my footwork and athleticism.”
When Luol was 10 years old, his family joined their father in South London. “I still loved soccer there, and I’d play it or watch Arsenal whenever I could,” Luol says, “but I also joined the Brixton basketball club and played with some older guys.”
One of those older guys was also one of Luol’s brothers, Ajou, who was discovered by UConn and did a prep stint at St. Thomas More (CT) School before landing in Storrs. [Ajou has since transferred to Fairfield, where he’s a fifth-year senior and star player for the Stags—Ed.] “When my family was leaving Egypt, my uncle there said to my dad, ‘I hope they can learn English well enough to get into college,’” recalls Luol, who complements his trilingual abilities (he speaks English, Arabic and a Sudanese dialect) with a qualifying SAT score and a 3.0-plus gpa. “There weren’t any hopes like this, where I could actually choose where I wanted to go to school.”
Ajou helped change those expectations, however, and his experience encouraged the parents to the point that Luol came to Blair with his sister, Arek (now balling at Delaware). And from Bol to Brixton to Blair, Luol kept learning and working at the game. “I learned about Louie from [former UConn assistant] Karl Hobbs, who had recruited Ajou to UConn. Karl told me that Louie was better than Ajou,” recalls Blair coach Joe Mantegna, a former D1 assistant who began his Blair career the same time as Luol. “I said to Karl, That’s a joke, because Ajou is one of the best high school players I’ve ever seen. But if he’s half as good as Ajou, I’ll be happy to have him. Five minutes into seeing Louie play, I knew he was special.”
University of Texas guard Royal Ivey, a Queens native, did his post-grad season at Blair Academy that same year. “The first time I saw him, I said, This kid is going to be a pro,” Ivey says. “He has a lot of talent and he knows the game so well. It’s like it all comes naturally to him. He wasn’t very aggressive that year, but you could tell he’d get more comfortable and keep getting better.”
Luol has done just that, steadily rising in the high school rankings to his current place just below LeBron in the class of ’03, and upping his oncourt influence to the point that he averaged 22 points, 11 boards, 4.6 assists and 2.5 blocks last season. Luol has also gained English citizenship and become the star of the English junior national team; he now has an open invitation to join the British senior squad whenever possible.
Villanueva’s story doesn’t have quite the international flavor Deng’s does, but it’s a winding one nonetheless. Born into a working class, bilingual home in Queens, NY, Villanueva grew up splitting time between his parents and living all over Brooklyn and Queens. School wasn’t really a priority, but sports were. “In Queens, we lived with mostly Spanish people, and everyone in the neighborhood pretty much played baseball or basketball. It was like a battle between the two, but my brothers got me into basketball,” remembers Charlie. “I played both, but I started to take basketball real serious when I got to high school.”
As a 6-1 freshman, Villanueva made the varsity at Newtown HS in Queens, serving mainly as a reserve behind seniors such as Smush Parker. “I played mostly backup point, which is why I got a little bit of handles,” says Villanueva with a knowing smirk. “Then I started to grow, and by my sophomore season I was like 6-7. Then all the seniors left, so it was my time to shine, and I did. I started out as a two, but then I kept growing and ended up playing all the positions.”
Villanueva wasn’t doing a whole lot in the classroom, however, and so his basketball advisor, the ubiquitous (in Queens hoops circles, at least) Nate Blue, got together with Charlie’s parents and suggested that he head to prep school. Winchendon in Massachusetts was in the running for a minute, but Charlie liked what Ivey had told him about the place and what he knew of Deng and Mantegna, so he headed to Blair.
Despite the theoretical jump Villanueva should have on Deng, given his more hoop-intensive upbringing, Charlie’s game is much looser than Luol’s. As his 18-point, 8-board averages attest, he puts up nice numbers, and he does so in a way that only a kid who grew up watching fellow Queens native and former Long Island Panther 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. On this afternoon, Mantegna pleads helplessly with Charlie to keep his shot attempts in the “third-third-third range,” meaning one-third three-pointers, one-third drives and one-third from the blocks. Charlie doesn’t seem terribly interested in his coach’s advice, however, and continues to throw up treys, many of which wet the net beautifully. “I think I can handle the [post] moves pretty well, but I think I’m even better on the wing,” Villanueva justifies.
In Ivey’s words, Charlie is “a great talent. Look, he can dribble, shoot threes and dunk on everybody. But his body hasn’t matured and he won’t ever play inside. I think he needs to mature more all-around before he can go to the League, and that’s why I’m always telling him to go to school.”
Charlie’s outside-in approach may frustrate caring observers, but it’s the same reason he’s considered a lock for the League, and why he’s so hard to stop when everything’s clicking. “We’ve been together three years, so you’d think I’d be able to hold him on defense,” says Luol, “but man, he’s too good.”
Assuming everything goes according to plan, the two Blair stars will be very rich young men before too long. Charlie promises to take care of his parents, who are still learning what a big deal he is. “I think my mom knows what’s happening now, but it doesn’t faze her. I’m still the same person to her,” Charlie says with a sheepish smile. “If she needs to hit me, she hits me.”
As for Luol, he wants to make it big in order to reach his people, many of whom have no idea how close he is to being a superstar. “Coach K went and visited my parents in England, and it wasn’t even a big deal to them, which is a lot different from American parents,” expounds Luol. “But a lot of people in England are realizing what I’m doing. The BBC is even coming to do a special on me. Now I hope to have people in Sudan learn who I am. I don’t think they know what it means to be good in high school. That’s one of my goals—to help my people in southern Sudan and show there is a lot of talent there if you give people the opportunity.”
Last season, the Deng-Villanueva combo was good enough to lead Blair to a 19-7 record against a relatively national schedule, but the team suffered its second straight loss in the New Jersey state title game. This year promises an even more imposing schedule as well as the likelihood of consistent USA Today Top 25 acknowledgement, and, if the guys’ word is their bond, a definite state title. “We’re definitely going to win it this year,” says Luol, while Charlie adds his “guarantee.”
Considering the lands that Luol and Charlie have been to, not to mention the ones they’re headed for, you better believe ’em.