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Almost a Rebel, and still a winner in Vegas

By Rob Miech  (VSiN Contributor) 

March 16, 2017 04:38 AM
In 1994-95, Ed O'Bannon capped his personal comeback by leading UCLA to a 31-2 record and the program’s 11th national championship. His pick this year: Gonzaga.

LAS VEGAS — A battle-tested, worldly and sagacious Ed O’Bannon sat Wednesday afternoon in VSiN’s Studio A at the South Point and harkened back to that young kid — himself — who had visited this city 27 years ago.

In February 1990, O’Bannon, then a senior at Lakewood Artesia High in Southern California, made his official visit to UNLV. He had taken trips to Syracuse, Arizona State, USC (although it was mostly just a courtesy call to Trojans boss George Raveling), and UCLA. UNLV was his final trip.

O’Bannon met and befriended George Ackles and H Waldman, who were also interested in coach Jerry Tarkanian and the Rebels. With them, inside the Thomas & Mack Center, O’Bannon watched UNLV beat Arizona in a nationally televised game. Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson and Chris Jeter would join Ed, and others, at the Mirage that evening to watch Siegfried and Roy perform their magical repertoire.

In semi-circle booths, they settled in for the show when Julius Erving — Dr. J! O’Bannon said — sauntered over to pay his respects to Larry, Stacey and the rest of them. He had just flown cross-country and had watched the Rebels beat the Wildcats six miles over the earth.

Buster Douglas walked in; he, too, said hello to the current and prospective Rebels. Douglas had just defeated Mike Tyson. Introduced, O’Bannon thought, as if he were the President of the United States.

“The king of the world, at that time; the heavyweight champ!” O’Bannon said. “Man, it was an unbelievable trip. I was a huge fan of Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt. Just to visit with them was a thrill in itself. It was non-stop. I was in a car with Larry Johnson. I was 17, a time in my life when everything was new. I knew exactly where I wanted to go to school.”

A few weeks later, that UNLV dynamo routed Duke, 103-73, to establish a title-game victory margin that might last for eternity. Jerry Tarkanian, after two previous Final Four appearances, finally brought Las Vegas a national championship. The Strip exploded in euphoria. Parades. Community.

“It was going to be great,” O’Bannon said. “The fact that I was going to be part of a team that was coached by Jerry Tarkanian and [assistant] Tim Grgurich … my brother [Charles] would eventually come. There were others. It sounded like it was going to be something very special.”

It was all a desert mirage. Tark and Grg, as they were affectionately known, had informed Ed and his parents, in their home, that NCAA sanctions might be imminent. If so, they said, they would want him to be able to attend another school in a smooth and simple manner, so they only wanted an oral commitment from Ed; a signature on a Letter of Intent would require much more of a process to release Ed from UNLV.

A verbal, goes the lexicon, is non-binding. Many coaches would have attempted to gain O’Bannon’s signature to secure his services. Tark and Grg had endeared themselves that much more to Ed; O’Bannon, like Tark did, calls the governing body of college sports the Enn-See-Two-Eh.

“That was what really solidified it for me,” Ed said. “I knew I wanted to play for a coach that would be upfront and honest, no matter the consequences. He was in it to make me a better person … that’s what I got out of that conversation.”

The NCAA did levy sanctions on UNLV, O’Bannon switched his commitment to UCLA, and six days before the official start of practice he tore apart his left knee in a pick-up game by landing awkwardly after a ferocious dunk in the Wooden Center, the rec courts near Pauley Pavilion. O’Bannon faced a long and taxing recovery.

A surgeon repaired O’Bannon’s severed anterior cruciate ligament with an Achilles tendon from a cadaver, a procedure that is still rare and considered controversial.

As a fifth-year senior, in 1994-95, he capped his furious personal comeback by leading the Bruins to a 31-2 record and the program’s landmark 11th national championship.

Before the title game 22 years ago, CBS cameras panned the expanse of the Seattle Kingdome, zoning in closer, closer. A hand-held camera scanned the UCLA bench. Head coach Jim Harrick. The players. Ed.

He winked. As if he knew what was coming. In a raw, primal sense, he did. His will would not be denied. The left-handed, 6-foot-9 power forward scored 30 points and yanked down 17 rebounds to power the Bruins past Arkansas, 89-78, for the crown.

O’Bannon is the only living man to have tallied at least 30 points and 15 boards, while never taking a seat on the bench for the champion in a national-title contest. Clyde Lovellette, who passed away from cancer in 2016, was the first, for Kansas in 1952.

A professional basketball odyssey included a few NBA seasons, and O’Bannon had several stops in Europe and South America. It ended around 2004. He had already settled his wife and three kids in the foothills of Henderson, and he now serves as an assistant coach at the prestigious Findlay College Prep in those foothills.

O’Bannon has worked at Findlay Toyota, in marketing and advertising, for more than 10 years. He’s never averse to pounding the asphalt on a 115-degree summer day to give an assist to someone perusing for the perfect vehicle.

A protracted and exhausting legal battle against the NCAA — he had agreed to be the lead plaintiff — concluded in October when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. As in many cases, lawyers were the big winners.

But not really. O’Bannon, 44, said he always figured his ordeal was all about establishing the foundation for future trailblazers to take his lead and run with it, to ensure that collegiate athletes are eventually fairly compensated while the NCAA itself continues to benefit from billions of dollars of television revenue.

“There will be other fights,” he said. “I always felt our lawsuit was more to get the ball rolling, to spark conversation.”

Indeed, legal academics acknowledged the map that now exists for future antitrust cases against the NCAA.

O’Bannon will always relish this time of year. He’s analyzed the brackets, reviewed the rosters, glanced at statistics. Although he talked on the air Wednesday while wearing a white long-sleeve T-shirt bearing powder-blue UCLA script, O’Bannon picked Gonzaga to win it all.

“I’m a huge fan of Nigel Williams-Goss,” he said of the junior guard and Findlay Prep alum. “I’ve known him since he was in the eighth grade. He’s always getting better and he makes his teams very good. I’ve watched the Zags closely this season. Everyone seems to be picking North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky … I like Gonzaga.”

For the first time since 1995, the Final Four will be staged out west, in Glendale, Ariz. If on Monday, April 3, Williams-Goss finds himself sitting on a bench inside University of Phoenix Stadium, preparing for the game of his young life, and a CBS camera begins to angle toward him, he might just take a cue from a legend who is his biggest fan.

And wink.

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