Las Vegas Sun

July 22, 2014

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The GIFT

Ed O'Bannon will finally land on the UNLV campus sometime next year when the former collegiate basketball player of the year begins completing work on his bachelor's degree.

He left UCLA about a year's worth of classes shy of receiving that diploma, and the irony of finishing those studies at UNLV did not escape him when he moved his wife and three children to Southern Nevada 14 months ago.

Former Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian had successfully wooed the blue-chip recruit from Lakewood, Calif., to Las Vegas in 1990, with the caveat that Tark would release O'Bannon if UNLV were hit with probation.

"When (Tarkanian) told me that, I thought it was the coolest thing," O'Bannon said. "Other coaches would be like, 'Come sign and we'll be OK.' Once probation arrived, it would be, 'Well, you have to stick it out. Sorry.' Tark was man enough to stick by his word."

That proved to be the case in August 1990, because of indiscretions in the Rebels' involvement with Lloyd Daniels, and O'Bannon instead went to UCLA.

This is the 10th anniversary season of UCLA's 11th national title, which will stand as the sterling legacy of O'Bannon's playing days. At Green Valley High, he has been assisting coach Adam Patai for about a month.

"Everyone always said I could take online courses, but when I started asking questions at UCLA they said I'd either have to move back to L.A. and go to school at UCLA or go to school at UNLV," O'Bannon said. "I looked at the phone and said, 'What, are you kidding me?' "

O'Bannon's deep laughter filled the Green Valley auxiliary gym after a Gators practice this week.

Former Bruins coach Jim Harrick calls weekly, as he did Monday night, to coax O'Bannon into fulfilling the requirements he needs for his degree sooner than later.

"It's pretty wild," O'Bannon said. "It's too bad I don't have any eligibility left. Believe me, I would use it. But I used it all up. I spent five years in school and I have none left.

"I really can't believe I'm actually going to get my degree from UNLV."

Patai can't believe his good fortune, from "going fishing" after church two months ago in initially asking O'Bannon if he would speak to his players, to now having the 1995 player of the year at every practice and game.

Before that first game, in the tight quarters at Bishop Gorman, Patai noticed that O'Bannon looked jittery as the Gators warmed up.

"I'm thinking, 'Here's a guy who's been in the biggest arenas around ... ' I said, 'Are you all right?' And he said, 'Man, this is exciting,' " Patai said.

In reviewing videotape of that game, O'Bannon again caught Patai's attention.

"He was standing up and his fist was pumping," Patai said. "After the game, I asked him how he liked it and he said, 'Man, that was great!' So he's hooked. That's good, so we keep him around.

"What I love about him is, you wouldn't know that he's done all these things and won all these things. He is the most soft-spoken, modest guy there is. That's why I like having him around. He's good for the kids and just a good guy."

O'Bannon, 32, squeezed every ounce of basketball ability out of his 6-foot-7 frame.

During that first fall at UCLA, he suffered a devastating left knee injury -- whose surgery required the transplant of an Achilles' tendon from a cadaver to replace his anterior cruciate ligament -- that laid the foundation for UCLA's championship 1994-95 season.

Poor fits in the National Basketball Association limited his career in that league to 128 games, with New Jersey and Dallas, and redirected him through Italy, Spain, Greece, Argentina and Poland, where he played the last three seasons.

O'Bannon had loose cartilage cleaned out of his left knee last summer, then reported to Eugene, Ore., where teams for a new Chinese league were holding a mass tryout, in August.

Physically, he knew he wasn't ready to play so soon after having arthroscopic knee surgery.

Mentally and emotionally, he knew his playing days were over.

"But I went out there to test the knee and possibly get on a team," O'Bannon said. "I didn't want to leave (Las Vegas). All I could think about was being at home. I didn't want to be there and didn't want to play ball, and I played like it.

"Halfway through the tryouts, I just didn't care that I played bad. In fact, I almost wanted to play bad and not get picked, so I could just go home. I called my wife (Rosa) from the airport and said, 'I'm done.'"

Monday night, Ed, Rosa and their three children, ages 6, 8 and 10, decorated a Christmas tree in the family's Anthem home.

"Those are things I wouldn't be doing," Ed said, "if I were playing overseas."

Friends and relatives have told him he will miss playing basketball.

"And I'm sure I will," O'Bannon said, looking at an auxiliary gym floor that the Green Valley Gators had long since left. "But banging with these young guys and sweating like that, every day ... that's enough for me."

He recalls every detail of that injury 14 years ago.

The Bruins had finished practice early at Pauley Pavilion, but O'Bannon, Shon Tarver, Darrick Martin and the rest of them decided to run a few more full-court drills.

O'Bannon stole a pass from Mitchell Butler, and in the next instant O'Bannon toppled on his back and filled the arena with a blood-curdling yell.

He kept saying to himself that he had heard of knee injuries and knee surgeries, "but it can't happen, this DIDN'T happen, to me." He walked off the court to try to convince himself that this wasn't happening, that everything would be fine.

A team of UCLA doctors and trainers, however, pulled at his leg on a trainer's table in the locker room, and none said one positive word. "It's not looking good," said head trainer Tony Spino.

When MRIs and X-rays were completed, O'Bannon was told that, not only might he not play in 1990-91, but he might not ever walk properly again. He visited his parents, Ed and Madeline, in Cerritos and, with his left leg resting on a pillow, comforted them.

"I told them, 'Don't worry. I'm going to be OK.' I knew right then that I'd play again and I'd be back at the top of my game. There was not a negative thought, ever, in my mind," O'Bannon said. "I made it make me stronger."

Eighteen months later, O'Bannon returned to the court. At the start of '94-95, he set a demanding tone when he ripped nearly all of his teammates and tossed chairs in an Anaheim Arena locker room at halftime of an eventual win over Kentucky.

It culminated in a championship as O'Bannon scored 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in an 89-78 victory over Arkansas in Seattle at the Kingdome, which no longer exists.

That tournament run is best remembered for a second-round squeaker over Missouri in Boise, Idaho, where Tyus Edney ran fullcourt for the game-winning layup in the final 4.8 seconds.

ESPN Classic played that game in its entirety last week. At one point, as O'Bannon lay on his back after getting fouled when he hit a 3-point shot, the late television broadcaster Al McGuire roared.

"There's the man!" McGuire said. "That's the guy that will take you to the promised land!"

That's the guy whom Rosa O'Bannon was starting to fume at as he lay on the couch more and more in the family room at home.

She had just begun her dream job, as a substitute teacher, and Ed's days mostly consisted of taking the kids to school and picking them up. Then they ran into Patai, a native of Indiana, at church.

"We're the same age," Patai said. "I'm not really a UCLA fan but an Ed O'Bannon fan. Instantly, I knew it would be a big treat for him to come in and talk with the kids."

After O'Bannon spoke to the Gators, Patai asked him, if he could spare the time, if he would like to pop in more frequently, maybe observe the team. Two weeks later, O'Bannon called to ask if that offer was still open.

"Coach Patai was right on time for me," O'Bannon said. "It couldn't have happened at a better time. My wife isn't used to me being home."

Tuesday morning, O'Bannon told Rosa how much he looked forward to that day's practice, which players were excelling and which ones might need some extra counseling in certain areas.

While O'Bannon has widespread input, he and Patai are keenly aware of how a former college player of the year might influence sophomore Billy White, a transfer from Bishop Gorman.

At Tuesday night's practice, the gifted 6-7 White didn't even return a high-five to a teammate who wanted to celebrate a nifty move that White had just executed.

"You have to understand that as long as you're on a team you're a family," O'Bannon said. "It's a two-way street, and he'll understand that. He reminds me of me at my age, in that he's lanky, a lefty and raw.

"He's got a tremendous amount of talent. But, to me, it's like he has a little barrier there and he's not sure if he should trust what we're telling him. A guy like Billy doesn't come around too often."

Same thing goes for Ed O'Bannon.

"I don't talk about what I've done," he said. "I never have. It's not in me to tell them what I've done, basketball-wise ... I don't want to be this big-shot guy. I just want to blend in and help in any way I can."

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