The last we saw of Ed O'Bannon, the last time he really basked in the glory of the national spotlight, he was standing atop a ladder, UCLA championship cap cocked backward, left fist boldly pointing to the sky. As his right hand gripped the rim from which he had just snipped a piece of netting, a mile-long grin stretched across his face.
He seemed immortal that night, putting the 1995 Bruins on his back and all but carrying them to the national title in an 89-78 victory over Arkansas. Every loose ball, every key rebound seemingly landed in O'Bannon's hands. He contributed 30 points and 17 rebounds, almost all of which came when it mattered most. The future appeared limitless.
"His confidence was so high," said former teammate Bob Myers, "he just turned it on and became the leader. I had never seen anything like it."
Fast forward 5½ years, as the soft-spoken O'Bannon answers the phone in his suburban Los Angeles home. A reporter has questions -- not about being a star in the NBA or making millions of dollars, but about what went wrong.
How O'Bannon, a former national high school player of the year, college player of the year and MVP of that 1995 NCAA Final Four, lasted just two years in the NBA. How he has since supported his family by bouncing around on teams in Europe, the CBA, and now the newly formed ABA2000.
The reporter isn't the only one with questions.
"It mystifies me, absolutely mystifies me," said former UCLA coach Jim Harrick, "to see some of the guys playing in the NBA these days with Ed not there. I mean, he was such a warrior."
Just as mystified is O'Bannon. This is a kid who grew up the most talked-about player in not only California, but the country. In 1990, he was the consensus high school player of the year. And, sure, he suffered a severe knee injury his freshman year at UCLA, but he bounced all the way back to supremacy his senior year. Yet he lasted just two years in the NBA.
"I can name a whole lot of people in the NBA that I can play better basketball than," O'Bannon said. "But I don't lose sleep over it."
O'Bannon's story isn't unique. Just five of the last 11 Final Four MVPs are still in the NBA. And only one of them, Dallas' Christian Laettner, was ever an NBA All-Star. So for those who don't appreciate the talent level it takes to play in the NBA, look at O'Bannon. Or Anderson Hunt. Or Rumeal Robinson, Michael Redd or Damon Bailey. Or even Harold Miner, who from his early days at USC was christened with the burdensome tag, "Baby Jordan."
They're all college superstars who couldn't make the cut. The road traveled is far from the one they've dreamed of. In O'Bannon's case, it has meant stops in eight different cities in five different countries.
On Tuesday, he'll start alongside former college teammate Toby Bailey in the inaugural game for the Los Angeles Stars, one of eight teams in the new ABA 2000.
"This is the first time since my wife and I bought our house three years ago that I can go to practice and afterwards go to my home," said O'Bannon, whose wife and two children have followed him overseas. "I'm used to heading back to a hotel, to an apartment -- something like that -- so it's great to be able to go home."
So how did it come to this? How did O'Bannon pull a reverse John Starks, starting in the NBA and ending up a CBA and European journeyman? Though the answer varies depending on whom is asked, a few things are certain.
For one, O'Bannon, drafted by the New Jersey Nets with the ninth overall pick in 1995, struggled to adjust to the shooting guard and small forward positions after playing power forward in college. When the long-range jumpers failed to fall, O'Bannon quickly lost his confidence. He averaged just six points and two rebounds his rookie season.
"I went into New Jersey during his first year and he was just a shadow of himself," said Harrick, who now coaches at Georgia. "They would put him in, take him out, put him back in. He was struggling. I kept thinking to myself that somewhere in that body is a player, a warrior."
|Charles O'Bannon (13) and brother Ed went from college stardom to professional obsurity in less than five years.
But that warrior never appeared. In his second season, O'Bannon was shipped to Dallas, where his numbers slipped to less than four points and three rebounds a game. After that season, that cocky swagger that was so evident against Arkansas had all but disappeared.
"By mid-season I found myself on the bench, and on a personal basis, that really took my confidence away," O'Bannon said. "It was all my fault because I honestly didn't know what I was getting into. They asked me to play a lot more small forward and I didn't know how at the time."
A few weeks before the following season, the Mavericks sent O'Bannon to Orlando. There, in a city known for its magical fantasy world, O'Bannon's NBA dreams crumbled. The Magic waived O'Bannon, the first time he had ever been cut.
"That's the hardest thing I've ever had to swallow," O'Bannon said. "I'd been benched in the past, had my shot blocked, lost big games, turned the ball over in critical situations, but getting cut was the toughest thing I've had to deal with. I honestly don't think I've completely recovered to this day. It was that big."
After receiving the news, O'Bannon immediately called his father to tell him he was quitting the game. Less than three years removed from his heroic performance in the NCAA title game, O'Bannon had had enough.
"I hadn't done anything basketball-wise, my game had gone completely south. I was struggling terribly and that's all I wanted -- to just give it all up. But my Dad talked me out of it. He said, 'Look, just hang in there. Something will come up. Keep your head up. Trust me.' "
O'Bannon has done just that, but three years later, he has yet to return to the NBA. He signed a free-agent contract with the Orlando Magic this fall, but failed to make the regular-season roster. Since leaving Orlando, places like La Crosse, Wis., Italy, Greece, Spain and Argentina have become home.
Myers, O'Bannon's former teammate who now works as an assistant for agent Arn Tellem, believes part of O'Bannon's problems stem from a severe knee injury he suffered his freshman season at UCLA. Though O'Bannon rehabbed the leg over an 18-month span and returned to superstar form, Myers thinks the injury may have had lingering effects on O'Bannon's game mentally, if not physically.
"Ed may not admit this," Myers said, "but I don't think his knee has ever really recovered. It isn't like Ed to use that as an excuse, but I think it's given him some trouble. I think the 82-game schedule maybe is a little difficult for him. And I don't know if he's overcome that mentally."
Harrick, on the other hand, believes O'Bannon just needs to be put into the right situation and given the opportunity to succeed. New Jersey and Dallas, both Harrick and Meyer point out, were hardly model NBA franchises in the mid-'90s.
"I've posed the question to a bunch of league GMs and all they tell me is that he can't play the three (small forward), he's too small for the four (power forward) and he's lost his passion," Harrick said. "They tell me he can't shoot and all these other things. But it's never been a completely straight answer. All I know is that if he had the correct coach that could get his confidence all the way back, the guy is a star -- a star. There's no doubt in my mind."
Though O'Bannon said his knee has been back to normal "for a long time now," he's altered his game to a more below-the-rim style. He's worked on his ball-handling and outside shooting, and still has his sights set on returning to "the league." And with his recent success oversees, O'Bannon's trademark confidence and swagger is back.
"I'm not the high-flying dunk act I was in high school and I'm cool with that," O'Bannon said. "Every now and then I'll get up there and dunk the ball, but instead I try to use my quickness as my strength. That opens up my perimeter game, which I've improved on a great deal. There's still a long way to go, but the confidence is up."
Since that championship night five years ago in Seattle's Kingdome, O'Bannon no longer seems immortal. He misses plenty of shots, fumbles a few rebounds and even turns the ball over. But it doesn't mean that the mile-long grin or his love for the game has gone away.
"I wouldn't trade the life I have for anyone's," O'Bannon said. "I've learned that basketball shouldn't be the first priority in life. The people in your family are. You have to take care of crying babies as much as sustain an effort on the basketball court. And I'm honestly having a great time."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com
Final Four to ...
Success on the college ranks hardly equates to success in the NBA. Indeed, Ed O'Bannon's struggles as a professional basketball player isn't the exception among Final Four MVPs. Only five of the last 11 Most Valuable Players of the NCAA Final Four are still in the NBA:
1990: Anderson Hunt, UNLV
Out of basketball
1991: Christian Laettner, Duke
Averaging 7 ppg for the Mavericks
1992: Bobby Hurley, Duke
Out of basketball
1993: Donald Williams, UNC
Playing in Europe
1994: Corliss Williamson, Arkansas
Averaging 10.9 ppg for the Raptors
1995: Ed O'Bannon, UCLA
Playing in ABA2000 for Los Angeles Sparks
1996: Tony Delk, Kentucky
Averaging 11.3 ppg for the Suns
1997: Miles Simon, Arizona
Recently released by Maccabi Raanana in Israel
1998: Jeff Sheppard, Kentucky
Playing in Europe
1999: Richard Hamilton, UConn
Averaging 14.6 ppg for the Wizards
2000: Mateen Cleaves, Michigan St.
Averaging 6.0 ppg for the Pistons
Here today, gone tomorrow? College players worry they may slip into obscurity
Players will follow money to keep hoop dreams alive
Where have they been?
Hoops TV: Flying below NBA radar