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UCLA hero Ed O'Bannon is right at home in Las Vegas selling cars

Heads turn and whispers grow as the striking yet familiar figure makes his way through the crowd to take his spot at his company's booth.

"Hey, isn't that ...? Nah, can't be. No way he'd show his face here, not after he turned his back on us."

He stands out, a larger-than-life figure at 6-foot-8, shaking hands, doling out business cards and extolling the virtues of the Corolla, Highlander, Camry.

"Wow, it is him. Give him some grief and then get his autograph."

Ed O'Bannon, who not long ago owned March Madness and won just about every college basketball award imaginable following a dream senior season at UCLA, is now a car salesman in Las Vegas. He works for Findlay Toyota, whose founder, Cliff Findlay, just so happens to be a former UNLV player and a huge supporter of the Runnin' Rebels program. It's the same program that O'Bannon committed to coming out of Artesia High near Los Angeles in 1990. And before and during halftime of most UNLV home games, you can find O'Bannon, whose No. 31 is retired by UCLA, here on the Thomas & Mack Center concourse, hawking "the official vehicle of the Runnin' Rebels."

No wonder O'Bannon, 36, while taking in a recent UNLV game, referred to his most recent station in life as the "grand irony of all ironies." ("This place," he says, "is magical," before comparing the Thomas & Mack Center to Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden and the Fabulous Forum.)

"The whole thing, it is pretty crazy," O'Bannon says. "The world is a funny place. Twenty years ago I was set to come here and play for the greatest team ever."

*****

Jerry Tarkanian had turned a corner. UNLV had just destroyed Duke, 103-73, on April 2, 1990, to win his first national championship, setting records for most points scored and largest margin of victory in a title game. Tark the Shark had stars Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony returning for their senior seasons and had landed a loaded recruiting class headlined by O'Bannon. "He always liked Vegas," Tarkanian says of O'Bannon. "He was all set to come here."

A month and two days after cutting down the nets in Denver, UNLV received verbal commitments from O'Bannon, the national high school player of the year, and shooting guard Shon Tarver, evidence that Tarkanian was landing not only ballers but good kids. But soon things came crashing down.

Tarkanian suggested that O'Bannon and Tarver not sign letters of intent since the NCAA was investigating UNLV's recruitment of Lloyd Daniels. That way the two prized recruits could sign with another program with no delay should the penalties be swift and severe.

On July 20 the NCAA ruled that UNLV could not defend its title, banning the Rebels from postseason play due to a 1977 infraction. O'Bannon was in Uruguay, playing with the U.S. junior national team, when he heard a knock on his hotel room door. It was teammate Darrick Martin, then a rising junior at UCLA.

"You're on probation," Martin laughed. "Whatcha gonna do? We'd love to have you at UCLA."

O'Bannon was floored. "Get out of my room," he told Martin, before slamming the door behind him. O'Bannon went home and did some soul searching with his family. What concerned him was that the NCAA was still investigating the Daniels case and more penalties could be forthcoming.

On Aug. 4 Tarver rescinded his commitment to UNLV and decided to go to UCLA. Two days later O'Bannon joined him in Westwood. "I was a 17-year-old kid," O'Bannon says. "I wanted to be [at UNLV], but with all the rumors with the NCAA and how they were going to put the program on probation, there was a lot going on. I had a lot of different advice from all kinds of people."

O'Bannon and Tarver were called many things in Southern Nevada that summer and, while it might not be fair, some saw what happened to O'Bannon on Oct. 9 as a kind of karmic comeuppance.

Six days before the official start of practice, the freshman phenom was playing a pickup game with other Bruins in the Wooden Center when he stole the ball from Mitchell Butler at the top of the key. "As I'm dribbling down the court I'm thinking to myself, What kind of dunk am I going to do?" O'Bannon recalls. "The place was packed with students, so I'm wondering, Do I go up strong and impress everyone? Do I just dunk it?"

The silky smooth left-hander threw down a run-of-the-mill two-handed jam but landed awkwardly. "My whole knee just shattered," he says.

O'Bannon tore the ACL in his left knee so severely that a cadaver graft was needed for the ensuing surgery. He was lost for the season before it began and UNLV fans looked the other way while mumbling how, had he honored his commitment, no such misfortune would have found him -- especially since, on Nov. 29, the NCAA reversed its decision and allowed the Rebels to defend their title, though they would have to sit out the 1992 tournament and not appear on live television that season.

The Rebels ran roughshod over their foes in the 1990-91 season, going 34-0 before running into Duke in the Final Four -- those same Blue Devils that they had humiliated the year before. Difference was, Duke had added a freshman named Grant Hill and UNLV was not deep, a fact concealed since the Rebels had not played a close game in more than a year. Duke pulled off a 79-77 upset.

"I look at it this way -- we lost by two points and I'm sure [O'Bannon and Tarver] would have been good for at least three points," Anthony says. "Ed was the West Coast version of Grant Hill. If we had Ed that means we would have been better. Simple as that. He was a great player. He definitely would have had as much impact on our program as he did at UCLA. Plus, he's such a good guy."

Nearly 20 years later O'Bannon still wonders if he made the right decision. "What if I had stuck to my guns, no matter what the NCAA said?" O'Bannon says. "I strongly believe I could have helped win that second straight championship. At least three [total] ... and my brother [Charles] would have come. I was going to play for the greatest team ever and then play one more year and then go to the NBA. That was the plan."

Told he might not walk properly again, O'Bannon willed himself back. His junior season ended with a pummeling by Tulsa in a first-round NCAA tournament game and O'Bannon came unglued in the locker room afterward.

"He lit up the team like a Christmas tree," says ESPN broadcaster Steve Lavin, then a UCLA assistant. "Smoke was coming out of his ears. He carried the team from that moment on. He always had a regal quality and presence about him. He was calm, cool and had a kind disposition, but when he had to go there, he could bring the hammer. He was like the big papa bear getting all the cubs in line."

As a senior O'Bannon led UCLA to a dream season, going 32-1 and pounding defending national champion Arkansas 89-78 in the title game to win its first national crown since John Wooden coached the Bruins. O'Bannon was the star of all stars in the final, scoring 30 points and grabbing 17 rebounds.

Just as O'Bannon was cutting down the nets in Seattle's Kingdome, hackles and howls went up in Las Vegas that live to this day.

"Hey, that national championship you had at UCLA in 1995," O'Bannon was told by a longing UNLV fan this year, "that's ours."

"Sure, I understand what they're saying," he says. "Life's funny. What can I say?"

Tarkanian does not begrudge O'Bannon for bailing on him. In fact, Tarkanian says O'Bannon and his family are "good people."

After leaving UCLA, O'Bannon was selected by the New Jersey Nets with the ninth overall pick in the 1995 draft, but he never made it in the NBA. In two seasons with the Nets and Mavericks, O'Bannon averaged just 5.0 points and 2.5 rebounds and was labeled as one of the NBA's alltime busts.

"He was kind of thrust into a situation that was not ideal for him," says former Nets teammate Armon Gilliam. "At UCLA they played an open court, up-tempo, finesse-type of basketball. Then he's playing half-court, bump-and-grind, East Coast basketball. It wasn't what he was built for. He's a guy who didn't find his niche in the NBA. He wasn't in the right situation to grow and develop. He never got the opportunity to prove what he could do."

With his rebuilt left knee O'Bannon was too lean to bang down low as a forward, but not quick enough to guard the perimeter. Plus he did not get along with Nets coach Butch Beard, who sometimes had O'Bannon running the point in practice.

"When I needed to play well, I didn't," O'Bannon says. "For me to lose sleep over what some people might say, or be upset, I'm letting them win. All the guys I played with, they know that I'm a good player and know I should be in the league right now."

Orlando released O'Bannon prior to the 1997-98 season and with his three-year, $3.9 million contract expired, O'Bannon went overseas and played seven years in Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland and Argentina. In 2004 O'Bannon was in Oregon at a tryout for a Chinese pro team when his fire went out.

"He called and said, 'I think I'm done,'" his wife, Rosa, says. "It was good that he made that decision on his own. It keeps him at peace and it's empowering."

O'Bannon zipped up his gym bag, left his sneakers at the hotel and flew home to L.A. While he and Rosa were comfortable in familiar surroundings, Las Vegas beckoned, with its cheaper cost of living and the opportunity for a fresh start. They moved there four years ago and while Rosa hit the ground running, earning her Masters degree, Ed semi-sulked.

"I wanted to sit at home," he says. "I had been working my ass off my whole life."

He was on the couch, flipping through the channels on TV like Al Bundy reveling in some decade-old athletic grandeur, when Rosa challenged him to get a job, or at least get out of the house. "I'm working on my transition -- what are you doing?" she told him.

He had thought about selling insurance and he had a standing offer from a friend to sell cars, at which he initially scoffed. But one call led to another, and by the end of the week he was on the lot. He has been promoted four times in four years and he is now Findlay Toyota's assistant marketing director/sales consultant and works six days a week.

At home, where their children, Aaron, 14, Jazmin, 12 -- who made her middle school's basketball team and has rekindled her father's love for the game --- and Edward III, 10, have a sense of their dad's BMOC status of the '90s, he has an ESPY Award atop the TV. The Wooden Award is also on display. Everything else is packed up in the garage of their two-story, stucco home with a pool.

O'Bannon is two semesters shy of his college degree but has promised Rosa, a high school counselor, to get it in the next year, possibly from UNLV. The ironies never cease. "It's the circle of life," Rosa says. "I guess his destiny was to be here."

*****

It is UNLV's home finale and O'Bannon is so late that he misses his pregame and halftime Toyota booth duties. "That's what you call a marathon sale," he says after handing over the keys to a 2008 4-runner at the lot in Findlay. "I don't see myself as a car salesman. I'm just a guy who happens to sell cars and helps people make decisions. If they buy, cool. If not, cool. I'm not one to pressure you into buying a car."

When the game is over, after O'Bannon cheers for the Rebels in their victory over Air Force and applauds Anthony, in the house calling the game for television with his retired No. 50 hanging overhead, Easy Ed the car salesman goes to work.

"I know you," says an older lady adorned in scarlet and gray, her traveling party wearing UNLV gear that dates to Tarkanian's heyday. "I almost bought a car from you yesterday."

O'Bannon goes into salesman mode, sidles up next to her, invites her back to the massive 12.5-acre lot with a 145,000-square foot showroom and hands her his card.

"Don't take his card," says her wise-cracking friend. "He played at San Diego State, or something like that."

O'Bannon laughs. "There are no regrets," he says later, but still wonders what would have happened had he stuck with UNLV. "There are definitely some what-ifs."

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