Three have been all kinds of brother acts that have played Los Angeles: Smothers, Menendez, Blues and Marx. Also, Doobie. But the hottest right now has to be the O'Bannons, a pair that has logged more flight time than the Wrights. gotten more airtime than the Gumbels and before the basketball season is over might do better box office in this town than the Quaids and the Baldwins.
The two brothers we're talking about, Ed and Charles, are just college basketball players. But they're filling UCLA's Pauley Pavilion these days with a rare rim-bending, court-shaking excitement. It has been years since Los Angeles got this kind of entertainment value from any brothers save Ringling.
Since the O'Bannons reunited at UCLA this season—Ed is a junior and Charles a freshman—Bruin basketball has been a circus. At week's end UCLA was the last undefeated Division I team in the nation and was about to claim the No. 1 ranking in the polls. Games are selling out, students are camping outside Pauley overnight for choice seats, and coach Jim Harrick is being compared to John Wooden (kidding, joke; this is a circus, not some weird parallel universe).
But as entertaining as the show has been, there are people at UCLA who chafe at the sudden bruins are back headlines—after all UCLA has won 20-plus games in each of Harrick's five seasons—and who try to downplay the O'Bannon factor in favor of team balance. Yet it has been almost exactly 11 years since the Bruins were atop a poll. The fact that they didn't return there until more than 1.3 feet worth of O'Bannons showed up on the same court should not be considered coincidental.
January 31, 1994
Anyway, who can begrudge the O'Bannons credit for this commotion? Ed, a 6'8" forward who has had to come back from a terrible knee injury suffered before what should have been his freshman season, is leading UCLA in scoring (18.9 at the end of last week), rebounding (7.5) and emotion. In last Thursday's 74-66 defeat of Pac-10 rival Arizona, the Bruins' first win of any weight this season, Ed had 14 points and nine rebounds. And he lent a fierceness to the proceedings that bore little resemblance to his off-court demeanor—as anyone knows who has ever tried to provoke anything as flamboyant as conversation from him. At one point he strode down the court with a ferocious stomp, wagging his hairless head, frightening friends and family alike. "He's two different people," says his father, Ed Sr. "On the court he really goes nuts."
Little brother Charles, a 6'6" forward, was averaging 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds as of Sunday. He is similarly athletic, playing well above the hoop on both ends of the court, but of the two brothers, he's the yakker and the one more likely to wear a smile. Says his mother, Madeline, "Charles might actually come up and talk to you." That's how you tell them apart.
But besides their being talented, the reason nobody minds the inevitable publicity that comes their way is that they are that rare thing in big-time college basketball: They are totally unselfish. As a result there's something else that's new at UCLA. For once the Bruins are a team whose members like one another.
Radio broadcaster Marques Johnson, who sometimes seems to be at Pauley just to remind boosters of long-ago glory, has seen good UCLA teams more recently than his own national championship gang in 1975, which was Wooden's final year. The 28-5 Bruins of two seasons ago, which featured Don MacLean and Tracy Murray, made it to the final eight of the NCAA tournament. "But in the MacLean and Murray years the players were more stat-conscious," Johnson says. "When Ed O'Bannon got here, it was as if he declared there would be no star on this team. He still gets mad when I call him the go-to guy."
The O'Bannon brand of teamwork, which even Harrick has to admit is sometimes "selfless to a fault" in Ed's case, has allowed the talents of guards Tyus Edney and Shon Tarver to blossom. And surely if the Bruins do fulfill this early-season promise and play strong through the NCAA tournament, it will be because the guards can penetrate and because Harrick's Killer Z's—7-foot center George Zidek and 6'9" backup Rodney Zimmerman—continue to combine for 16 points and 12 rebounds a game. But who really believes the attraction these days is anything but the O'Bannon brothers, dunking and flying and, especially, winning?
That Ed and Charles might play together in college for two seasons, much less play together for Harrick, is an odd confluence of luck—some good and some bad. Even though Ed Sr. had a football scholarship to UCLA back in 1971, neither of his sons seemed destined to play basketball there. Ed, who was selected as the nation's top prep player by Basketball Times in 1990, was headed for UNLV because Artesia High, the suburban L.A. school that both O'Bannons attended, ran the same offense and defense as the Rebels.
But then UNLV got nailed for NCAA violations, and Ed settled for UCLA. And settled is exactly the word. "At the time," he admits, "that's what it felt like."
As for Charles, he was similarly celebrated at Artesia, and even more extravagantly courted. "My recruitment was like the Los Angeles riots" is the way Ed puts it. "His was like Vietnam." And Charles, too, seemed headed out of town. Artesia High's basketball banquet last year, which celebrated the Pioneers' second straight state championship, was attended by a virtual NCAA convention of coaches. Kentucky's Rick Pitino was the featured speaker, and Harrick, USC's George Raveling and Michigan's Steve Fisher couldn't afford to abandon the field to that smooth talker. "I didn't want to say no to anybody and look like a jerk," says Artesia coach Wayne Mereno, "so I let everybody, coaches and media, come. I looked like a jerk."
Pitino was so galvanizing in his address that before the dishes were cleared everybody assumed Charles was heading for Bluegrass country. Harrick, who was being blasted in the Los Angeles media for his inability to recruit and who, by his own admission, had put "all my eggs in one basket," was thinking maybe he ought to hightail it out of state as well. But Charles got up to deliver his own little speech and, looking around at his family and friends, realized he couldn't leave home. The next day he committed to UCLA. Said brother Ed, who had tried to remain noncommittal throughout, "Let's go win a national championship."
The recruiting of Charles has made that more than wishful thinking in that it opened a floodgate of talent. Next year's freshman class has been rated No. 1 by several recruiting newsletters and magazines. One of those recruits is Marques Johnson's son, Kris, last year's Los Angeles city player of the year. According to his father, Kris said, "If that's where Charles is going, that's where I'm going." Says Marques, "You have to understand that not only is Charles a great player, but everybody loves him. He's the magnet that draws the other kids."
So far Charles's arrival has at least turned Harrick's reputation around. Although he has done better and lasted longer at UCLA than any other coach since Wooden, Harrick has never been beloved. And then last season, when the Bruins drifted to a 22-11 record, the critics seized on his recruiting. "I knew it was coming," he says. "I just didn't know when." Harrick concedes that landing Charles was timely, if not job-saving. "It got us over the hump," he says.
But don't tell Harrick he's lucky. "Was I lucky that Tracy Murray went hardship [after the 1991-92 season]," he says, "and left a team—top-five team in the country, wire-to-wire, no question about it—before last season?" More to the point: "Was I lucky when Ed O'Bannon missed his freshman year with a knee injury?"
That injury just before the start of the 1990-91 season—more knee wreckage than anybody let on at the time—postponed stardom for Ed for a full two years. Even today some wonder if he's all the way back. Harrick thinks Ed's balance is not quite there, although it has gotten better and better. Yet who can argue with performance? "To me," says Charles, "he's reached the point where he was when he got injured, and now he's improving."
For Charles, at least, this is not particularly good news. The poor lad has never dunked on his brother, and now it looks as if he never will. "I don't know what it is," says Charles, "but he'll do whatever it takes, just won't let me dunk on him. Not ever. But that's my whole family. My dad won't let me dunk either. If I go up on him, he catches me in the air and just sets me down."
"I bet you got that forearm shiver, too," says Ed, perhaps remembering his own quality time with Dad.
"Yes, I did," says Charles.
By all accounts, whatever has gone on in the O'Bannon home has been good preparation for Pac-10 play. Ed Sr., a UPS driver, remembers delivering a tiny basketball to each toddler's crib. He kept his instructions simple. "All I ever said to Ed was, 'Don't shoot underhand.' " So you see the problem. These O'Bannon boys have been playing since they were two and fighting through forearm shivers ever after.
But except for that little bit of coaching and some anxious defense under the boards, Ed Sr. never went nuts over his kids' careers. It was enough for him to see that they truly loved the game. "I'm not saying it was their first words," he says. "But I do remember them saying 'Shoot the hoops' as babies."
A little later Ed Sr. put a hoop up in the driveway, and the O'Bannon yard became a rec center. There would be crowds of 20 loitering to sec the neighborhood's best pickup games, which, for the sake of fairness to everyone but Charles, always paired one O'Bannon against the other. The neighbors didn't care much for all the noise, but Ed Sr. never minded. "At least I knew where my kids were," he says. It was that kind of family.
However, as Ed approached junior high, he began to get a little too creative with his dunking. Says Ed Sr., "Breakaway rims were not yet a home-purchase item." So he retired the hoop, and then, because he felt the area near Compton in which the O'Bannons were living was taking a turn for the worse, he retired the neighborhood and moved his brood to Lakewood.
Since then the O'Bannon brother act has moved along to increasingly better venues and has attracted more and more attention. If the Bruins continue to win, this might not be regional theater much longer. The wishful thinking at UCLA is that the O'Bannons, together again, are now ready to tour. You know the angle: Brother acts that have played the NCAA tournament....