ED O'BANNON glides across the polished floor, his smooth pate gleaming under the bright lights, and just like that, two decades melt away. He still has the loose-limbed grace and regal air of his youth, when he was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player in leading UCLA to the 1995 national championship. The hardwood of Seattle's Kingdome was O'Bannon's stage then; today his arena is the tiled showroom of Findlay Toyota in Henderson, Nev., where he is sales manager. The 6'8" O'Bannon has traded his powder-blue jersey and Reeboks for pleated pants, black wingtips and a natty polo shirt buttoned to the top. In his upstairs office at Findlay there is nothing to hint at O'Bannon's old life, just as at home there are no jerseys or photos on display, only a few crystal player-of-the-year trophies atop the entertainment center in the living room. "People think it's my wife's damn vase collection," says O'Bannon. He laughs at his own expense, animating the crow's feet around his eyes. "I loved playing basketball—I got all I wanted out of it, all I could," he says. "But it's not forever. At some point you have to move on."
This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2014 issue
O'Bannon toils six days a week at the dealership, but his hours are quite flexible thanks to a good relationship with owner Cliff Findlay, the UNLV booster who also founded an eponymous prep school featuring a powerhouse basketball team that is No. 3 in MaxPreps's national rankings. O'Bannon stresses that his family is comfortable—"We live in a five-bedroom, six-bathroom house, we drive what we want to drive, we eat where we want to eat"—but does admit, "I work because I have to, not because I want to." His college sweetheart, Rosa, is a guidance counselor at Liberty High, where Ed serves as an assistant coach for the hoops team that stars their son Edward III, a 6'7" junior who is smooth on the perimeter but not afraid to bang inside, just like his old man in his heyday. (The kid is also a star pitcher who has touched 93 mph on the radar gun.) The O'Bannons' daughter, Jazmin, is a 6'3" freshman power forward at Utah Valley State in Orem, Utah; Dad sends her motivational texts nearly every day. Eldest son Aaron is at Nevada-Reno having taken a vow of poverty, which is to say he's studying journalism. For Ed and Rosa, a vacation means traveling to watch Jazmin play. They rarely venture to the nearby Las Vegas Strip and are regular churchgoers. "It's a nice life," he says. "A quiet life."
O'BANNON'S EMBRACE of suburban contentment makes him an unlikely anarchist, but he has gladly taken up the fight in the most important piece of litigation in the history of collegiate athletics. O'Bannon v. NCAA seeks to establish a form of revenue sharing that would give a slice of the pie to the athletes who, up until now, have never had so much as a crumb. In August, O'Bannon and his team of brand-name lawyers won the first round, when a federal judge in Oakland ruled that the NCAA's refusal to compensate its athletes for the use of their likenesses violates the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. O'Bannon sat in the courtroom for nearly every minute of the 15-day trial, feeling what he calls "pride and vindication." The subsequent appeals process has just begun, but he feels the landscape has already been fundamentally altered. "Reform is coming," he says. "I think public opinion has changed dramatically. The NCAA is going to have to change too. Their rules are so outdated, they can't get away with it forever."
O'Bannon's lawsuit has helped change the conversation, giving voice to a reasonable compromise for a system that has long been dysfunctional. From Chris Mills's deliveryman to Cam Newton's father to Todd Gurley's memorabilia broker, there has always been a black market to pay players. O'Bannon v. NCAA would simply cut out some shady middlemen. And every time a coach signs on for a $5 million salary, it gets harder to justify that his players should be content with free tuition. Seemingly every college jock can cite a moment of clarity when he first felt the unfairness of the status quo. One of O'Bannon's supporters throughout the legal process has been Harry Flournoy, a forward on Texas Western's pioneering 1966 team. Flournoy's interest in change was heightened after he and his teammates were honored at the 2006 Final Four. "We were taken up to the suite of the NCAA president, and, gee whiz, I've never seen such grandeur," says Flournoy. "For a while I was wishing for overtime because I didn't want to leave! But you sit up there eating all this fancy food and hobnobbing with all these fancy people, and then you look around and realize all this lavishness was made off the backs of the kids down on the court. It didn't sit right with me. It still doesn't."
O'Bannon's grievances with the organization he calls the "N-C-2A" go way back. In 1989--90 he was Basketball Times's national high school player of the year, with an oral commitment to play for UNLV, a band of charismatic renegades in the midst of a thrilling two-year run that included a national championship followed by an undefeated regular season.
O'Bannon was the coveted recruit, from Artesia High outside Long Beach, Calif., who was going to extend the dynasty. But UNLV's iconoclastic coach, Jerry Tarkanian, had been in a long feud with the NCAA, and days before O'Bannon was to begin his freshman year, the Rebels were hit with a host of sanctions, including a ban on postseason play. "I cried like a baby," O'Bannon says. "It broke my heart." He was particularly galled by the NCAA's seeming lack of accountability. "They could do whatever they wanted because they were above the law," he says.
On Tarkanian's advice, O'Bannon had never signed a letter of intent—"a first-class move by Coach Tark"—so he was free to matriculate at UCLA, where as a sophomore he met Rosa in a Spanish literature class. (O'Bannon played the sympathy card to get to know her—he was on crutches after knee surgery.) Two and a half years later Aaron was born, and the young family moved into an apartment in a scrappy neighborhood on the outskirts of Venice. Rosa continued her schooling and worked at a clothing boutique while O'Bannon pursued his history degree and basketball glory. "She busted her butt to buy all the groceries and diapers, but it was a constant struggle," O'Bannon says. He still recalls the time he was craving doughnuts from a place down the street. He cleaned out every piggy bank and ashtray, and scraped together just enough change to buy a dozen. "Slapping all those coins on the counter was humbling," he says. This experience informed plenty of heated locker room conversations with his teammates, who couldn't help but notice the overpriced Bruins merchandise they were helping to move and the flashy crowd sitting in expensive seats in Pauley Pavilion. The national championship they won in 1995 brought in a flood of new money.
O'Bannon was selected ninth in the 1995 draft, by New Jersey, and signed for $3.9 million over three years. He was out of the league as soon as his contract ended. He had dominated in college with athleticism, smarts and hustle, but with the Nets he wasn't big enough to play in the post and not quick enough to create his own shot on the perimeter. O'Bannon became beaten-down by playing on a dysfunctional team with a culture of losing. "I hated the NBA," he says. For the next seven years he played overseas, in a series of glamorous places: Italy, Spain, Greece, Argentina and ... Poland? "Wonderful people," he says. O'Bannon fell back in love with the game, and along the way he learned to be a family man while Rosa and the kids moved with him.
After retiring at 32, O'Bannon bought his dream home in Henderson and began working at the dealership a little over a year later. In 2009 he was at the house of his friend Mike Curtis. They were watching Curtis's son Spencer play EA Sports's NCAA Basketball 09. The 1995 Bruins and the '91 Runnin' Rebels lit up the TV screen. UCLA's number 31 was torching the UNLV defense with a familiar elbow-out lefthanded shooting stroke, his very bald head gleaming in so many pixels. O'Bannon had never seen the game before, and "at first, I was pretty fired up," he says. "I could pull up and shoot from anywhere. My baby hook was working."
Then another friend, Rick Glenn, spoke up: "You know what's crazy, Ed? They spent 60 bucks on this game, but you're not getting a penny."
At that moment O'Bannon's old frustrations with the NCAA flooded back. "I'm a grown man, and all these years later they're still exploiting me?" he says, voice rising at the memory. "It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. If somebody took your face and made you the star of a video game, you'd expect to get compensated, right? In no other walk of life can your identity be stolen like that."
A week later O'Bannon was still steaming when his old friend Sonny Vaccaro, the sneaker impresario, called him for one of their occasional chats. Vaccaro had long nursed his own grievances with the NCAA and was already in discussions with noted antitrust lawyer Michael Hausfeld about taking on the NCAA. Vaccaro had spoken to numerous former college basketball stars, looking for one to sign on as lead plaintiff in a suit. Says Vacarro,"These guys were all afraid of the blowback, afraid of the NCAA's power, afraid they'd have their jerseys taken down from the rafters. Eddie O'Bannon was a gift from heaven. He has so much credibility, not just because of his accomplishments but because of who he is. He was the most appreciative, humble and low-key high school star I've ever met, and 20 years later he hasn't changed a bit." Vaccaro connected O'Bannon with Hausfeld, and a battle plan was hatched. The former All-America was the perfect public face of the lawsuit, with a distinguished beard now almost as much salt as pepper.
O'Bannon says the lawsuit is not about changing the game but rather about leveling the playing field financially. "I'm not trying to take away March Madness—I love it as much as you do," he says. "This is about acknowledging that it's the athletes who make college sports such a big business. They don't need to be given a ton of money, but how about a nice stipend so they can buy some new clothes or take their girl to a decent restaurant?" The August court ruling set a $5,000 cap on a stipend.
Some of the backlash to the decision has been predictable. Says Vaccaro, "The old guard, the people who have gotten rich under the system, some cranks in the media—they've tried to discredit Eddie by saying he's a disgruntled former athlete, saying he's bitter he failed in the NBA and has to sell cars, as if that's a f------ sin. He has handled it all with incredible grace."
O'Bannon says he has been gratified to receive support from many people still in the college game, even old friend and former UCLA teammate Tyus Edney, who is now a company man—he's director of operations at their alma mater. Words of encouragement have come from some of O'Bannon's heroes, distinguished men like Flournoy, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Ed is always careful to not draw a parallel with his fight and ours, but it's one long struggle," says Flournoy. "It's about human rights. There is an entire class of people—college athletes—who are being exploited by a powerful few. Someone had to take a stand, and Ed had the courage and commitment to do so."
There is a pervasive rumor that the NCAA dangled a multimillion-dollar annuity in front of O'Bannon if he would settle the case, but he says he has never been offered a cent and would not accept a settlement of any amount. Whatever the outcome of his lawsuit, O'Bannon will receive no compensation, except perhaps for a small token payout given to former athletes. Meanwhile, an army of lawyers is getting rich one billable hour at a time—the latest estimate for legal fees is $20 million and climbing—while the NCAA keeps signing multibillion-dollar television deals. "Believe me, I see the irony," O'Bannon says. "That's O.K.: This has never been about me." He spoke these words while sitting courtside at Liberty High, watching his team practice. The only time he became animated was when Edward soared through the lane for a finger-roll: "Dunk the ball, son!"
Does he get paid for his coaching duties? O'Bannon snorted and shook his head. "I seem to like working for free," he says. Yet this decorated former student-athlete is now in line to add an important new legacy to what has already been a very rich life.