Monday, June 15, 2009

Life after basketball: Ed O'Bannon

Remember Ed O'Bannon? In part two of a three-part series on retired multimillionaire athletes, Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post provides an interesting look into what O'Bannon is doing now and what happened to him after he was out of the NBA after just a couple of seasons.

O'Bannon helped lead UCLA to an NCAA title in 1995 over Arkansas with 30 points and 17 rebounds in the championship game. By all accounts, O'Bannon was one of the best college players in his senior season -- he won the Wooden Award that season as well -- and the New Jersey Nets selected him ninth overall in the 1995 NBA Draft.

And that's where things started to go south:

"I'd had a pretty good workout with [the Nets], and I said to myself, 'Watch it be my luck -- I'll go from UCLA to New Jersey,' " O'Bannon says. "And sure enough, the cameras come and focus on me just as New Jersey's pick is about to be called. And I'm just like, 'I can't believe I'm going there.'

"That's the honest truth. Right then and there, my stomach dropped and I started to get homesick."

The three-year, $3.9 million contract he signed with the Nets helped soften the blow a little bit, allowing him to buy an SUV for himself and another one for his brother, Charles -- who followed Ed to UCLA and then to the NBA. He and Rosa bought a condo near the ocean in Manhattan Beach, Calif., outside Los Angeles -- but that only served to make him miss home even more.

"I wanted so bad to go to Portland, or Phoenix," he says. "It didn't have to be the Lakers. I wasn't greedy. Just give me Utah or Denver, somewhere in the West, where I could shoot home on an off day. People who don't get homesick won't understand what I'm saying, but that's how I felt, and because of that I just never got comfortable."

Besides being so far away from home, other reasons for O'Bannon's NBA failures include: a bad left knee (he tore his ACL in his freshman year at UCLA in a pickup game); "coaches trying to make him into a shooting guard when all he had ever played was power forward" (O'Bannon is 6-foot-8); and the slow, physical play in the Eastern Conference.

After leaving the NBA, O'Bannon played several more seasons of professional basketball overseas to keep earning a paycheck, though his passion for the game was obviously waning. Though he wasn't really having fun, he still got to experience some bizarre things on the court:

It was in Warsaw, and O'Bannon's team, Polonia Warszawa, was playing a crosstown rival. It was snowing outside, and some of the rivals' fans had brought in some coolers, five or six of them, filled -- as everyone later discovered -- not with drinks, but with snow.

"You could see them start to pack them into snowballs," he says. "And then something happened -- a bad call or something. They get a technical foul, and we're on the free throw line, and all of a sudden a snowball hits the court and slides along the floor. The referee doesn't know what to do. He's standing there with the ball in his hand, and sure enough here comes another."

Pretty soon, it was a hailstorm of snowballs, and Polonia's fans were storming the court, picking up the snowballs and firing them back into the stands at the visiting fans.

"So it was a full-fledged snowball fight," O'Bannon says. "I'm standing there thinking, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"

O'Bannon eventually decided to hang up his sneakers and is currently working hard as a car salesman at a Toyota dealership in Las Vegas.

But even though his life is now devoted to his family and his work, he still has some mixed emotions on what could have been: "It's disappointing to me to this day that I didn't play until I was 40. I wasn't an all-star. I wasn't a Hall of Famer. Those were all goals I had as a kid. So that's disappointing. I'll admit that. It's the truth. But once I decided I didn't want [to play] anymore -- in that respect it's not disappointing at all."

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