UCLA hero Ed O'Bannon is right at home in Las Vegas selling cars
O'Bannon originally committed to UNLV, but choose UCLA after the NCAA came in
He led UCLA to the 1995 national title over Arkansas and was player of the year
After a rocky pro career, he's back in Vegas and is a fixture at UNLV games
LAS VEGAS -- 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.