Ed O'Bannon Has Gone From the Hardwood to the Sales Floor

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Retiring was the easy part -- because, really, what was it that Ed O'Bannon was walking away from in the summer of 2004? A career? No, basketball had long since ceased being a career, or even a passion, by then. It was at that point just a profession, a paycheck, a mostly joyless succession of one-year contracts with godforsaken European teams. Basketball was a way to stave off the day when he had to go out and get a real job.

So the act of retiring was simple: Go to your hotel in Eugene, Ore., take off your sweats and your sneakers, leave them behind. Don't even shower. Change into street clothes, cab to the airport, call the wife and say, "Baby, I'm coming home." Don't even tell those folks from the tryout for that Chinese basketball league, the ones who didn't even know who you were or what you have done in this game, that you were packing it in. And by all means, don't look back.

But retirement -- the noun, the state of being? That was dark. That didn't go so well.

It was great at first. Who wouldn't want the life of leisure? But there were a lot of hours to kill between the time when he would send his wife Rosa off to her job and haul the kids off to school, and the time when everyone got back home. There were too many afternoon beer-buzzes, too many self-pitying viewings of the 1995 NCAA championship game, when nobody could stop Ed O'Bannon and those UCLA Bruins.

There was an angry admonishment from Rosa -- "Get a job . . . or else" -- and there was a business card with a name and a phone number on it, jammed in his hand weeks earlier and sitting out now on top of the dresser, in plain view, as if O'Bannon knew someday he'd have to call the number.

He called the number.

He interviewed the next day, got hired right away, and started work the day after that.

And that, in a nutshell, is how Ed O'Bannon, once the greatest college basketball player on the planet, the Wooden Award winner as the best men's college basketball player in the country, a lottery pick by the New Jersey Nets, wound up here, in the middle of the desert, selling cars on commission for a living and still trying, at age 36, to reconcile this part of his life with the last part.

"I refuse to look at any 'what-ifs,' because I love to sleep," O'Bannon says, his 6-foot-8 frame clad in a Findlay Toyota-logoed polo shirt and a pair of khakis, "and if I looked at it that way, I'd have a lot of sleepless nights."

'I'm a Car Salesman'

O'Bannon is outside the doors to the dealership, smiling, sweating, waiting to pounce. It is "in the low teens" in the merciless sun -- local-speak for around 113, maybe 114 degrees. The salesman extends a hand. He's probably sizing you up. He's probably going to try to . . .

But wait a second. Isn't that . . .? No way. It is! Hey, Ed O'Bannon! You were awesome in that '95 title game! (Pause.) What are you doing here?

That's the way it went, maybe several times a week, in the early days at Findlay Toyota, in the suburbs outside Las Vegas. And it's the way it still goes sometimes, whenever O'Bannon leaves his office -- where he is now the dealership's assistant promotions manager, attending golf tournaments and UNLV basketball games, often flanked by a Highlander or a Camry, to spread the word about the good folks at Findlay -- and ventures out to the sales floor or the lot.

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