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.
"Ed would stand out there and wait on customers," says Rich Abajian, the general manager of the dealership. "He'd be out there from 9 o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night. The sun would be beating down. His customers loved him. It was a real treat for people to be around someone who had accomplished so much."
It was Abajian's name and phone number on that business card on the dresser, the one O'Bannon picked up after Rosa ordered him off the couch. Calling that number, giving his name, asking if there was still a job available -- there isn't much Ed O'Bannon has done in this world that was harder than that.
"It was tough showing up to work at first," O'Bannon says. "Here I am, 32 years old at the time, standing outside on that car lot, selling cars. I'm thinking, 'If I was to read an article about me, what would I think?' I said to myself [mimics reading a newspaper], 'Ed O'Bannon, former UCLA great, blah, blah, blah, is now a salesman at a car dealership in Henderson, Nevada.'
"After reading that, what would I say to myself? 'What happened to that guy?' It was hard for me to get past that, hard to come to grips with the fact I wasn't playing. What is my customer thinking? 'This guy's selling cars now? Times must be tough.' I fought with that for a little while."
Cliff Findlay, the founder of Findlay Toyota, was a former standout basketball player at UNLV, and has cultivated a team-like atmosphere at his dealerships by hiring ex-athletes and coaches who understand the concept. Abajian was a former college football standout and an assistant coach at UNLV.
Early on, O'Bannon was befriended by a soft-spoken Findlay salesman named Eric Ludwick, who could understand his pain like few others. Ludwick, who had been at Findlay for two years when O'Bannon showed up, was a former UNLV pitcher who spent parts of four seasons in the major leagues. Like O'Bannon, he entered pro ball as a phenom -- he was a second-round draft pick in 1993 and was once traded for Mark McGwire -- and like O'Bannon, he had been forced to go overseas, in his case to Japan, to make a living after flaming out in the United States.
At one point, observing O'Bannon's struggles, Ludwick pulled him aside.
"He says, 'Look, this is what you are. You're a salesman. Who cares?' " O'Bannon recalls. " 'Whoever is reading those [newspaper] stories isn't paying your bills. And you have to come to grips with [the fact] that's just what you are. Whether you're a plumber or a trashman or a salesman, you have to be that. And you have to be proud of it.' He said he had the same kind of problem when he started."
Ludwick, 37, said it took him about two years -- two dark, depressing years -- to make the adjustment, and it came at a steep cost.
"My marriage was pretty much wrecked because of it," he said. "I wasn't fun to be around. You grow up from age 4 or 5, playing T-ball, and you're always the best player in your league, and in Little League you're always the best, and in high school and college. Then you go to the minor leagues, and you're this bonus baby. When it all gets taken away -- it really didn't hurt my ego. I just felt like people give up on you. It was almost anger, like, 'How could you do that to me?'
"I've gotten to the point where it's so far in my past I can go about my day-to-day life without thinking about it. But there was a point when it consumed me. It's something I probably should have talked to someone about, because I spent nights just laying there and thinking about it. By losing it all, I figured out how to conduct myself on a daily basis with other human beings. And I'm happy about that."
O'Bannon still considers the lecture from Ludwick one of the critical moments in his transition from basketball star to salesman.
"The more you say it, the louder you say it, the better you'll do: 'I'm a car salesman,' " O'Bannon says. "Ever since Eric told me that, that's how I view things. Whenever I'm introduced to someone, or if I meet someone new and they ask what I'm doing these days, I give them a card. 'This is what I'm doing. This is where I am, and if you have any questions, I'll try to answer them for you.' "From UCLA to New Jersey
By the time O'Bannon started at Findlay Toyota in 2004, he was already some six, seven, maybe eight years into his slow disassociation from his old identity -- that of Ed O'Bannon the basketball superstar, the man who had returned UCLA to the pinnacle, the well-rounded 6-8 machine who was going to save the New Jersey Nets.
When you pack in your NBA career after just two seasons and 634 points, and head off to play in Europe at the age of 26, you are pretty much conceding your legacy will never grow beyond what it already is -- which, for O'Bannon, meant being known forever as the guy who scored 30 points with 17 rebounds in the 1995 NCAA championship game, and who won the Final Four most outstanding player award and the Wooden Award as the country's best college player.
By 1998, having been traded twice in a little over a year, O'Bannon was sick of the NBA, sick of getting just 16 minutes of playing time per game, sick of the bump-and-grind Eastern Conference style, sick of coaches trying to make him into a shooting guard when all he had ever played was power forward.
In a way, by quitting the NBA he was merely fulfilling the destiny that, in hindsight, appeared unavoidable to him from the very day he was drafted. That spring day in Toronto in 1995, with his girlfriend (now his wife) sitting beside him, this L.A.-born, L.A.-raised and L.A.-forever kid watched the cameras swoop in on each prospect just before NBA Commissioner David Stern announced their names, and, as the Nets' turn approached with the ninth pick, prayed they didn't descend upon him.
But they did.
"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."
Because of his failures in the NBA -- he lasted just a season and a half in New Jersey, and just 19 games with the Dallas Mavericks, finally getting released in 1997 by the Orlando Magic, having averaged just 5.0 points and 2.5 rebounds per game -- he understands that part of his legacy will always be his status as one of the biggest busts in the history of the NBA draft.
Part of the problem, to be sure, was the knee injury. A week before the first practice of his freshman year at UCLA, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee playing in a pickup game at the student rec center. The doctors replaced the ligament with one from a cadaver, and O'Bannon redshirted for a year. He returned to amass one of the great careers in the program's storied history, and it wasn't until years later -- right around the time he needed it to secure his financial future -- that the knee began to drag him down.
"Someone doesn't drop off like I did without something being wrong," he says. "My knee held up for five years, but it just didn't hold up for another two like I needed it to."
After making the decision to walk away from the NBA in 1998 -- "I felt the NBA didn't want me, so I didn't want it, either," he said -- he had his agent scout out opportunities overseas. By then, he and Rosa had two kids and a third on the way, and they were all coming with him.
"I had to provide," he says. "So it's either stop playing, and go through my savings, or continue to play, and we can still live a pretty comfortable lifestyle."
The next seven years went something like this: One season in Italy. One in Spain. Half a season in Greece, and a half in Argentina. A year back home playing for the Los Angeles Stars of the start-up ABA. Finally, three seasons in Poland, split between three franchises. In all that time, he never had anything more than a one-year contract and never made more than $400,000 in a season.
But he did see some of the damnedest things ever witnessed on a basketball court, such as a snowball fight.
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?' "A Sense of Direction
Walking away from the NBA was merely the first half of a two-part process that removed Ed O'Bannon from his identity as a basketball player, the only identity he had had for the better part of his life.
The second part came at that week-long tryout camp in Oregon. With no team in Europe willing to have him anymore, O'Bannon was trying to latch on with a new Chinese professional league. He was 31 years old.
"We're going through drills, and I could just feel myself drifting and drifting mentally," he says. "Towards the middle of the week, my knee was always sore and I wasn't playing well. And I was just like, 'I've got some money saved. My wife and kids are at home. What the hell am I doing here? I don't love it anymore. Enough is enough.' "
He called Rosa, said he was coming home.
"Come on home," she replied. "We miss you. We'll start our new life. We'll turn the page, and everything will be good."
Home by that point was metropolitan Las Vegas. It had been Rosa's idea to move. The cost of living was cheaper than in L.A., and there was one other important thing.
"She said, 'You're going to have to get a job pretty soon, and I don't want you to go through the humiliation of being who you were as a basketball player in [L.A.] and now having to work,' " he recalls. "And I kicked and screamed and cried the whole way out here. But it's been great."
Rosa O'Bannon, who is a counselor at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying through her husband that she didn't want to "rehash the past." For Ed O'Bannon, however, rehashing the past is somehow therapeutic.
"It's disappointing to me to this day that I didn't play until I was 40," he says. "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."
O'Bannon probably brought in close to $7 million in his career, counting the original Nets contract and all those cobbled-together one-year deals overseas, paid out in lira, pesetas and zloty. Thankfully, Rosa made sure he socked some of it away. When he decided to get a job -- or, rather, when Rosa decided he would get a job -- it wasn't so much for the money as for the sense of direction. He needed to get out of the house. He needed something to do.
"It wasn't like I was drinking all the time, or like I got drunk and started beating on [Rosa] and the kids. It was none of that," he says, recalling the day Rosa kicked him off the couch. "It was just a day where everything came to a head. Rosa came home. The kids were upstairs making noise. The kitchen was a mess. The house was a mess. And there I was, with a beer in my hand.
"She just said, 'No way. That's not you. That's not who I married.' And some of it had to do with me feeling sorry for myself, saying, 'Those guys on TV -- I should be playing with them. I should be competing against them.' "
He has been at Findlay now for four years, been promoted four times. He works six days a week, and on Sundays the kids -- Aaron, 15; Jazmin, 12; and Edward III, 10 -- like to get him out on the court, where, he says, "we get after it pretty good." Jazmin is already 6-2 and, in her father's words, "a real athlete," and it was her sudden passion for basketball -- she's the star of her middle school team -- that rekindled her father's.
"I would love to coach. I would love to coach [Jazmin], at whatever level she's at," he says. "There's absolutely no doubt I'd love to be involved in basketball again. I've been away from it long enough, and I'd love to get back in."
He is thinking now, either about the past or the future, and he is spinning a cheap, rubber basketball -- a Findlay Toyota giveaway back in March, around the time of year Ed O'Bannon starts to get really popular in the showroom -- on his index finger. And then he hears voices outside his office, another customer who may or may not be ready to walk out of here, right now, as the owner of a brand-new Toyota.
"But for now," O'Bannon says, "this is my job, and this is what I do, and this is who I am."