Friday, Feb. 6, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
If he could address the UNLV basketball team, former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon would keep his message to the Rebels clear and concise.
He wouldn’t toss chairs or call anybody out, incidents that established him as the Bruins’ leader and powered their run to a national championship in 1995.
Keep going, he’d tell the Rebels, keep plugging away.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “You’ll have your ups and downs. But if you stay positive and continue to play hard, and play with each other, only good things will happen. Simple as that.”
An hour before UNLV tipped off against San Diego State on Tuesday night, O’Bannon sat a few rows up from the court as the Rebels warmed up.
He smiled when told how Rebels coach Lon Kruger recently told his players how his life wouldn’t change much if this team stumbles, but this is this squad’s sole chance to leave a memorable legacy.
“I’ll tell you what, if I was in that locker room and I heard that speech, it would have woke me up,” O’Bannon said. “That’s a great way of putting it and a great way of thinking about it, and it’s a great way to go about your daily routine, whether in practice or games.
“Hopefully, it worked. It seems like they’re playing a little better now and are a little more consistent.”
A Bruin or a Rebel?
That night’s overtime defeat to the Aztecs notwithstanding, O’Bannon believes there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about UNLV.
The 6-foot-8, 225-pound lefty is no casual fan of the Rebels.
O’Bannon, 36, moved his family to Henderson, where they live in a two-story stucco home with a pool in Anthem, in 2003.
Out of Lakewood (Calif.) Artesia High, he was going to play for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. However, Tarkanian released O’Bannon when he decided to leave the Rebels.
O’Bannon had planned to finish his degree requirements at UNLV –- he has less than a year of classes left –- but his job as a Findlay Toyota marketing director has been too demanding.
He said his wife, who has multiple degrees, and his boss will force him to take those courses and earn a UNLV degree.
“The grand irony of ironies,” said O’Bannon, laughing, “that’s for sure.”
Before every game and at halftime, he greets fans at a display in the arena concourse and talks about the variety of cars at the dealership.
O’Bannon shakes hands, hands out business cards, signs autographs and takes photographs with potential customers. You should have come here, they always tell him. You were supposed to come here.
“Which is true,” said O’Bannon, laughing. “It’s fun being among all the fans. It’s cool. I enjoy it.”
How senior starters Adams, Rougeau and Joe Darger finish this season is absolutely how they will be remembered.
“When you’re out there, you have to think about that,” O’Bannon said. “You have to be humble. You have to go out and play as hard as you can, and do everything you can to control your own destiny.”
That leaves no time for looking ahead or wondering why you’re not in some Top 25, or Top 10, list after beating this team or that team.
“Your attention has to be on the next possession,” O’Bannon said. “We have to get a stop next time or we have to score. You have to keep your mindset, in every single game, on every possession.
“It has to be that way or you’ll lose. Keep looking ahead and you won’t win. The game is not scripted. No matter how much you plan, it’s not scripted. You have to go out and play hard every single possession.”
Birth of The Lion
Winning it all wasn’t simple for O’Bannon.
In one of his first few practices at UCLA, he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee so completely that it had to be repaired with the Achilles’ tendon from a cadaver.
As a junior, he became the leader of the Bruins during halftime of a 112-102 defeat to Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City.
UCLA scored 85 points in the final 30 minutes of that game and still lost by 10.
O’Bannon was a tornado in his team’s Myriad locker room. He tossed chairs and a chalkboard. He broke a couple of lockers. He challenged a few teammates, in their faces.
“We were down 30 points at halftime,” he said. “That was the worst butt-kicking I had ever received. They jumped out and absolutely whipped us. I promised them that this would never happen again. I really went off.”
He told people that UCLA was responsible for Tulsa coach Tubby Smith getting the gig at Kentucky.
“I was embarrassed,” O’Bannon said. “I wasn’t quiet at all. I am that quiet in everyday life, but when it came to my team, and it was MY team, I wasn’t quiet about anything. I made sure we were all on the same page at all times.”
Eight months later, UCLA had just eked out a victory over Kentucky in Anaheim, Calif. Every Bruin but Toby Bailey stood in the middle of a locker room with their fists in the air.
O’Bannon erupted again.
Bailey was very upset. He didn’t play a lot and he didn’t play well against the Wildcats. It was on national television. Friends and family were watching. He had been a standout in high school.
“Look, man, our team just won,” O’Bannon exploded at Bailey. “We’re a good team. It’s time you stand up and either be on this team or not. If you’re on this team, come over here with the rest of us.
“No way we’re going to win with you sitting over there like that. Absolutely no way! Either you’re with us or I will give you your scholarship back and you can find somewhere else to play ball!”
Assistant coach Lorenzo Romar called O’Bannon “Daddy Lion.”
Romar, now the head coach at Washington, visited O’Bannon in his office over the summer when he was in town recruiting. They reminisced for two hours, and Romar explained the nickname.
All the cubs would play or fight or stray, but once they got out of hand O’Bannon would roar loudly to straighten them out and get them back in line.
When O’Bannon and Bailey roomed together on the Los Angeles Stars in a minor league, Bailey told Daddy Lion how he was so intimidating.
“That’s not the impression I wanted to give,” O’Bannon said. “If that’s how they saw me, that’s fine, as long as they got the job done. That’s all I wanted.
“I thought I was a good guy. I didn’t fight with anybody. I got in your face if I felt you deserved it, and you had every right to get into my face.”
On scrappy UNLV
While looking back on his days at UCLA and looking forward to what UNLV might do, this season and the next few, O'Bannon exchanges a quick hug and a few words with Billy White of the Aztecs.
At Green Valley High, White received some invaluable insight when O'Bannon tutored him for a season. White is a lefty, too, and he displayed some of O'Bannon's ferocity Tuesday night.
When he sits back down, O’Bannon said he thinks UNLV relies too much on the 3-point shot and passes too frequently (he mentions Willis and freshman center Brice Massamba) instead of taking it to the rim.
“Sometimes you want to be a little more aggressive, especially around the basket,” O’Bannon said. “But they’re a scrappy bunch. Everyone I know said they’d have trouble this year.
“They’ve had a few lapses, but those happen. The key, though, is to get up when you fall. It seems like that’s what they’ve done.”
He enjoys watching Rougeau.
“I’m a huge fan of his,” O’Bannon said. “He’s fun. He’s always looking to high-five his teammates. He goes to the glass hard. He’s not intimidated by anybody. He always has a smile on his face yet he always plays hard.
“I’ve come in here a few times three hours early to set up and he’s out here shooting free throws and working. I like his game and his attitude. This team goes where he goes.”
O’Bannon howled when asked what it would be like for him if UNLV were to play UCLA in the NCAA tournament next month. A loaded question indeed, he said with a laugh.
“It would be like watching my kids play against each other,” O’Bannon said. “I don’t think I’d root for either team. Like the Super Bowl, I’d just want to see a good game.
“I’m a Bruin, true and through, but I love the Rebels. They’re great.”