The Prodigal Star

One look and it’s easy to tell that Ed O’Bannon is not your average car salesman. If his 6-foot-8 inch, 225-pound frame doesn’t give away O’Bannon’s former occupation as a hardwood hero, his business card (featuring a photo of him cutting down the net after he led UCLA to the 1995 NCAA title) and office décor (a framed Bruins No. 31 jersey and NBA poster) probably will.

Inevitably the questions always circle back to how a college basketball stud ends up selling Toyotas in Henderson.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” says the man nicknamed Easy Ed, who was drafted ninth overall by the New Jersey Nets in 1995 but lasted just two seasons in the NBA. “I mean, look, did I ever imagine selling cars some day? No way. When I got to the NBA, I—along with everyone else—had expectations of making All-Star teams, millions of dollars, big homes, cars, all the toys, the whole deal. I had those dreams. It didn’t pan out. But I don’t dwell on it.”

There is one big “what if?” that living in Southern Nevada stirs up for the 38-year-old O’Bannon, especially this year with the release of two documentaries, HBO’s Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV and ESPN’s The Fab Five: What if he had played for UNLV, where the national high school player of the year from Artesia, Calif., had given a verbal commitment, instead of UCLA?

O’Bannon would have been a freshman in 1991, alongside Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and the rest of the 34-1 squad that lost to Duke in the Final Four. Imagine the possibilities, Rebel fans. Then there were whispers of a possible super UNLV lineup featuring O’Bannon, Chris Webber, Shawn Kemp, Jason Kidd and Jalen Rose.

“On paper that would have been one of the best teams ever,” says a grinning O’Bannon. “Who knows?”

O’Bannon went to UCLA, blew out his left knee before his freshman season, met his future wife, Rosa, as a sophomore and secured the Bruins’ first trophy in 20 years playing alongside his little brother, Charles, as a senior. After his NBA career dissolved, he played seven years overseas before hanging up his sneakers in 2003 and moving to Las Vegas at the suggestion of his brother, who bought a house here. He quickly landed a job working at long-time UNLV supporter Cliff Findlay’s car dealership, Findlay Toyota.

Recently, O’Bannon’s basketball cravings have returned. He was a volunteer coach with Green Valley High when San Diego State senior Billy White played there. O’Bannon also coached the boys’ team at Henderson International last year before the recession forced the school to eliminate its upper grades. This season, he’s assisting his 14-year-old daughter, Jazmin, a 6-3 freshman at Liberty High, and he’s not ruling out coaching again in the city where he once thought his career would skyrocket.

“I guess it was meant for me to be in Vegas all along,” O’Bannon says with a smile.

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