Editor’s note: The following is taken from the book Eleventh Heaven (BookLocker, $22), which chronicles Ed O’Bannon and the 1995 UCLA basketball national championship team. O’Bannon, who almost signed to play at UNLV, has been a Las Vegas resident for more than a decade, working for the Findlay Automotive Group and serving as the lead plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the NCAA.
Edward Charles O’Bannon Jr. officially became enamored with UNLV, the Thomas & Mack Center and a damp-towel-gnawin’ basketball coach during his official visit to Las Vegas. He arrived on a Saturday, in mid-February 1990. He met Rebels guard H Waldman and center George Ackles. He lunched with Greg Anthony and was impressed that the star guard left to speak with grade-schoolers. O’Bannon watched UNLV defeat Arizona 95-87 inside the Mack, the spiffy 6-year-old arena with a Gucci Row. He hung out with Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson. Those two and fellow Rebel Chris Jeter joined O’Bannon—and O’Bannon’s younger brother Charles, who was on an unofficial visit—to watch Siegfried & Roy perform at The Mirage. They slid into a center booth, maybe halfway back.
Buster Douglas, a week after zapping Mike Tyson in Tokyo, strolled in. Introduced as if he were the president of the United States, thought Ed O’Bannon. Flash bulbs exploded all around them. Another buzz circulated. Julius Erving sauntered up to their booth and shook hands with everyone. He told Johnson and Augmon, “Man, I was watchin’ y’all today. Great game!” Ed was floored. Dang, he thought, these guys got heavyweight champs walkin’ up to them, not the other way around! And Dr. J! And they just got done playing on national television. How do you not come to this school?
Several weeks later in Denver, UNLV won the national title, defeating Duke 103-73—still a championship-game record margin—to cap a 35-5 season. Jerry Tarkanian had his Rebels on a roll. Over the previous eight seasons, UNLV’s record of 247-39 had been tops in the country. Tark the Shark had all the West Coast glamour and glitz, and he had the returnees to defend his championship in 1990-91. Ed O’Bannon yearned to join the high-wire hoopsters, help the Rebels claim another crown and then enter the NBA Draft after his freshman or sophomore season. He would do the bare minimum academic work required to stay eligible. As a prep senior, O’Bannon earned Basketball Times national Player of the Year honors. His life was all basketball. He would make tens of millions of dollars and be a perennial NBA All-Star, perhaps even win a few NBA titles, too.
In May 1990, Ed O’Bannon and Shon Tarver—a 6-foot-5 swingman from Santa Clara High School in Oxnard, California, considered to be one of the top players in California—gave oral commitments to UNLV. But because of a threatening NCAA investigation, Tark did not press the pair for signatures. If penalties were levied, Tark wanted the players to be able to sign with another school without having to sit out a year, the usual punishment for breaking a signed letter of intent. It further endeared Tark to O’Bannon.
“I couldn’t believe it,” O’Bannon says. “Every [other collegiate coach] would have said, ‘Sign the letter of intent.’ But [Tarkanian] was like, ‘Things aren’t lookin’ all that great. So if [penalties] happen, I don’t want you tied into this.’ I thought it was extremely classy. How could you not want to be there, to play for someone who is as classy as that, despite what the N-C-two-A is sayin’? I think Tark has all the class in the world. He’s an iconic figure, the John Wooden of our era. What I mean by that is, when Coach Wooden walked into an arena or gym or restaurant, everyone knew who he was. The whole place stopped. Everyone paid his respects to Coach Wooden; same thing with Coach Tarkanian. He walks in that door and the 10 people in the joint would know who he is. They would stop what they’re doing and watch him walk all the way across the room and sit down.”
Getting O’Bannon and Tarver had been a watershed event for Tark, who had always seemed to finish second to UCLA in blue-chip recruiting wars. Tarkanian told me in 2008 that he and his staff “recruited their butts off” to get Ed O’Bannon. “He was the first time we beat UCLA on a [premier] player.”
On July 20, 1990, the NCAA Committee on Infractions barred UNLV from postseason play for the 1990-91 season in the latest episode of decades of jousting between Tarkanian and the governing body of collegiate sports. He released O’Bannon and Tarver, and both signed with UCLA. Neither had to sit out a season because of Tarkanian’s foresight. Then, on October 9, 1990, six days before the start of official practice, O’Bannon tore apart his left knee upon landing awkwardly after dunking in a pickup game at the John R. Wooden Center on the UCLA campus.
Six weeks after O’Bannon underwent five hours of surgery to repair his knee, the NCAA lifted UNLV’s postseason ban. The Rebels accepted an alternative penalty that would prohibit them from appearing on live television during the following (1991-92) season and keep them from competing in the 1992 NCAA tournament. The 1990-91 UNLV basketball team could, in fact, defend its national championship. The NCAA had never previously reversed its course on such a major ruling. Still, Tarkanian referred to it as “that horseshit ruling.”
And there was Ed O’Bannon, on crutches inside his parents’ home in Lakewood, California, fielding get-well cards from singers Michael Jackson and George Michael, and a hang-in-there phone call from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Had he stuck with his commitment to UNLV, O’Bannon obviously would not have been in the Wooden Center that fateful day and he would have been able to help the Rebels defend their title. UNLV would suffer a 79-77 defeat to Duke in a national semifinal game in Indianapolis, leaving Tark loyalists, college basketball fans and longtime Las Vegans a lifetime to ponder how O’Bannon’s presence might have altered that outcome.
However, O’Bannon—who recovered from his knee injury and went on to lead the Bruins to the 1995 national championship—recalls nothing about the significance of that timeline. He says he never had any regrets. “Absolutely not. Once I made my decision to go to UCLA, I never looked back. I never followed what the N-C-two-A was doing with UNLV. I couldn’t tell you when they actually went on probation. I had moved on.”
NCAA officials had not moved on, however. They visited UCLA during O’Bannon’s second academic year to query about the purchaser of a round-trip airline ticket to Las Vegas that O’Bannon had used for an unofficial recruiting visit. Nothing came of it, but the inquisition infuriated O’Bannon. He was being grilled about the topic maybe a 10th time. The officials shut the door in a UCLA conference room and all but beamed a spotlight at him. “Dude, you guys are fishin’,” O’Bannon said. “What are you lookin’ for? What the hell do you guys want from me?”
O’Bannon believed it was typical of how the organization had badgered Tarkanian for many years. Tark and the NCAA began dueling in 1973, when he penned a guest column for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and wrote how the organization went after minnows—the small schools—but not whales. In April 1998, Tark accepted a $2.5 million settlement from the NCAA, averting a trial that was about to begin in Las Vegas. “You want vindication? Tark has had his,” O’Bannon says. “He sued the N-C-two-A and got, what, $2 million? But there’s a whole lot of other people they hurt in going after him, just a wave of people they hurt and had lives altered because of their beef with him. … What a crooked organization.”
The Bruins walloped UNLV 108-83 at Pauley Pavilion in the Rebels’ 1993-94 season opener, an outcome that might have been vastly different had Edward O’Bannon kept his original commitment to UNLV and Charles O’Bannon followed his older brother to Las Vegas. An auspicious encounter took place when UNLV junior guard Michael Curtis, a bit Rebel, introduced himself to Ed O’Bannon after the game. The repercussions of that meeting would come to affect the landscape of collegiate sports.
Almost 10 years after that game, Ed and Rosa O’Bannon and their three children moved to Las Vegas to escape Southern California congestion and Golden State tax burdens.
O’Bannon’s professional career had started in New Jersey with the Nets and fizzled, sending him on a sojourn to Italy, Greece, Argentina, Spain and Poland—a lot of Poland. He retired in 2004 and embarked on a career selling cars at Findlay Toyota, owned by auto magnate and former UNLV center Cliff Findlay. O’Bannon has risen into a prominent marketing and promotions position, but he’s never above working the lot on a 115-degree summer day. He figures he has sold 2,000 vehicles. (When he helped Andre Agassi buy two vans, the former tennis ace regaled O’Bannon with tales of his dynamic 1994-95 season at UCLA and bemoaned that he never played for the Rebels.)
As he established roots in Las Vegas, Ed O’Bannon reunited with Michael Curtis. During the 2008-09 hoops season, O’Bannon picked up Curtis at his Summerlin home to attend a Rebels game; Curtis was delayed, so O’Bannon settled onto a couch to watch Curtis’ sons, Spencer and Parker, toy with a video game. One of them controlled the 1994-95 UCLA team. And there was a slender 6-foot-8 bald lefty with No. 31 on his jersey. O’Bannon was stunned; he was watching himself. Curtis laughed as he entered the room. “The worst part is, you’re not getting anything for that, are you?” O’Bannon did not laugh.
That indignity enticed O’Bannon to join Sonny Vaccaro—who became famous for paying college basketball coaches to have their players wear sneakers of companies he represented—in what at first looked like a potentially debilitating lawsuit against the NCAA, EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Co. for using athletes’ images and likenesses in perpetuity without compensation. O’Bannon v. NCAA was filed in Northern California on July 21, 2009. “It all started in my house,” Curtis says. “The crazy thing is we were just hanging out.”
The case morphed and expanded and shifted like a blob. Some observers speculated that the NCAA would be smacked with penalties of several billion dollars. Due to the antitrust nature of the case, that severe figure would be tripled, possibly crippling the NCAA. But that was an extreme potential denouement.
At the start of the 2013 NCAA tournament, O’Bannon played celebrity host to a double-ballroom gathering of about a thousand fans at the South Point. I brought him that week’s Sports Illustrated. He was 43rd on the magazine’s ranking of the 50 most powerful people in sports, a spot ahead of Barack Obama. UFC President Dana White, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Michael Jordan brought up the rear of the poll. “I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal, [but] it was pretty cool that I’m in front of Mr. President. Wow. I don’t know what it means, if anything. But somebody thinks so.”
The magazine’s nutshell explanation of O’Bannon’s ranking highlighted his role as the lead plaintiff in the NCAA lawsuit. Madeline O’Bannon had always told her eldest son that he had a higher calling. “I’m excited that I have the opportunity to represent my fellow basketball players,” he told me at the South Point. “The feedback I’m getting, personally, has been 100 percent positive. Everyone I talk to seems to be in our corner. As a man, that’s what you want: the respect of your peers. I seem to have it, and I will do all that I can to keep it. I want to represent my family, my parents, my wife and my kids. … I have an opportunity to be a positive influence on a lot of lives.”
On the eve of the trial in June, Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney for the O’Bannon team, chose not to pursue retroactive monetary damages; that extinguished the possibility of the NCAA being fined billions of dollars. It was now about the future. That streamlined the case, taking a verdict away from a jury and leaving it to the sole discretion of U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken.
Late on the afternoon of August 8, 2014, Wilken ruled in favor of O’Bannon, citing that the NCAA’s limits on what top-tier college basketball and football players can receive for playing sports “unreasonably restrains trade” in violation of antitrust laws. The 99-page ruling slammed the NCAA and contained an injunction that prevents the organization from keeping those players from getting a limited share of revenues generated from the use of their names, images and likenesses. That revenue sharing, which Wilken suggested should have an annual cap of at least $5,000 and which would be held in a trust until after the athlete leaves college, would begin next summer.
The NCAA has appealed. A legal expert told me appeals at the state level could take two years. Both sides had already threatened to appeal to the highest court in the land, and a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (should it choose to hear the case) could add another 10 years.
Pretty cool stuff, Ed O’Bannon texted me three hours after the decision was rendered. That qualified as an emotional outburst for someone who does not partake in hype or hyperbole, Facebook or Twitter.
The roller-coaster ordeal might have been deflating and demanding, in time alone, but O’Bannon, now 42, never wavered once he became a part of it. He spent years discussing tactics and giving depositions, in person, with teams of lawyers on both coasts—even to his own professional detriment: In the summer of 2013, he sought a broadcasting gig, but that was squashed once the company discovered the lawsuit. He had wanted to explore coaching opportunities, too. “But no [head] coach will touch me,” he said.
I had heard through channels that O’Bannon might have regretted, to whatever degree, being involved in the lawsuit. That ran counter to the feelings and words he had expressed to me during our many meetings, which totaled maybe 100 hours. I ask him anyway. He flinches. Absolutely not true, he says. Would he do it all over again? “In a New York minute.”