The sophomore sensation was easy to identify in the Artesia High School gym. Ed O'Bannon's height alone made him seem a man among boys, although he is 15 years old. The other giveaway was the nickname on his shirt: Dunkenstein.
"He had three real monsters against Norwalk last week," Artesia's basketball information director Phil Sandoval said of the 6-foot-7 O'Bannon. "He really excites the crowd."
But with no crowd to excite at a practice last Friday afternoon, the slender, somber-faced O'Bannon passed up the dunks and polished his jump shot in preparation for that night's game with Bellflower High. He bounced on his toes with a confident rhythm and with his left hand lofted ball after ball softly toward the basket. Most went in.
"He doesn't have a head problem," Sandoval went on, as he watched from the side of the court. "He's very soft-spoken, doesn't think he's All-World."
O'Bannon might have reason to think so because he is averaging 18.1 points and 12.6 rebounds a game for the Pioneers, who are contenders for first place in the Suburban League. Before the season he was rated by the Herald-Examiner as the second-best underclassman among Southern California high school players.
He transferred last September from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles after his family moved to an apartment complex a block from Artesia High.
Pioneer Coach Wayne Merino, who came to Artesia High last May after serving as assistant coach at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach, has been ecstatic since O'Bannon enrolled.
"He's the nuts and bolts of the team and he's getting better and better," Merino said. "He's only beginning to find out how good he can be."
A Humble Attitude
A sophomore stealing the show on a team that has talented veterans has presented no problems.
"The kids all like him," Merino said. "They are happy to have him because they realize the potential player he can be. He's very humble, very determined. He has a great family and obviously has received discipline at home. I want him to be the role model of our program and he's already starting to be that."
After the practice, O'Bannon, who will not be 16 until Aug. 14, revealed a little of himself in a 10th-grader's shy manner.
"It's been a lot of fun here," he said.
He credited his father, Ed O'Bannon Sr., with his development as a player: "He's been with me all the way. We play every chance we get at a park across the street."
Colleges Pursue Him
The youth's success this season is no surprise: "They (his parents) told me it was going to happen. I just try my best, try to make it happen. And I try not to let things go to my head."
Already, universities have written to O'Bannon. "Iowa, Louisville, New Mexico, a lot of them," he said.
Only the subject of dunking could crack his seriousness.
"Every chance I get," a smiling O'Bannon said when asked if he enjoys putting on a show worthy of his nickname.
At 6:30 that Friday night, with the news on the console TV in his apartment going unwatched, O'Bannon said goodby to his mother and left for the game. He was dressed in a red sweater and black slacks. He had said he was not nervous.
"He's a good kid, never been in trouble," said 6-foot-1 Madeline O'Bannon, who could not remember when her son didn't have a basketball with him.
She said that since Ed Jr. came to Artesia his grades have improved and he has become more social. "Maybe it's the girls," she said. "Since he's so quiet, the aggressive ones pursue him. He's enjoying it."
Father Had Scholarship
Minutes later, Ed O'Bannon Sr., 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, came home from his job as a driver for United Parcel Service in Cerritos. A former athlete at Dominguez High School, he went to UCLA on a football scholarship but never played a game and left after two years to marry and take a job.
"I've been kind of pushing him (toward basketball) since he was 2 years old when he'd run up and down the hallway and shoot at a basket," O'Bannon said of his son, who since he was 7 has played on park teams, traveling teams and teams in the Slam-n-Jam summer development league.
And there have been countless father-son one-on-one games. "I rough him up a little," said Ed Sr., who has a 30-pound advantage, "Last year he finally beat me."
He's Still Growing
What he wants most for his son is a good education--"then it's up to him if he goes to the pros."
Ed Jr. had said in the afternoon that he expected to make a living from basketball. By the time he is ready for the pros, he could be a 7-footer.
"I was 6-1 in the 10th grade," his father said.
The O'Bannons changed into red Artesia High booster club T-shirts and drove to the gym. Ed Sr. went into the locker room to "pump (Ed Jr.) up," then sat in the gray fold-out bleachers that faced the dimly lit court.
With his shirttail out, O'Bannon dunked the ball on a fast break for his first basket of the night, then followed with a soft eight-foot bank shot. A short time later, he broke away for a "monster jam."
"Basket by ED OHHHHHHHHH BAN-NON! screamed the public address announcer.
The excited crowd stomped the metal stands ferociously.
But Bellflower overcame O'Bannon with some good shooting and led, 27-25, after the second quarter.
During half time, Ed Sr. looked down beyond the swirl of the cheerleaders at his other son, Charles, an eighth-grader, who was shooting baskets with the other Artesia ball boys and who hopes to follow in his brother's footsteps.
Pride was on Ed Sr.'s face and he said he had a super feeling.
"And they're nice kids, too," he said. "They come home and do their homework and their chores, what you ask of them."
Bellflower started to pull away when the second half started.
"Come on, Artesia," Ed Sr. yelled.
First League Loss
Despite being triple-teamed, O'Bannon, who scored 23 points, led a Pioneer comeback. But it fell short and Bellflower won, 60-56. It was the Pioneers' first league loss in four games and dropped their overall record to 11-9.
As he walked off the court, O'Bannon stopped to accept the congratulations of one of his former teachers, then went into the locker room and sat with his head in his hands.
"It's hard for a kid as a sophomore to come into a game and know you're going to get triple teamed," Merino said later. "Next year he'll be able to pick up all three (defenders) and take them to the hoop. We'll have him on a weight program and he'll gain 20 pounds."
The bleachers had long since been folded up when O'Bannon finally came out of the locker room.
As he carried a clothes bag out into the night, you could imagine him years from now leaving famous big-city arenas, towering over a mob of adoring fans. But now it was just him and his family under the parking lot lights in Artesia. He reached down and touched Charles on the cheek. And then he hugged his father.