Circle of Life : After Ed O'Bannon Became a Father, He Also Became the Player Everyone Thought He Would

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his valedictory stroll to center court, Ed O'Bannon carried his son last Saturday, then lifted him like a little prince into the air.

For O'Bannon, at last, the burden was light, and there was triumph in his eyes.

In the final days of a college career that had begun with so much hope and undergone such a conflicting blend of heartbreak and happiness, O'Bannon offered 10-month-old Aaron--and himself--to the Pauley Pavilion crowd.

"He's my pride and joy," O'Bannon said this week. "I wanted people to understand that. I just wanted to say to myself that he's bigger than the game, to me. I care more for my son than I do for basketball."

With his mother, Rosa Bravo, beaming nearby, Aaron smiled throughout the ceremony, seemingly displaying a feel for the moment that his father has shown so often in his Bruin career.

The whole thing was part celebration, O'Bannon said, and part renewal.

"A year ago I thought about this and I said to myself, 'As much as I don't want people to know about my personal life, I'm going to have to go out at center court for Senior Day,' " O'Bannon said this week, acknowledging that he has been uneasy about being UCLA's most famous unwed father. "What am I going to do?

"(But) when I really got to know my son and I really got to understand he's a person and he didn't ask to be here. . . . I'll tell you, there's no better feeling, there's no better way I would've done it."

For O'Bannon, the five-year road to that night--and to whatever fate holds for UCLA's tournament chances beginning Friday against Florida International--took him from high school phenom to father, from wounded knee to Wooden Award favorite.

Five years ago, O'Bannon, the nation's No. 1 prep recruit from Artesia High, was set to go to Nevada Las Vegas, but that program was put on probation before he could get there.

O'Bannon then chose UCLA, and Jim Harrick began planning a two-year front line of O'Bannon, Don MacLean and Tracy Murray.

Months later, O'Bannon was lying on a court with his left knee in shreds, a potential Hall of Fame career in tatters.

A year ago, after four years of working his way back, he learned that he and Bravo were going to be parents and said he lost focus on basketball, worrying about what people were saying about him. Then he suffered with his teammates when UCLA was knocked out by Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

About a month later, Aaron was born, and O'Bannon says he has never felt happier or more fulfilled.

Coincidence or not, this season O'Bannon has shot and rebounded and defended and, all around him say, practically willed the Bruins to their most successful regular season in recent history.

"He became an adult when he hurt himself and he saw how he had to push himself to get back," said his father, Ed O'Bannon Sr. "Then having to hit the books real hard when he never thought he would. Then to have a baby. . . .

"I think you grow up when these things start coming at you all at once."

Nobody ever thought O'Bannon was immature or that he disappeared in troubling times. But, in the crucial moments this season, he hasn't merely seemed to be the best player on the floor, he has seemed to be the only one.

In the five-game, undefeated 11-day stretch that is the centerpiece of UCLA's late-season burst, O'Bannon raised his game when his teammates were faltering. Whenever the Bruins asked for him, he answered, breaking his personal scoring mark twice, tying a school record for three-point baskets in a game, setting a career-high for blocked shots and lifting UCLA to the No. 1 ranking.

"He has shown this year that he is at his best when his best was needed, and that's a great thing," said former coach John Wooden.

Beyond the tournament, O'Bannon's future is brighter.

"I think for Ed, all the ducks are in line," assistant coach Mark Gottfried said. "He's got everything taken care of. He's within striking distance--a quarter away--from getting his college degree, which, if we would've all bet money on, who knows? But he wants it.

"His child is happy and Rosa's happy and that whole thing is taken care of. His team is doing well, his leg is healthy. . . . he's got it all."

He knows.

"I've worked as hard as I could to this point and things are going well for me for a reason," O'Bannon said. "God put me here to make my impression, I guess, at this school a positive one."

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His performance this year is no revelation, because everyone who remembered what he did at Artesia High was waiting for him to fly again.

But it took O'Bannon a while to remember.

"Before this season, I kind of forgot what type of player I used to be," he said.

"And then this year, things just started rolling for me. Now I'm starting to remember.

"I forgot what it felt like to have the ball in my hands and say, 'I can do whatever I want with it and it's going to go into the basket.' I forgot what that was like for four years."

O'Bannon made the All-Pac-10 first team twice in those years, and occasionally showed that he could be the player he was before surgery.

But then he would think about his knee and fall back a little.

"When I first started playing, I had that big old brace and I could hardly straighten my leg," O'Bannon said. "There were times I felt, 'Man, I'm just out here to fill the roster.' "

"I could play and I could dunk and things like that. But I wasn't as fast as I used to be. I had no explosion. I wouldn't be able to go around my grandmother if she was in a wheelchair. It was a horrible feeling."

He came back in January of his second year at UCLA, and played little as that team won the Pac-10 title and moved to the West Regional final before losing to Indiana. In his sophomore year, he averaged 16.7 points and seven rebounds. Last year, he scored 18.2 a game with 8.8 rebounds.

It took until the middle of this season--when his three-point success apparently triggered a rebirth of his whole game--to make everyone forget his injury.

"I think in the last month or so he's playing like everybody expected him to," Gottfried said. "That's Ed O'Bannon. That was one of the things you were always looking for, that he would just let everything loose and he'd just go do it."

Without question, O'Bannon has improved his draft status and figures to be a top-10 selection.

He knows too that his reputation as a mature, battle-scarred leader should increase his value to a league swarming with selfish child-stars.

For now, O'Bannon's goal is overturning the perception that UCLA is a team without the mental toughness for the tournament grind. Though he is thoughtful and measured in interviews, whenever the subject of outside criticism of his team is raised, O'Bannon's answers are sharp.

"Ever since I got to this school, people have always found something negative to say about our team," he said. "My biggest thing was to help this team to go through a season . . . where it was all positive.

"I've always wanted to play under perfect conditions, have everything work out perfectly. We're not a perfect team, nothing is perfect on this earth. But I feel this team, we can try at least to do that."

When there's a derisive comment made about the Bruins, his teammates know O'Bannon will find it.

"That's what gets him going," said J.R. Henderson, a freshman who says he is trying to pattern himself after O'Bannon. "He looks at the papers and he sees statements that people have made that he doesn't think show us respect and at practice he's always poking and prodding us with them."

"The things I hear most are about us having no heart. He's been hearing that a lot. . . . last year, this year. I think that's what gets to him the most.

"Because he has all the heart in the world. He shows that every time he steps on the court."

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O'Bannon said he knew Bravo was pregnant even before she did, that he could tell by how she was acting.

He was comfortable with their becoming parents but didn't want to rush into marriage because of that. There will be a marriage in due time, he said.

Then, as UCLA began to have trouble last season, he discovered that his baby--and his reputation--were major campus topics.

"I've always been the type of person, I didn't care what people thought," O'Bannon said. "But that . . . I think that one kind of got under my skin.

"People would be like, 'You're not married, how come you're having a kid?' Everyone makes mistakes, I'm human, I'm not perfect. My reputation kind of came into question, and that also kind of made me lose focus.

"But my girlfriend is a great person and a very strong person. She made things a lot easier for me."

Said his father, "When he found out that he was going to have a child--my grandson--I think that hit him really hard, and I don't think he really knew how to handle it at the time. Right in the middle of basketball season."

Younger brother, Charles, who followed Ed to UCLA, says he watched Ed's Senior Night celebration with Aaron and thought about the darker days.

"Who would've thought after his knee injury that, after his fifth year, he has a chance to be player of the year, he'd be leading his team to No. 1 in the country and possibly to the national title?" Charles said.

Then, with a wink, "And who would've thought five years ago I'd be an uncle?"

Aaron John O'Bannon doesn't know about the pain and the injury and the tournament losses. He doesn't know about awards and the draft and Florida International on Friday night.

Which makes it all the more rewarding.

"He has no idea," Ed O'Bannon said. "Yesterday, we were watching TV and I was flipping channels and I came across ESPN and we were on. And they had him, showed his face, us together, and he had no idea he was on TV.

"Rosa, she was, 'Aw, look, there you are.' And he just didn't care. All he wants is to be fed and held and dry. That, to me, is the best thing."

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