Ten years ago this month, Tyus Edney sprinted from one end of a basketball court to the other, flew in the air and banked in a game-winning shot. His heroics saved a season, inspired a championship and created one of the most electric and enduring memories in NCAA tournament history.
Not bad for 4.8 seconds of work.
On the eve of the 2005 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Edney’s dash to beat Missouri and rescue UCLA in a second-round game in 1995 holds up as one of the quintessential “shining moments” of all time.
“It doesn’t seem like 10 years ago, it seems like yesterday when you think about it,” Edney said.
But it has been a decade since the team featuring Edney, Ed and Charles O’Bannon, Toby Bailey, George Zidek, J.R. Henderson and Cameron Dollar gave UCLA its only national championship since the John Wooden era. Edney, now 32 and playing for Lottomatica Roma in the Italian League, still looks as if he could pass for a sophomore -- OK, maybe a senior -- on the current edition of the Bruins.
But youthful appearance aside, the 5-foot-10 point guard has grown up to become a man of the world with an international basketball resume that includes multiple championships, all-star teams and most-valuable-player awards in the Italian League and EuroLeague, which brings together the best teams on the continent. After a couple of trips back and forth between the NBA and Europe, Edney has settled comfortably into his role as one of the most popular and successful U.S. players overseas.
“Tyus is huge in Europe,” said Ed O’Bannon, who retired this year from professional basketball after playing the previous three seasons in Poland. “His style, his size, the fact that his teams always win; he’s somewhat of a novelty, a celebrity. When my teammates overseas found out that I played with him, it would be like someone in the States finding out that you played with Michael Jordan.”
After four years in Italy, Edney speaks fluent Italian and is engaged to be married to his Italian-Brazilian fiancee, Ainoa, with whom he has a 1-year-old son, Tyus Jr. The couple and their child live in a spacious apartment in central Rome with a balcony that overlooks the famous dome of St. Peter’s.
Sure, he sometimes misses the perks and status of the NBA, his family and friends back home and the familiarity of life in the U.S., but Edney has embraced his Italian lifestyle with no regrets.
“I like it here,” Edney said. “Over here, I play more and it’s a great atmosphere. I could have been a guy who bounced around in the NBA until maybe I stuck somewhere, but I didn’t like the uncertainty.”
Edney’s NBA career began with great promise. A second-round draft pick by the Sacramento Kings in 1995, he started 60 games as a rookie and averaged 10.8 points and 6.1 assists, helping Sacramento make its first playoff appearance in nine years. But in his second season, he lost his starting spot and his minutes were reduced. He landed in Boston in Year 3 and played in 52 games, averaging 12 minutes and 5.3 points.
When NBA owners locked out the players in 1998, Edney decided to give overseas basketball a shot. He joined former UCLA teammate Zidek on a Lithuanian team, BC Zalgiris Kaunus. Edney’s quickness and confident playmaking made him an instant success. The team won the 1999 EuroLeague championship, Europe’s most prominent title, and an overseas star was born.
The next season, Benetton Basket Treviso picked him up, and Edney became an Italian League fan favorite.
“The thing that sets him apart is his heart,” said Donn Nelson, player personnel director for the Dallas Mavericks, and a consultant for the Lithuanian national team. “Whatever team he plays for, whether it’s UCLA, or Zalgiris, or Benetton Treviso -- that team is in the running for a championship.”
The NBA and Edney gave each other one more shot in 2000-01, when he signed with the Indiana Pacers. His line for the season: 24 games, zero starts, 4.4 points a game. He returned to Treviso the next season and didn’t look back. For the first time in his professional career, he found stability as Treviso’s point guard and unquestioned leader.
With Edney running the show, Treviso won consecutive Italian League championships and made the EuroLeague Final Four in 2002 and 2003. Current Phoenix Sun Coach Mike D’Antoni coached Treviso and Edney in 2001-02; the team went 28-8.
Charles O’Bannon, who had a short-lived NBA career with the Detroit Pistons and now plays in Japan, joined the team late in the season. The team also featured former Michigan State star Charlie Bell and future NBA draft picks Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Bostjan Nachbar.
“That was the best year,” Edney said. “It was run and gun.”
Said D’Antoni: “That game-winning drive that Tyus had in the NCAA tournament? That’s not unusual for him. After getting to know him and watching him play, Tyus has an innate ability to rise to the occasion in big moments.”
Thinking for a moment, D’Antoni added: “Did he tell you about the shot against Tel Aviv?”
In the 2003 EuroLeague quarterfinals in Thessalonika, Greece, Treviso trailed Maccabi Tel Aviv by two with two seconds left. A long inbounds pass came to Edney near midcourt. He jumped, caught the ball and heaved a shot at the buzzer. Final score: Treviso 84, Tel Aviv 83.
“The thing about it was, I didn’t land and then shoot the ball. I jumped and caught it and shot in one motion,” he said, a slight smile crossing his face. “That was probably my best shot ever. That was crazy.”
This season has been unusual for Edney. For the first time in his European career, he is struggling through a difficult season. His new team, Lottomatica Roma, is 12-13 and fighting to hold onto the eighth and final playoff spot in the Italian League.
He had his first-ever surgery in December, an arthroscopic procedure to remove loose cartilage from his left knee. Since then, he has worked hard to get back to his normal, ultra-quick self but admits that the strength hasn’t fully returned. His scoring average is down to 11.7 from his typical 15 or 16 a game.
“The last few years, Tyus has been the best point guard in Europe,” said Roberto Brunamonti, general manager of Roma and an Italian basketball legend who played on several Olympic teams. “But he is the type of player who needs to be 100%.”
At midseason, Roma replaced its coach and brought in the famously demanding and successful Svetislav Pesic, who led Yugoslavia to the 2002 world championship in Indianapolis.
In late February against visiting Basket Livorno, Roma let a close game slip away in the final minutes and lost, 75-63. The stands of the Palazetto Dello Sport were nearly full, but in soccer-mad Rome, that meant roughly 3,000 fans who sat on concrete benches. Still, they were an emotional group who sang, clapped, whistled and waved banners throughout the game.
With a few seconds left in the game and the result no longer in doubt, fans littered the court with crumpled soda cans and programs, jeering the home team.
“Here,” Edney said. “It can get personal.”
This season’s struggles aside, Edney is a man at peace with his place in the world. He doesn’t spend any time thinking about what might have been in the NBA. He has enjoyed the comfortable setup his Italian teams provide -- stability, playing time and a salary that can approach $1 million but goes further because it’s largely untaxed. American players overseas also typically receive a car and furnished apartment.
“When guys go to Europe and get comfortable with the lifestyle and a team, you can have a nice long career over there,” Nelson said.
And the basketball isn’t bad either. It’s no secret that the NBA has become enamored of international players in recent years, adding credibility and interest to the various European leagues. Add the recent uprising by international teams in the Olympics to the mix, and you have a basketball culture that can no longer be viewed as minor league.
“When I saw the players on the national teams, knowing what they can do and seeing them do it, it didn’t surprise me that America lost in the Olympics,” Edney said. “But I think maybe Americans don’t really, really respect that a lot of guys over here can play.”
The lifestyle in European basketball might not be as flashy as in the NBA, but it suits the inquisitive Edney just fine. Perhaps as much as any physical talents, his open mind has helped him succeed overseas.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for Americans to adjust because half their mind is thinking about trying to get to the NBA and the other half is here, just getting through the season instead of learning the culture or trying to see things,” he said. “For me, it has always been fun to learn a new culture and a new language. I think you grow and learn to adapt.”