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UCLA Sports

Ed O’Bannon overcame injury and adversity to lead UCLA to 1995 NCAA title

Ed O'Bannon is lifted into the air by UCLA teammate Ike Nwankwo after the Bruins' win over Arkansas in the 1995 NCAA title game.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

From the archives: This week marks the 25th anniversary of the UCLA men’s basketball team’s last NCAA championship victory. The following is former Times staff writer Mike Penner’s story on Ed O’Bannon overcoming adversity to lead the Bruins to their 11th NCAA title on April 3, 1995:

SEATTLE — The left knee that was opened and rebuilt in the fall of 1990, that was tethered together with a replacement anterior cruciate ligament lifted from the leg of a dead man, that kept Ed O’Bannon off the basketball court for 15 months and the glad-handers away for many more fell to the floor of the Kingdome late Monday night.

The right knee was right there with it, bringing Ed O’Bannon down, down to the painted hardwood, where he then bowed before the basket, pressed his shaved head against the floor and began to cry.

In the stands a few feet away, fans shaking blue and gold pompons chanted, “U-C! L-A!”

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Closer, Bruin teammates milled around a blue and gold ladder that would take them where O’Bannon had spent most of this game--above the rim--to revive a tradition long thought to be lost in Westwood, the ceremonial slicing of the nets after an NCAA championship game.

For more than two minutes, O’Bannon remained there, kneeling and bawling.

“He just lost it,” brother Charles said.

And why not?

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A look at the players and coaches from UCLA’s 1995 NCAA men’s basketball championship team and what they are up to today.

Four years ago, O’Bannon was told his career as an elite basketball player was through, his All-American and NBA aspirations ended by a torn knee ligament.

Three years ago, O’Bannon began his tentative comeback, coming off the bench in 23 games, starting none of them and averaging fewer than four points.

Two years ago, O’Bannon returned to the starting lineup and showed everyone that, yes, he could run and jump and contribute more to the program than a hefty pile of newspaper clippings.

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One year ago, O’Bannon and the Bruins were blown out of the NCAA tournament in the first round, and the Ed O’Bannon era at UCLA began to get the what-if treatment.

Monday night, with defending champion Arkansas on one side of the Kingdome and Bruin point guard and court choreographer Tyus Edney on the bench with a sprained wrist, O’Bannon was told by all the instant experts in town, “You have no chance in this game.”

And then O’Bannon went out and won it.

He won it with a game-high 30 points, a career-high 11 defensive rebounds to go with six offensive rebounds for a total of 17, two scintillating baseball-style passes that are already part of Bruin basketball lore and one, short pregame speech to his soon-to-be Edney-less teammates:

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Fellas, it’s only a pickup game.

They were words the Bruins later immortalized with their mind-blowing 89-78 victory over Arkansas.

And once they did, it brought O’Bannon to his knees.

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“I was just excited,” O’Bannon said. “It was somewhat of a relief. I just wanted a moment to myself, to make sure I didn’t overwhelm myself. Basically, I didn’t want to faint.”

The MVP of UCLA’s first title-game victory in 20 years was hunched on the ground, sobbing like a baby, and O’Bannon said: “It felt good. I tried to hold it back, but I’m glad I did it.”

Ed O’Bannon Sr. watched his son face the media with the championship net strung from his neck and said he had envisioned this day, MVP trophy, tears and all.

“I envisioned him crying and getting on his knees and praising the Lord,” Ed Sr. said. “Ed is an emotional young man. It didn’t surprise me at all, not one bit.”

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Considering what the O’Bannons went through the last four years, how could it?

“It was really painful, watching him right after the injury,” Ed Sr. said. “His senior year in high school, I saw him do the same things Magic Johnson did, the same things James Worthy did.

“He could bring it down the floor. He could run the court. He could jump and touch the top of the backboard with his hand. He could do everything on the court. He could do it all.

“It was a God-given talent. But after he got hurt, he had to work for it.”

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With the coronavirus outbreak putting tradition reunions on hold, the 1995 UCLA men’s basketball NCAA title team improvises by meeting and reminiscing on Zoom.

The work wasn’t complete, Ed Sr. said, until mid-1994, when Ed returned home from a summer league game, ecstatic.

“He told me, ‘Dad, I’m back. No doubt about it, I’m back,’ ” Ed Sr. said. “I knew right then that this team was on to some exciting times.”

Especially the last time Ed Jr. wore a UCLA uniform.

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“This was the most fun I’ve ever had in basketball,” O’Bannon beamed, tugging on his net necklace, which he called “the best piece of jewelry I ever had.

“We had the world watching us and we took the national championship away from the defending champions. And we did it with six guys.

“Man, this is sweet .”

Thirty points in the final?

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Seventeen rebounds?

“The guy is the best player in America, bar none,” Coach Jim Harrick said. “The guy refused all year to let us lose. He always found a way to win.”

The left knee, in case anyone needs to know, is just fine.

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