The 1995 NBA Draft was held in Toronto, and when the expansion Raptors selected Damon Stoudamire with the seventh overall pick, the assembled crowd of local fans, lacking the education that a single season of professional basketball at the elite level might provide, booed because they wanted the team to draft Ed O’Bannon. Never mind the fact that Stoudamire and O’Bannon were PAC-10 Co-Players of the Year. Three months earlier, they had all learned of O’Bannon’s story during UCLA’s National Championship run through the NCAA Tournament, for which the 6’8″ forward was named Most Outstanding Player.
A matter of days before his first Midnight Madness practice at UCLA, the 6’8″ forward tore his ACL in a game of pickup hoops. He was told by doctors that the injury wouldn’t allow him to walk properly, let alone pursue a career playing basketball. However, he persevered through a redshirt year of rehab and emerged as a capable substitute in his freshman season. His sophomore campaign saw him named to the PAC-10 first team. It was an honor he’d repeat in his junior year, along with being named UCLA’s Most Valuable Player.
As impressive as his turnaround was, it was all just a lead up to O’Bannon’s senior year in which he led the Bruins to the 1995 NCAA Basketball Championship, collecting multiple honors along the way including yet another place in the PAC-10 first team, a consensus nod as a first team All-American, the aforementioned PAC-10 Player of the Year, and the USBWA College Player of the Year award. It was a successful enough season to make his name not only known to the majority of sports fans in a Canadian city more than 2,500 miles away from where he played College Basketball, but also actively coveted as the face of their new NBA franchise.
O’Bannon was eventually selected ninth overall by the New Jersey Nets. He was largely ineffective as a professional: too small to play the post, not quick enough to play the perimeter. He spent two seasons in the NBA, was traded twice and released. He toured around Europe, playing basketball in Spain, Greece and Poland. He even played a season in Argentina before retiring from professional basketball. From there, he worked as a car salesman, becoming the dealership’s marketing director before finishing the degree he started at UCLA.
Now, he leads a comfortable, but not extravagant life with his wife and three children, far removed from the glory days of the past. It might therefore be considered surprising that it is at this stage in his life that O’Bannon stands to make a greater impact on college sports in the United States than any athlete before him by forever altering how amateur athletics are defined in the country.
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