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

March 15, 1995|TIM KAWAKAMI | 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."

*

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."

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