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As Good as It Got

UCLA's 1995 title was special for the school, and for players who recall it as best time of their lives

March 14, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

J.R. Henderson and Charles O'Bannon will be playing against each other this week in the Japanese league playoffs. Toby Bailey calls from the Athens airport, on his way to Poland and another basketball game in a dreary league far away from UCLA. George Zidek has a doctor's appointment near his home in the Czech Republic. His knee is swollen again. Surgery is likely.

Tyus Edney is starring at point guard for a team based in Rome. Kris Johnson plays in Lebanon, but that's only a sidelight. He is most proud of the documentary film he is working on.

Ed O'Bannon's knees have forced him to the sidelines but not away from the sport. He is a volunteer coach at a high school outside Las Vegas. Cameron Dollar coaches too, but at a higher level. He tells stories of "the play" to the Washington Huskies, with whom he is an assistant for Lorenzo Romar, who was an assistant at UCLA when Dollar played there 10 years ago.

And Jim Harrick has gone from hero to pariah to a spectator at college games, his opinion valued by the Denver Nuggets, for whom he scouts. He sits down near the floor at Pauley Pavilion sometimes, receiving handshakes and back slaps from UCLA fans who vividly recall Edney's 4.8-second dash to glory but whose memories of Harrick's transgressions have been softened by time.

It has been 10 years since the Bruins last won an NCAA basketball championship, the 11th in their history. A decade since three weeks of March Madness magic in Westwood:

There was the drama of Edney's game-winning basket at the buzzer to beat Missouri, 75-74, in the second round; the dunk fest in a 102-96 dash past Connecticut in the West Regional final; the grueling 74-61 semifinal victory over big, tough Oklahoma State and its massive center, Bryant "Big Country" Reeves; and, in the final, an 89-78 race past Arkansas and Coach Nolan Richardson's "40 minutes of hell" defense, even though Edney, his wrist injured in the semifinal, played less than three minutes.

Dollar, a quiet sophomore, replaced Edney in the final and provided a steadying hand to the frazzled Bruins. Ed O'Bannon, a fifth-year senior whose career had almost been ended by a serious knee injury four years earlier, had 30 points and 17 rebounds. Bailey, a freshman guard, roared through open lanes for dunks and layups and scored 26 points and took nine rebounds.

"It changed my life," Ed O'Bannon says of the championship.

"It was a defining moment for me," Bailey says.

Ten years after their triumph, team members and coaches tell stories of camaraderie and comeuppance, of determination and desperation, and of stardom followed by peripatetic professional careers that have taken them all over the world -- and proved to each how much they love the sport.

"I think," says Ed O'Bannon, the 1995 college player of the year, "that what we've all done since is a testament to how much basketball means to us. None of us have been big stars in the pros, but everybody is still involved in the game. That championship gave me everything. It made me what I am."

UCLA received an NCAA tournament bid Sunday, its first since 2002. There have been no championships -- or even another Final Four appearance -- since that 31-2 team from 1994-95.

There have, however, been many tough times and plenty of turmoil.

Nineteen months after leading the Bruins to their only national championship without legendary coach John Wooden in charge, Harrick was dismissed over irregularities in his expense account from a meal where recruits were entertained.

Athletic director Peter Dalis replaced Harrick with assistant Steve Lavin, who took UCLA to the Elite Eight in 1997 (with Harrick's players) and to the Sweet 16 four of the next five years, but was fired two years ago after the Bruins went 10-19, their first losing season in 55 years.

Coach Ben Howland is now in his second year of trying to rebuild a program that bottomed out with back-to-back losing seasons and an 11-17 record a year ago.

"I think when you look at the landscape," Ed O'Bannon says, "it's not so surprising UCLA hasn't won another title. It's a different world now and it's hard to repeat. Maybe that's why our season stays so fresh for people."

What stays fresh for most is the memory of a particular 4.8 seconds against Missouri in a second-round NCAA tournament game at Boise.

The Bruins, ranked No. 1 and carrying a 15-game winning streak, were top-seeded in the West but trailed eighth-seeded Missouri, 74-73, after Julian Winfield had scored with less than 10 seconds left.

"Coach Harrick called a timeout with 4.8 seconds to go," center Zidek recalls by telephone from his home near Prague. "Our hopes of going further in the tournament seemed over. Coach was trying to stay calm but it seemed like it was over."

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