Those who watched Ed O'Bannon during his sophomore year at UCLA often shook their heads sadly, recalling the player he had been before and what he might have become if not for the near-career-ending injury to his left knee.
Those who watch O'Bannon now as a senior and All-American for the top-ranked Bruins shake their heads, too, amazed at how far he has come back and how little he seems to be affected by what happened.
"If you didn't know about the injury before," his father, Ed Sr., said last week, "you never could tell by looking at him now. I always knew he'd come back strong. O'Bannons always do."
The senior O'Bannon, a former UCLA football player, was standing in the Bruins' locker room at the Oakland (Calif.) Coliseum last Saturday, quietly celebrating his alma mater's 102-96 victory over Connecticut in the West Regional final.
But he also was enjoying something else: the personal triumph of his 22-year-old son, whose comeback from the knee injury will be a popular topic when top-ranked UCLA (29-2) arrives in Seattle for the Final Four.
"After it's all said and done, after all the adversity he's faced, he's grown up and become a stronger person for it," Ed O'Bannon Sr. said as he looked over to see his namesake surrounded by reporters. "He's like a professional now, and he's taking care of business."
Having resurrected his career, the younger O'Bannon will attempt to do the same for this once-glittering dynasty when the Bruins take on East Regional champion Oklahoma State (27-9) on Saturday at the Kingdome in the NCAA semifinals.
Regardless of whether UCLA continues its impressive run -- from a 16-2 Pac-10 season to a dominating performance in Oak
land that kept its winning streak going at a Division I-best 17 games -- O'Bannon continues to marvel.
There are times he even surprises himself.
"I knew the player I was," said O'Bannon, who as a senior at Lakewood High School in Artesia, Calif., was a near-consensus choice as the No. 1 prospect in the country. "It took a long time to become that player again."
It took nearly four more years from the time of the injury -- a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament suffered in a preseason pickup game as a freshman -- before O'Bannon was completely unburdened.
It took two surgical procedures, more than a year's rehabilitation and countless hours on the floor at Pauley Pavilion before the 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward started resembling his former self.
In fact, it took until a five-games-in-11-days stretch for the Bruins earlier this season for O'Bannon to reach his comfort zone. It started with a 27-point, six-rebound performance at Cal, ended with a 24-point, 10-rebound performance against Oregon and included a career-high 37-point, 13-rebound game against Duke.
"I started to feel very comfortable and confident," O'Bannon said last week in Oakland. "It was as much a mental thing as a physical thing. I'm a little more at ease with myself and my surroundings. I'm just having a good time."
Said UCLA coach Jim Harrick: "I didn't see it coming, and all of a sudden, it happened."
Harrick believes it had something to do with O'Bannon's mechanics. Since returning midway through his redshirt freshman year, O'Bannon always had been a solid, if slightly inconsistent, player who relied a little too much on his athletic skills. Though still formidable compared to most, O'Bannon often was limited in what he could do.
After abandoning the heavy brace he wore on his once-damaged knee up until the middle of his junior year, O'Bannon still had to compensate. Never a great outside shooter, he suddenly found dTC himself off-balance when he went up in the air. "I'm a big believer in balance, and Ed didn't have it," said Harrick.
The balance in his shot, as well as in the rest of his game, might have resulted from better mechanics. But it also came from having balance through the other parts of his life. Specifically, it happened when O'Bannon became comfortable with his role as a father to now 11-month-old Aaron.
Harrick and O'Bannon attribute the player's slump during the second half of last season, and UCLA's fast exit from the NCAA tournament, to the impending birth. O'Bannon had told only a few close friends and teammates, as well as the coaches, that his girlfriend, Rosa Bravo, was pregnant.
"I think his shooting percentage went down 10 percentage points when it happened," said Harrick. "I think it really took a toll on his game."
After keeping the news quiet for months, O'Bannon started talking about it more last fall. Now he can't stop talking about Aaron or the job his girlfriend does raising him while he finishes his college career. Bravo is a part-time student who O'Bannon said is a "part owner of a clothing store."
"He's taught me responsibility," O'Bannon said of his son, whom he introduced to the crowd at Pauley Pavilion on Senior Day. "He's taught me to care for someone else. I've cared for other people, but I've never had to be responsible for someone else's well-being. He's taught me patience, but I kind of learned to be patient with my knee."
Charles O'Bannon, a sophomore and starting forward for the Bruins, said that his older brother has taught him a lot in the past few years. Like Ed, who had initially committed to Nevada-Las Vegas before the Runnin' Rebels were put on NCAA probation, the younger of the O'Bannon brothers nearly wound up going somewhere other than Westwood.
"If Ed hadn't come back, I would have probably gone to Kentucky," Charles O'Bannon said during the season. "But the idea of playing with him, at a place like UCLA, was too good to pass up. I've seen him work from the time he was a freshman in high school. Then the injury. He deserves everything he gets."
Said assistant coach Steve Lavin: "Ed has become a provider. He's providing for the team. He's providing for his son. You wonder how much more he can do. Every time you think he's on empty, he comes up and does something else."
Now Ed O'Bannon will try to do something that no UCLA player has done in 20 years -- lead the Bruins to a national championship. As he helped cut down the net at the Oakland Coliseum on Saturday, O'Bannon scanned the building with a video recorder, taking in the scene.
"The view," he said later, "was wonderful."
It usually is from the top. Especially when you've made it back from the bottom.
END OF THE ROAD
Final Four 1995 NCAA SEATTLE
WHERE: Kingdome, Seattle
TV: Chs. 13, 9
SEMIFINALS: Oklahoma State (27-9) vs. UCLA (29-2), Saturday, 5:42 p.m. North Carolina (28-5) va. Arkansas (31-6), Saturday, 8:12 p.m. approx.
CHAMPIONSHIP: Monday, 8:40 p.m.
TOMORROW: North Carolina
THURSDAY: Oklahoma State
UCLA AT A GLANCE
Location: Los Angeles
Record: 29-2 (16-2 Pac-10, first place)
Coach: Jim Harrick, 166-55 in seven years; 333-152 in 16 years overall
Ranking: No. 1
How they got there:
First round of West Reagional: Beat Florida International, 92-56, in Boise, Idaho. Led by freshman J.R. Henderson, who scored 16, the Bruins led 43-23 at halftime and went on to the school's third largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game.
Second round: Beat Missouri, 75-74. After trailing by eight at halftime and by three with 3:48 left, the Bruins took the lead at 73-72. But a basket by Julian Winfield gave the Tigers a one-point lead with 4.8 seconds left to set up Tyus Edney's length-of-the-court dash and game-winning basket.
Regional semifinal: Beat Mississippi State, 86-67, in Oakland, Calif., in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicates and might have been UCLA's most impressive performance of the season. The Bruins led 62-29 at one point in the second half.
Regional final: Beat Connecticut, 102-96, behind a career-high 26 points from freshman Toby Bailey, 22 points and 10 assists from Edney and 18 points from Henderson. Edney's 30-footer at the halftime buzzer proved to be huge, as it gave the Bruins a seven-point lead, and the Huskies never came within three in the second half.
Scoring leader: Ed O'Bannon (20.3)
Rebound leader: Ed O'Bannon (8.1)
Assist leader: Tyus Edney (7.1)