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Ex-UCLA star selling cars, taking on NCAA over pay

Wednesday - 2/19/2014, 10:40pm  ET

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2010 file photo, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon Jr. sits in his office in Henderson, Nev. His landmark suit demanding college players get some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate every year could change the way big time college athletics are operated. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File)

TIM DAHLBERG
AP Senior Sports Writer

HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) -- The first time Ed O'Bannon went up against the NCAA he was an 18-year-old with some serious talent and even more serious aspirations to play basketball at UNLV.

Against an organization bent on destroying Jerry Tarkanian and his band of Runnin' Rebels, it was no contest. O'Bannon got the news he would not go to the college of his choice while on the road with a traveling basketball team.

"I cried," he said. "I had worked my tail off to be good enough to accept a scholarship and be part of that team. What kid at that time didn't want to go to UNLV? For the NCAA to take that away was absolutely upsetting."

Nearly a quarter century later, O'Bannon is getting a rematch. His landmark suit demanding college players get some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate every year could change the way big time college athletics are operated.

All because of a chance encounter a few years ago at a friend's home, where a certain bald headed, left handed forward wearing a UCLA uniform in a video game looked awfully familiar. It was O'Bannon, leading his team to the national championship in 1995

"Initially it was, wow, pretty cool. I was fired up," O'Bannon said. "But I immediately went from being fired up to being embarrassed. Then I thought, this is BS."

To O'Bannon it was simple. The NCAA was making money off his image, and so was the video game company. He and the other players portrayed were getting nothing.

O'Bannon and others filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, challenging its ban on paying athletes. The suit also named video game maker Electronic Arts, which settled for $40 million in September and said it would no longer make video games featuring college teams.

The NCAA, though, battles on. Lawyers are scheduled to go before a federal judge in Oakland on Thursday on a motion to throw out the suit, saying the NCAA has no rules that force athletes who want to be paid to go to school and that paying elite athletes would take away money used to fund other athletic programs.

The fight has become almost a crusade for O'Bannon. It's not about money, he says, but the principle of fair play.

"There are not a whole lot of people in the world I don't like," O'Bannon said. "But I think that organization is an absolute sham."

____

The man at the forefront of the crusade against the NCAA sells cars for a living. Six days a week, he's at the sprawling Findlay Toyota dealership in this Las Vegas suburb, where occasionally customers recognize him as the star of the UCLA team that won the national title.

O'Bannon had wanted to come to Las Vegas much earlier, but his plans to play at UNLV fell apart when the Tarkanian was forced to resign under pressure from the NCAA for alleged recruiting violations. He signed with UCLA instead, and was the star of the team that went 32-1 and won the school's first national title since John Wooden retired 20 years earlier.

O'Bannon is fond of his days at UCLA, and proud of his accomplishments. But even then he knew something wasn't right about a system that offered little more than room and board and books for his services.

"I remember sitting at study hall with my teammates and we were upset because practice ran late and we didn't quite make it to the cafeteria in time," he said. "You're sitting there hungry and you've got no money in your pocket to go to KFC and eat. We were bringing all this money into the school and were not seeing any of it."

O'Bannon was drafted ninth by the New Jersey Nets the year he was named MVP of the Final Four, but his NBA career never took off. He played three seasons for the Nets and Dallas Mavericks, then spent another seven years playing on teams in Europe and South America.

He made some money, and his family got to see a lot of Europe during his travels. He has no regrets, even if it wasn't the career he envisioned.

"I thought I was going to be a multiyear all-star. I thought I'd have a Hall of Fame career," O'Bannon said. "It was going to be nothing short of what Magic Johnson did. He was the player I saw as a benchmark of how a basketball career should be."

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