So I just read an amazing book...
The story opens on a basketball court beneath 10 NCAA championship banners. A group of players sprint from sideline to sideline in an early season conditioning drill. It is a brutal task. Some try to shortcut the lengths. Some curse the coach. All suffer. Between sprints, while the team gasps to recover, one player stands alone, at the end of the sideline, throwing punches at the air, shadowboxing with an invisible opponent. It's Bruin senior Ed O'Bannon. And his opponent? Expectations? Opportunity? Failure? Destiny? Or all of the above...
Go get this book, Bruins. It is as fascinating as it is entertaining.
Author Robert Miech (sounds like Mich-igan) retells the incredible inside story of U.C.L.A.'s last NCAA basketball title. Any good history examines not just at the topic but also at the forces that shaped it, and Miech does more than his due diligence in reconstructing the foundations of that '95 team. Eleventh Heaven seamlessly weaves back and forth along the time line of U.C.L.A. basketball, connecting events over a 5 decade period that aligned to create that incredible 1995 team, the last time there was a championship basketball team in Westwood, and the only one won without Coach on the bench. The six degrees of separation between the two rarely take that many steps. Picture the success of Wooden's ‘69 title team attracting Marques Johnson to U.C.L.A. at the same time that Monty's Steakhouse opens above Westwood; and Johnson's friend Ed O'Bannon Sr quitting the Bruin football team to focus on supporting his young family at the same time that ground is broken on the Seattle Kingdome; then the friends Johnson and O'Bannon meeting in Westwood where the leader of Wooden's final title lifts his friend Ed's infant son, Ed Jr, aloft over the Westwood campus.
Miech's book is full of amazing coincidences and connections and stories like those which culminated in the 1995 Tournament. Amongst those connections is the undeniable realization that part of the relevance of this story falling on the 20th anniversary of that magical season is that none like it had occurred in the 20 years prior, or the 20 years since. Though Bruins Nation has poured over the reasons for the current streak, Eleventh Heaven, in reflecting back on that title run, offers some unique insights that are just as relevant today. The story took the author to Westwood and Japan and Prague and Thailand and Las Vegas and more to reach the players and coaches from that team, and every page of his book will take you on a fantastic trip down the incredible avenues of Bruin Basketball lore.
And if you didn't appreciate it before, you will realize just what a special leader we had in Ed O'Bannon.
Bruins Nation was lucky to have a chance to speak with the author of this amazing retrospective, and Miech was kind enough to tell us how his book came to be, and how it almost didn't.
The Genesis of Eleventh Heaven
The Anomaly after the Dynasty
By Rob Miech
Fortunately, I had a solid relationship with Ed O'Bannon Jr. when he played ball at UCLA. He confirmed that when, in the fall of 1994, he allowed me, representing a newspaper in Pasadena, to break the story of his imminent fatherhood.
I was just as fortunate that we happened to relocate to Las Vegas around the same time. I wrote about him when he helped tutor youngster Billy White at a public high school, coached kids at a private institution, and contemplated consummating his degree requirements at UNLV, to complete a most improbable full-circle journey.
That familiarity fueled my stroll into his Findlay Toyota office on the first day of December 2012.
Having just completed an updated final chapter of my first book The Last Natural—a behind-the-scenes account of the 2010 College of Southern Nevada baseball season that launched Bryce Harper to fame and fortune—for its follow-up paperback Phenom, to be published the following spring, my plate was suddenly clear after three years of intense labor.
I had savored the idea of hibernating. But on the morning of Dec. 1, 2012, I also had a clear and distinct gauge of the timetable required to produce a manuscript whose book would hit a certain publication target.
Moreover, I had kept an index card, listing potential next book ideas, next to this computer during the twelve months of toil on the new Harper chapter. Always atop that list was UCLA '95. Always. Waikiki mai tais might have to wait.
The timeline had a seductive symmetry. Ed O'Bannon had led the charge to the program's first title in twenty years, and the 2014-15 season would represent its twentieth anniversary. Forty years with only one hoops championship for the game's marquee program. The anomaly after the dynasty, but it hadn't been an aberration. What was so special about Ed and those Bruins?
I knew I could deliver a book by September 2014, timing its release with the entirety of the anniversary season, but only with Ed O'Bannon's involvement. That compelled me to see him on Dec. 1, 2012. For two hours I sufficiently piqued his interest. He knew how former teammates thirsted to tell their stories.
But something else provoked him. Midway through that championship season, I had started gathering information for a book about the team and campaign, if it went a certain way. Coach Jim Harrick agreed to help, if it went a certain way.
So my interviews with players and coaches went beyond the mere coverage of a team on a daily basis. Steno notebooks and micro-cassettes were jammed with background and details and opinions, a little black book packed with important contact information.
And at the Final Four in Seattle, the media gift was a black computer bag with the event's colorful logo on its side. Voila! For the first time, I could pack everything related to the project, including a computer full of stories and features and outlines, in one place. How convenient.
How horrendous. At the Pauley Pavilion celebration for the returning victors, that's the black bag that got nicked when I left my courtside media seat, for two or three minutes, to ask Ed two or three questions about this cap to his majestic season. In that sliver of a window that colorful logo under that table proved irresistible to someone.
I zipped up those foreboding series of concrete stairs to search for anyone carrying a black bag on campus. I am as grateful about not pinching a suspect as I am, now, about the filching; the Harper book showed me the exacting, demanding nature of the process, and I know now that I did not have it in me in the spring of 1995.
On Dec. 1, 2012, Ed O'Bannon told me how he would never forget how ashen-faced and crestfallen I had looked in the moments after the larceny had been discovered. He knew how this project represented the unfinished business of my life. He stood and shook my hand. All in, he said.
First, I visited UCLA, where the always-pleasant Bill Bennett in the sports information office helped me retrieve every game story, from various outlets, and all relevant features and profiles from that season. I pieced it all together, which triggered other memories and nuggets.
Then I had lunch with Ed O'Bannon. It became ritual. We always ordered chicken Parmesan sandwiches. The Italian restaurant no longer exists. At a basketball game this past season, he laughed when I posited that we could have continued those meetings had we known the place needed the business.
(The game we attended? Liberty High School and his son, Ed O'Bannon III, versus Bishop Gorman and his brother Charles's son, Charles O'Bannon Jr. If you watched UCLA turn hoop courts into speedways in 1994-95, you can officially begin feeling old this very second. But remain buoyant. Should a pair of O'Bannons once again hook up at UCLA ... that's fodder for another piece, but perhaps that's the formula to Banner Number Twelve?)
Ed paused twice when I asked him delicate questions. Both times, I clicked off the digital recorder. (No, I did not miss that mini-cassette device.) Both times he tapped it back on. "Understand, I'm telling you what I have only previously thought. It's strange to hear myself actually say the words." He bared his soul. Readers will appreciate his candor, I hope.
He probably gave me close to a hundred hours of his time, which included many, many long lunches—always classy, he paid the bill half the time, for my project—discussions in his office and on the phone, and the many texts we exchanged to confirm facts and flesh out other scenes.
The numbers reinforce that it was a team, and player, for the ages.
In the history of the NCAA Tournament championship game, only two players have logged every second and tallied at least 30 points and 15 rebounds for the winning team. Ed O'Bannon did all of that, with 30 and 17 while never taking a seat, in 1995 against Arkansas. The only other member of that elite fraternity is Clyde Lovellette, who recorded 33 and 17—and never took a seat—for Kansas, against St. John's, in 1952.
As a team that season, UCLA shot 51.3 percent from the field and recorded a defensive field-goal percentage of 40.8. A review of every NCAA champion places Ed's Bruins among the elite of the elite, for only fellow UCLA teams in 1967, '69 and '73, and the 2007 Florida Gators—who had to beat the Bruins in the Final Four—shot at least that well and hounded opponents into misfiring that frequently.
O'Bannon did not know that his participation would send me to Japan (to watch J.R. Henderson's team in the Japanese professional league play two against Charles O'Bannon's), Thailand (to see reserve center Ike Nwankwo), the Czech Republic (to spend five days with starting center George Zidek), and New York, where Steve Lavin gave me his undivided attention for six or seven hours.
"Rob, you're crazy," Ed said. But he was serious, and I had to show him I was, too. The aim was to speak, face-to-face, with as many figures from 1995 as possible.
A day after Christmas 2012, Jim Harrick invited me into his gorgeous home on a corner lot, facing the foothills, in La Crescenta. We talked for seven hours. No topic was off the table, and he never recoiled when sensitive areas were broached. I would have two lengthy telephone conversations with Pete Dalis, the former athletic director who would succumb to a rare blood disorder, and the discrepancies between the two men were nothing short of bizarre.
I met with Harrick lieutenants Mark Gottfried and Lorenzo Romar, and players Toby Bailey and Cameron Dollar, the savior of Seattle, in Las Vegas during schoolboy tournaments. Tyus Edney, on the UCLA staff, welcomed me into his Morgan Center office. How his teammates reacted to his signing of a basketball for a hotel manager, once they arrived in Seattle for the Final Four, will live in Bruins' lore.
The revelation of the quest was J.R. Henderson, who had found his spiritual home in the Land of the Rising Sun. A reticent Bruin, he had become deeply introspective. He had changed his surname to Sakuragi, became a naturalized Japanese citizen, holds a Japanese passport, plays ball for the Japanese national team, and is nothing short of a hero to fans of the Aishin Sea Horses.
He plans to remain in Japan, where his quiet countenance and unassuming manner befits his new countrymen, when his career ends. Only the basketball gods know that date, because Sakuragi guided the Sea Horses to another championship three months ago.
Since I would already be so far out on a limb, on the Pacific Rim, I had to check in with Ike Nwankwo in Bangkok. It was more valuable than I could have predicted. Returning home was the escapade, as Bangkok to Taipei to Nagoya to Tokyo to San Francisco to Las Vegas required forty-eight hours of dealing with an escalating flu and other, uh, digestive concerns. Kids, globetrot when you're young.
That sojourn, however, paled in comparison to where Dr. Michael Shapiro took me. Sitting on the edge of the bed in his master bedroom, in his simple ranch home in a gated community near Malibu, I viewed the five-hour operation in which he mended Ed's spaghetti-like left knee. That was the lone television in the good doctor's household that was attached to a VCR—it's the summer of 2013—and the surgery was on a VHS tape. He had fished it out of a storage box in his garage.
A drop of blood makes me queasy, but I can't look away. Shapiro Hoovers waves of blood for forty-five minutes, delicately clips loose cartilage and snips the frayed anterior cruciate ligament ends. He shows me the congenital defect, under Ed's kneecap, that ensured the ferocious player would one day rip that ligament. Watching how Shapiro attaches a cadaver's Achilles' tendon—Ed's new ACL—to his tibia and femur is nothing short of seeing a man walk on the moon for the first time.
Shapiro went to Seattle to see his famous patient soar. Reminiscing about the whole ordeal causes Shapiro to pause and turn his head away. When he turns back, his eyes are glassy.
For several hours, on metal chairs at a metal table outside restaurants at the corner of La Tijera and La Cienega, Marques Johnson regaled me with tales of his youth, UCLA and beyond. His input was critical. And his connection to Ed O'Bannon, which began when Ed was just an infant in a stroller on the UCLA campus ... well, it's silver screen stuff.
I met with Marques the Friday of Father's Day weekend 2013, the most profound weekend of my life; the ravages of ALS were bearing down considerably on my father. He'd be gone in seven months. I'm flummoxed how I retained concentration to finish Eleventh Heaven, but Al Miech expected nothing less.
For Ed O'Bannon to stick with his original verbal commitment to UNLV, his own expectations would have had to of been absurd and imprudent. The NCAA had never altered original sanctions levied on a program. Yet, that's just what collegiate sports' governing body did when it allowed the Rebels to defend their 1990 title during the 1990-91 season.
O'Bannon told me that once he inked his commitment to UCLA he never followed what transpired in Las Vegas. He was a Bruin. That's all that mattered. Then came the fateful fall in the Wooden Center, the difficult rehabilitations, spending five years in college, and all the pressures inherent in becoming a father and burdens of being a leader at the most renowned college basketball program in the world.
Completing his degree requirements several years ago at UCLA, instead of UNLV, not only showed his three children that his and wife Rosa's spiels about the importance of education were not hyperbole but defined loyalty.
All of that prepped Ed O'Bannon for a much bigger test, a showdown with the NCAA on an entirely different court for immense stakes. That organization's badgering of former UNLV boss Jerry Tarkanian had first infuriated Ed decades ago. He would retain that fury. It is fitting that the soul of the 1995 UCLA basketball team would become the soul of college sports, every bit as important as Curt Flood is to baseball and Spencer Haywood to professional basketball.
That gave a tome about the player, and how that season shaped him, so much more significance. It needed to exist—that's what drove me. All I can do is thank Ed O'Bannon and, somewhere out there, a thief who delayed the telling of a story that is so much richer twenty years later.
Eleventh Heaven is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble in both print and E-book format and I can't recommend it enough. It is at one time an incredible celebration of Bruin glory, an exclusive profile of a singular leader, a history of the greatest dynasty in college sports, and a reminder of what U.C.L.A. Basketball can be when everything falls into place. Miech does discuss the implications of the legacy of Wooden's program and the high expectations of Bruin fans, and he does call out that segment that sees only championship or bust. We know better here, though. Just take a look at the banner on Ed's twitter page if you want to see what's important. We want things done that way, the way Coach taught. More banners may follow one day, but that Pyramid has to be built first.
In the meantime, Eleventh Heaven is a happy look back at a time when Bruin Basketball was not a source of frustration or malaise or division in the fan base, but was purely a source of joy. And that alone is worth the read.
Miech was also kind enough to share some photos from his journey to tell the tale of the '95 team...
Marques Johnson played on John Wooden's final NCAA Championship team, and he had an intimate link to UCLA's next basketball title. photo courtesy of Rob Miech
A still from the video of O'Bannon's ACL repair by Dr Michael Shapiro. The new ACL is taken from its protective sheath before the surgeon anchored it in place in Ed's left knee. photo courtesy of Rob Miech
The author with Charles O'Bannon in Kariya Japan in 2013. Damn, if only we could all age as beautifully as Charles. photo courtesy of Rob Miech
Jim Harrick and his 1995 Championship ring. Harrick's pulls no punches in discussing his relationship with his athletic director. photo courtesy of Rob Miech
My personal thanks to Rob Miech for reaching out to us at BN and for his generosity with his time in answering my questions and sharing some of the inspiration and background behind this amazing book.
I hope you will all get a chance to pick up a copy of Eleventh Heaven. If you ever at any time cared for U.C.L.A. Basketball, then you will appreciate and enjoy this book.