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LONG ROAD BACK ENDS HAPPILY FOR O'BANNON

Ed O'Bannon sat there with the net draped around his neck, a trophy and tribute for the star of UCLA's national championship.

He can put it up there alongside the heavy blue wrap that protects his left knee, the knee he blew out five years ago, the knee he worked hours, days and months to rehabilitate."It was a long, hard road," he said softly. "I'm glad it's over."

Nobody knew the anguish O'Bannon went through quite as well as his kid brother, Charles, a teammate on the Bruins. And so, at the end of the 89-78 victory over Arkansas, when emotions began spilling over, Charles O'Bannon said simply, "My eyes watered up for Ed."

Charles is the more passionate, the more outspoken, the more demonstrative O'Bannon brother. He returns next season. There will be one day when Ed promises to come back, too. That will be the day they raise UCLA's 11th championship banner.

"I want to be in town when they put up that banner," he said.

He can count on an invitation after matching his career high with 30 points and grabbing 17 rebounds in the championship game. It was not the way he planned it.

O'Bannon thought he wouldn't have to score that many for UCLA to win, and he said so on the day before the game.

"I guess it's ironic," he said. "It's not that I wanted to go out and score."

He just did what was necessary, sort of like what he's done throughout his career.

O'Bannon's first collegiate stop was at UNLV, but he was released from his letter of intent when the program got in trouble with the NCAA. In August 1990, he signed a grant-in-aid with UCLA, where his father was a wide receiver 19 years before. Two months later, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a pickup game. He underwent five hours of surgery on Oct. 18, 1990 when doctors replaced the ACL with the Achilles tendon from a cadaver.

Then the rehabilitation began.

There were lonely hours on the Cybex machine, time to reflect on the injury and what might have been the end of a career. He had won a high school championship and wanted to repeat that feeling in college. Instead, he was stuck in the trainer's room, all but forgotten.

He missed the 1990-91 season and returned the next year strictly as a part-time performer off the bench, averaging just 3.6 points. The next year, though, O'Bannon was back, and he's been a fulltime starter ever since, the centerpiece of the UCLA attack. This year, he enjoyed his best season, averaging 20.3 points and 8.1 rebounds.

And he won a national championship in his last game. "Just like in high school," he said.

"What makes this so good was the fact that the whole year no one believed in us but us. And we won. No one can deny we're the best. We're bringing the championship back home."

O'Bannon reached double figures for the 90th time in his career, including 61 of his last 62 games and all 33 this season. He finished fourth in UCLA career scoring with 1,815 points, was ninth in career rebounds and second in blocked shots.

Harrick saluted his star. "He is the best player in America," the coach said. "He refuses to let us lose. He always finds a way to win."

That's why they hung the net around his neck at the end. He had earned it.