PALM SPRINGS, Calif. —
A reporter was welcomed into the Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.)
locker room Monday night following a particularly hard-fought 71-59 MaxPreps Holiday Classic quarterfinal win over De La Salle (Concord, Calif.).
The reporter was introduced to Gorman standout
Chuck O'Bannon Jr
, a 6-foot-5 junior guard who scored 20 points in the win, a couple days after he scored 29 in a 72-58 first-round win over Capital Christian (Sacramento, Calif.).
The two chatted a bit before a 40-year-old gentleman with a shaved head and similar build and face to Chuck approached. He had on Gorman coaching apparel.
"Chuck…Chuck… get over here," the man whispered. "You can do that later. Be with your team."
Chuck, a bit torn, said "but coach said it was OK."
The man didn't speak, but pointed with his eyebrows back to the team. Chuck shrugged, walked back to the meeting and the interview continued after the team's post game prayer.
"My dad doesn't say much," Chuck said. "But when he does I listen. He's awesome. He knows so much about the game. He can give me all the tools I need to help me to get to the next level."
O'Bannon Sr., known as Charles when he was one of the finest players in UCLA's storied history, isn't just mentoring his only child these days. He's coaching him too.
This after Charles, a second-round pick of the Detroit Pistons in 1997, played 13 seasons in Japan and largely away from his only child. He's making up for lost time, but it's clearly not all basketball.
"Not at all," Chuck said. "We talk a lot more about life in general than basketball. It's not 24-7. We're around the court a lot, but we take a lot of breaks."
Though largely separated for those 13 years — Chuck would visit his dad two to four months out of the year in Japan — the two have almost identical demeanors.
Soft spoken. Easy going. Charles sits at the end of the Gorman bench and looks almost bored. But that's not at all the case, said Gorman head coach Grant Rice, who graduated from high school the same year (1993) as Charles — both from Southern California schools.
"(Charles) doesn't miss a thing," Rice said.
Rice graduated from Claremont (Calif.)
and Charles from Artesia (Lakewood, Calif.)
, where he played for MaxPreps Holiday Classic co-tournament director Wayne Merino, who led his team to three state titles in four seasons starting in 1990.
Merino and Charles exchanged an embrace after Gorman's first-round win.
"I'm glad Wayne is back in basketball where he belongs," Charles said. "He's definitely family to me. He'll be a friend for life."
A star is born
Rice vividly recalls Charles as a prep basketball peer.
"He was a lot better than me obviously," Rice said. "His junior year, they knocked us out of the Southern Section playoffs. He probably doesn't even remember. I do. I met him in college too. Great guy."
Rice and Charles reconnected when Chuck entered Gorman as a freshman. Charles asked Rice if he could help coach.
"It was then and now been all good," Rice said. "He's a dad but doesn't act like one. He never oversteps his ground. He knows the game but just offers help when we need him. It's been great."
And dad rarely rides Chuck, a fluid shooter and scorer, who didn't start at Gorman until the middle of last season. Chuck took advantage of a couple senior players being late to a bus, so Rice inserted him into the starting lineup in, of all games, versus defending national champions Montverde Academy at the Hoop Hall Classic.
Chuck scored a team-high 22, even though the Gaels had two McDonald's All-Americans in big men Chase Jeter and Stephen Zimmerman. "It was almost like Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp," Rice said. He added 18 of his team's 50 in a loss to Findlay Prep.
Despite the defeats, a star was born. After scoring about eight points per game last year when Gorman won its fourth straight state title, he's now averaging around 20 points per game.
"He's started every since that Montverde game," Rice said. "No game or moment is too big for Chuck."
Chuck said that's largely because of his upbringing. He was raised to be independent. He grew up confident, but not nearly cocky. Being the son of a famous dad can carry a large burden, but Chuck said he never felt it.
It was all good.
"A lot of people think that it's pressure," Chuck said. "I don't really feel pressure at all. When I'm in there playing, I'm not thinking about my dad or my pedigree. I'm just playing."
The pros of pedigree
That pedigree includes his Uncle Ed, who teamed with Charles to win UCLA's last national championship in 1995. Ed lives in Las Vegas with a wife and three children.
"He's a big part of my family too," he said. "Our families' are very close. We talk all the time."
Charles, 40, said memories of his father led him to the coaching trail. "My dad didn't coach, but he video taped every game," he said. "We'd go over those video tapes all the time. My dad was really involved. I missed a lot of time when I was in Japan. I don't want to miss any more of it now."
Chuck said growing up part-time in a foreign land was helpful to his growth as a person. It made him a little more well-rounded. He even understands the Japanese language.
"I forgot a lot of it too," he said.
He didn't take basketball seriously until the seventh grade. "Just because my dad played, I guess I expected to be good too," he said. "It was around then I realized if I wanted to be successful, I really had to work on it."
From seventh-to-eighth grade, he worked largely on his body. "I was sort of a chubby kid," he said. "I had to take weight off. Sometimes I'd work out twice a day. I was ready by high school."
There's no sign of excess now. His frame is long and lean like his pops and uncle. His demeanor on the court, however, needs some sharpening, Rice said, with an emphasis on "mean."
"He's just a real nice kid, like his dad," Rice said. "We want him to be meaner and develop more of a killer instinct. We're seeing it more. He likes to be up on the press and that keeps him engaged.
"At the rate of his improvement and growth, I definitely think we have a McDonald's All-American in the making." Getting skunked
Dad see some flashes of himself in his son.
"I see some slash in his game like my brother and I," Charles said. "He's a much better shooter than I was. He has a natural touch and feel for the game I didn't have. And at the rim, he can finish with either hand."
Ball-handling and body strength are needs Chuck needs, Charles said. "But he'll get there," dad said.
But never at the level of his dad — at least head-to-head.
The last time father and son played one-on-one about 6-8 months ago in Gorman's gym, dad got hot.
"I skunked him 7-0," Charles said. "I'll never play him again. That way, when I'm old and gray, I can always point back to the last time we played."
Chuck, ranked the 37th top junior in the country by 247Sports
, might wind up at the place his dad and uncle made magic. The Bruins, at this point, have a 40 percent chance of landing Chuck, according to the recruiting giant, followed by Kansas, Cal and Arizona all at 20 percent chance.
One thing is 100 percent sure, Chuck said. He's going to keep working hard at his craft. He'll get plenty of chances the next two days, starting with a semifinal game Tuesday against Redondo Union (Redondo Beach, Calif.)
"I need to keep doing all the little stuff," he said. "More things that show up all over the stat sheet. I want to be more multi-dimensional."