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Fan support can be intoxicating, and NCAA stars can still bank on it years later
When Ed O'Bannon, 38, meets with customers at the Findlay Toyota dealership in Henderson, Nev., he doesn't flaunt his former basketball career. "If they recognize me, that's cool, but I don't go out of my way to tell people who I am," he says. Even so, when potential buyers do join the 6-foot-8-inch sales rep in his office, there's no escaping the hoops memorabilia, including O'Bannon's UCLA jersey. He won't reveal whether his basketball celebrity has ever translated into a sale, but he admits that some customers want to talk more about his glory days than cars. And his co-workers aren't shy about saying to shoppers, "Do you like basketball? You should meet Ed."
For one shining moment in March 1995, O'Bannon was a superstar. After leading the UCLA Bruins to 32 victories in 33 games during the regular season, he helped the team win the 1995 NCAA national championship, its first in 20 years. In the final game against the University of Arkansas—and O'Bannon's last game for UCLA—he scored 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, a feat that garnered him the same John R. Wooden College Player of the Year award that Michael Jordan had won a decade earlier. O'Bannon went on to a less-than-spectacular NBA career with the New Jersey Nets, followed by years playing in Italy, Spain, Greece, and Poland. He retired in 2002. His March Madness triumph remains his biggest achievement, but O'Bannon prefers not to live in the past. "I'm just a guy who used to play basketball," he says, "and wants to help people buy cars."
The harsh reality is that NBA ambitions shatter quickly: There are 336 Division 1 basketball schools, with an average of 15 players per team, and only 30 NBA teams waiting on the other side. Not to mention a pool of players who could get drafted a year out of high school. This means collegiate players have less than a 1 percent chance of becoming one of the 60 athletes picked up by the NBA each year. So when professional hoop dreams evaporate, former big shots such as O'Bannon face the question of whether to use their fleeting NCAA fame to their business advantage—and how to actually turn that one great March Madness bracket-busting shot into a steady paycheck.
For the entrepreneurial-minded, using basketball stardom as a selling tool can be an effective business strategy. "Fans are loyal to teams, and true zealots have long memories," says Alan Jay Zaremba, the author of Madness of March: Bonding and Betting with the Boys in Las Vegas. He knows many NCAA enthusiasts who can still rattle off the statistics of their favorite players, even those never drafted into the NBA. "It doesn't surprise me that athletes are successful using their fame," he says, "however short-lived the fame might have been."
There can also be a psychological reason for not wanting to go lights out. "Fan enthusiasm and support can be intoxicating," says Zaremba. "Athletes successful in that absolutely crazy period in March can get filled up with that recognition. When the recognition is gone, you can get hungry for it."
Jeff Sheppard helped the University of Kentucky win two national championships, in 1996 and '98. His efforts earned him the Associated Press's NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player accolade in 1998. Sheppard played just one NBA season, with the Atlanta Hawks, where he averaged 2.2 points and 1.2 rebounds in 18 games. He's had better luck with his sports apparel company, 15inc—named after his Wildcats jersey number—that he started in 2007. 15inc is growing steadily: Annual revenue in 2007 was just over $1 million, and Sheppard predicts the business is on track to hit $1.4 million in 2011. He is the first to concede that the company's success has been boosted by his basketball career. "Everybody in Kentucky remembers and appreciates the '96 and '98 championships," Sheppard says. "They remember where they were when it happened, and a lot of them were at the games."
15inc is based in London, Ky., an hour south of Lexington, where Sheppard made NCAA history, and the vast majority of its business comes from schools and other organizations across the state, including the University of Kentucky, coal mines, and the U.S. Marine Corps. His chances of sealing a sale improve exponentially, Sheppard says, if he gets to make his pitch to the customer in person. "They definitely make the connection to the 15inc name if they meet me," he says. Being a local hero is good for business, and he suspects he'll continue to sign autographs, sometimes on his own merchandise, for the foreseeable future. Or, he says, "until the Wildcats win another championship."
Meanwhile, Greg Koubek found success without giving up ballhandling entirely. Although his college career was fairly low-profile, Koubek did lead the Duke Blue Devils to an NCAA Championship in 1991 and became the first to play in four NCAA Final Fours. While toiling on the international circuit in South Africa, Turkey, Hungary, and Japan, he opened a basketball summer camp with his brother Tim in their hometown of Clifton Park, N.Y. They named it the Greg Koubek Basketball Camps, but Koubek insists he used his name only to get a toehold in the business. "In the beginning, it certainly helped," he says, describing how the camp has grown from 60 kids in its first year more than two decades ago to an average of 700 over the last six summers. "Now, people come to the camp because it's a good camp, a quality camp. They don't come because of the name."
Koubek is aware, though, that a healthy percentage of his paying customers are parents who came of age during his NCAA heyday. He's signed countless autographs for them—and many want to talk about his (and their) March Madness memories. "They'll tell me about how I beat the spread in their office pool," says Koubek, who lives in Los Angeles but hasn't missed an orientation day at his camp since its founding. "Or sometimes it's the exact opposite. They'll tell me how much money they lost because of me or Duke. You get both sides of it."
With every March comes a crop of NCAA stars-to-be who will eventually learn the reality their predecessors now know. Ali Farokhmanesh, last year's senior guard for the University of Northern Iowa and a Sports Illustrated cover boy, is just starting to realize how far March Madness fame reaches. After his remarkable three-point shot last year that defeated the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, he was passed over by the NBA, eventually getting drafted by Team Massagano in Switzerland. "All of my Swiss teammates," he says, "they'll come up to me and say, 'What were you thinking, shooting that shot against Kansas? You ruined my bracket!' They want me to make their March Madness picks this year." He can't predict how long he'll last in professional basketball, but he knows his NCAA fame will probably be his calling card, whatever his profession.
It's a bittersweet reality for somebody like O'Bannon. "I have people telling me all the time that I should use my fame to make money," he says. But he's not sure that he wants to. "I have no problem when people do it," he says. "I guess subconsciously, I wish I could do it, too. But I'm learning how to be happy with who I am now." Which is why he insists the mementos hanging in his Toyota dealership office are just conversation pieces that say, "This is where I'm coming from. This is what I've done." Try as he might, though, he finds it hard not to smile whenever a customer looks up at his keepsakes and asks, "Have you ever played basketball?"