It takes a lot to make Tyus Edney sad.
Perhaps the most pleasant player in the history of basketball, he is unceasingly positive, sweeter than a caramel apple.
“He is the nicest guy in the world,” said Kris Johnson, his teammate on UCLA’s 1995 national championship team. “If he got mad, you felt the worst. You felt like you were the worst human being who ever lived.”
Now, with the NCAA Tournament cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Edney is hurting.
Twenty-five years after his miraculous, 4.8-second, coast-to-coast layup lifted UCLA over Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Edney knows there won’t be a new Tyus Edney this March.
Madness, missing its shining moment.
“It's strange," said the 47-year-old former UCLA star. "It really is."
'He'd score almost every time'
Edney is mostly remembered as a Cinderella story. That's probably because his teammate, Ed O’Bannon, won national Player of the Year honors in 1995 and became one of the best players in Pac-12 history. But the 5-foot-10 point guard was no slouch.
A three-year starter for head coach Jim Harrick at UCLA, Edney averaged 13.6 points as a sophomore, 15.4 as a junior and 14.3 as a senior. He finished second on the school's career assist list. Three times an all-conference selection, Edney won the 1995 Francis Pomeroy Naismith Award for the best men's player in college basketball under 6 feet.
As a freshman, Edney earned playing time and his coach’s attention. Quickly, he earned Harrick's respect. Then came the trust.
“I’d get up to say something and he’d put his hand up,” Harrick said. “‘[Edney said] I got it, sit down. Sit down, fat boy, I’ve got it. I’ll run the play.’ I’d let them run practice."
But Harrick. recalling a famous play from 30 years earlier, insisted on running one play every week.
“In 1965, Jerry West went from the foul line to the basket in three seconds to beat Boston,” Harrick said of the Hall of Famer for the Los Angeles Lakers. “People were going crazy. "
As a high school coach, Harrick gave his team four seconds to complete the coast-to-coast drill. When he first got to UCLA, he gave the Bruins six seconds. No one could do it without dribbling the ball out of bounds or getting stifled.
"Woot-woot-woot, like the roadrunner,” Harrick remembered about his guard.
The Bruins practiced their coast-to-coast play with Edney running the point every week. He was unstoppable.
"He’d score almost every time,” Harrick said. “No. 1, I knew he could do it. I got beat one time when a guy went the length of the floor in five seconds and threw it up there. I knew he could get there in 4.8.”
‘I know what I’m doing!’
As the Bruins headed to their bench after falling behind Missouri, 74-73, with seconds left, Harrick's mind raced.
“It was a surreal moment,” the coach recalled. “... all five of my guys turned and they riveted all their eyes right on me. I kind of thought, ‘Wow, good gracious.’ I didn’t realize until later that it was the defining moment of my coaching career.”
Harrick knew whom he wanted to take the last shot. His assistants were dubious, and they let him know it.
All season, Johnson said, that was a bit of a running joke. Assistants Mark Gottfried, Lorenzo Romar and Steve Lavin would try to persuade the coach to run their plays, but Harrick usually shooed them away.
“They were having one of those pow-wows with 4.8 seconds left; ‘Coach, we need to get a shot for Ed. Got to figure out how to get it to Ed,’” Johnson recalled of the Missouri game. “Harrick yells, ‘No! I know what I’m doing,’ and he breaks out the huddle, no closure in the huddle, and you could see it on the assistants’ faces.”
It wasn’t just the assistants who thought O’Bannon should get the ball. Even Edney thought the big guy would get the call.
“When Tyus gets it, and he’s going, my thought process is, 'How the [expletive] is he going to get a shot off?' " Johnson recalled. "I’m looking at these guys at half court. God damn, this is going to be crazy. Everyone thought we needed to throw something over the top, a Laettner. Everyone wanted a Laettner! Ed at the free throw line.”
Three years earlier, Duke’s Christian Laettner sent the Blue Devils into the championship game with a last-second shot against Kentucky off a cross-court heave from Grant Hill. O’Bannon was UCLA’s Laettner. It made sense.
To everyone but Harrick.
“I put my arm around [Edney] and walked him to half court, and I kind of yelled at him, ‘Tyus, do you have a crystal-clear understanding of what I said?' ” Harrick recalled. “He said, ‘Absolutely. You want me to shoot the ball.’ Right then, Ed walked by and said, 'Get me the ball.' I said, 'No. Tyus, you shoot the ball,' and a great player made a great play.”
The 1995 UCLA squad team was close, perhaps closer than any Bruins team since the heyday of the John Wooden years.
The Bruins entered the season a confident bunch, and after a 25-2 regular season — which earned the Bruins the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament — UCLA entered March Madness determined. In the opening round, the Bruins throttled Florida International, 92-56.
The next night, a group of UCLA leaders met in O’Bannon’s room long after curfew passed. The minutes turned into hours, and before any of the Bruins in the room knew it, it was well past midnight.
“Sometimes that chemistry turns into closeness, and sometimes that closeness turns into a conversation until 1:30 a.m.,” Johnson said.
That might explain the sluggish start against Missouri. Perhaps it explains the championship run that the comeback sparked. It might also be the reason why O’Bannon was OK with Edney getting the ball in the most crucial moment of UCLA’s season.
“Ed was the kind of teammate that he was probably happier for me than he would’ve been had he made the shot," Edney said. "Completely unselfish.”
'It's a great memory'
Reflecting on his one shining moment 25 years later, Edney is still tickled. He can’t believe it’s been so long.
“I told someone it feels like it was maybe 10 years ago,” he said. “It does feel a little removed, but not 25 years removed. I joke with people: 'I only took one shot at UCLA and I made it.' That’s what people remember. It’ll come up, or someone hits a buzzer-beater and they bring it up. It is surprising to me a lot of people still remember the impact of it."
“It’s a great memory.”
But the coast-to-coast hoop is one of many memories Harrick has of Edney.
In the 1995 West Regional win over Connecticut, the Huskies cut the Bruins lead to four with seconds left in the first half. UCLA called a timeout, and Harrick huddled with his team. "I told Tyus, ‘You’ve got to do exactly what you did last week, except Tyus, you have to stop short and shoot a jump shot.' " Edney hit a three-pointer from 25 feet, blunting UConn's momentum.
"He was just splendid in the whole tournament,” Harrick said.
The Bruins eventually disposed of the Huskies, then took out Oklahoma State in the Final Four and Arkansas in the championship game. Edney played just three minutes in the title game because of wrist and ankle injuries.
That summer, Edney was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the NBA Draft. He had a middling four-year career in the Association, but he found greater success in Europe, where he won a EuroLeague title with Zalgiris Kaunas in 1999.
But now, 25 years after his shining moment, Edney is bummed. What's Madness without the magic?
“The Tournament is such a part of March," he said. "They coined it March Madness. It definitely brings up a lot of good memories.
"It’s going to be strange there’s not going to be those moments to watch.”