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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Eddie Owens

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Eddie Owens starred in basketball from the time he stepped onto a high school court. He led his high school team to the Texas state championship. Later he took his college, UNLV, to its first Final Four and the team became known as the Runnin’ Rebels with Owens leading the charge. But for some reason his skills did not translate to the NBA. His professional career consisted of only eight NBA games with the Buffalo Braves and a couple seasons of minor league ball.

Eddie Owens was born December 26, 1953, in Houston, Texas. Owens grew up there and attended Wheatley High School. The school has several noted sports alumni including, former world heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, former NFL superstar Lester Hayes and current NFL standout Xavien Howard. Owens joined a basketball program that had won Texas state championships in the two years before he arrived and during his freshman year of 1969-1970.

In his sophomore year the Wildcats lost the state championship game, 80-58, to Houston Cypress-Fairbanks. Owens scored 13 points but fouled out near the end of the third quarter. At the conclusion of the season after averaging 19.4 points per game, Eddie was named to the Texas all-state team. The Wildcats had a down year, for them, in his junior year. They made the state tournament, but lost in the semifinals to Dallas Roosevelt. Owens had 31 points in the loss. He was again named to the Texas all-state team. Owens also found some trouble as he was arrested, along with basketball teammate Gary Wagner, after starting a fire in a temporary classroom after they were caught skipping classes.

Owens helped lead the Wildcats to the best season in school history, and one of the best in state history, as a senior. Wheatley, with Owens pouring in 31 points, won the state championship, 84-78, over Midland. The Wildcats finished the season with an amazing 43-1 record and averaged 111 points per game. “The best high school player in America,” Wildcats head coach Jackie Carr said about his star. He admitted that Owens was somewhat of an unknown quantity because he seldom was pushed to fully display his capabilities for a full game. He averaged almost a point a minute, with an average a shade below 30 points per game. “His prime asset is a feathery left-handed jump shot which arches slightly more than most and with which he is accurate from practically anywhere in the gym. He was also a guiding force in Wheatley’s fast break and was not averse to bringing the ball up court when the guards had momentarily misplaced themselves,” described sportswriter Whit Canning. Owens finished his career at Wheatley with a 118-9 record in his three varsity seasons.

He was named a Parade High School All-American in March 1973 and was recruited by almost every school in the country. Eddie was also named the Basketball Player of the Year in the state of Texas. He surprised many people when he did not select the University of Houston. Instead he went west to join Jerry Tarkanian at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. It was Tarkanian’s first year at UNLV after leaving Long Beach State, and Owens liked the up-tempo style of play that the coach espoused. However, his mom needed convincing. She and Eddie had planned a visit to Oral Roberts when Tarkanian put on something of a full-court press. Jerry didn’t leave the residence until 1 a.m. when Owens finally signed the letter-of-intent,

Owens enrolled at UNLV for the fall semester in 1973. He joined a freshman class that included Glen Gondrezick, Jackie Robinson and Lewis Brown, all future NBA players. Owens made an impression on his coach and teammates very early in his freshman year. Eddie Ratliff was an All-American that Tarkanian coached at Long Beach State, and he liked the comparison of the two Eddies. “They’re a lot alike,” said Tarkanian. “Owens can do so many things so well—anything you need from a guard or forward. He’s one of the finest players I’ve ever seen and he’s so sound fundamentally sound it’s obvious he’s had excellent coaching. Ordinarily, I’d say it’s very difficult for a college freshman to become a starter, but Owens is one of those rare ones who’s capable of it. Right now, he’s our sixth man, but he’s playing two positions so he gets about as much playing time as anyone else. I’ll say one thing - he’s a helluva player right now, and someday he’s going to be great.”

Owens was the fourth-leading scorer on UNLV as a freshman, contributing 10.1 points per game. He also added 4.8 rebounds per game. Tarkanian’s first squad finished with a 20-6 record and a third-place finish in the West Coast Athletic Conference. The team’s record was a significant improvement from the 13-15 record from the prior year.

The Rebels’ 1974-75 squad was led in scoring by Owens at 18.4 points per game, followed closely by Ricky Sobers at 18.0. Eddie stepped up his game to become the team’s go-to guy. UNLV won the WCAC with a 13-1 record and qualified for the first NCAA tournament in school history with a 22-4 record. Owens and Sobers, with 21 points each, led UNLV to a 90-80 win over San Diego State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Rebels lost by 84-81 to No. 7 Arizona State in the next round. Owens contributed 16 points in the loss. UNLV finished the season ranked No. 17 in the country.

UNLV became the “Runnin’ Rebels” during the 1975-76 season as the squad averaged 110.5 points per game. They were led by Owens’ 23.4 points per game average. The Runnin’ Rebels raced through the regular season with a 28-1 record, with only a 93-91 loss to Pepperdine marring their record. Owens led the team in scoring in 19 of the team’s 29 games with a high of 35 in a win over Pepperdine. UNLV defeated Boise State, 103-78, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But the Rebels lost a heartbreaking overtime affair to Arizona, 114-109, in the next round. Owens fouled out in regulation time and his absence hurt the club. UNLV finished ranked No. 3 in the country, the highest in school history.

Owens’ senior season is one for the record books in UNLV basketball history. The Runnin’ Rebels again led the nation in scoring with a 107.1 points per game average, including scoring over 100 points in 23 games. UNLV finished the regular season with a 25-2 record, highlighted by a 99-96 victory over No. 6 ranked Louisville. Owens led the way with 21 points in the win.

The team was nicknamed “Hardway Eight” by Sports Information Director Dominic Clark because of the team’s relentless style of play on both ends of the court. He also penned nicknames for the top eight players, including “Easy” for Owens. “Easy Eddie” led the team in scoring with a 21.8 per game average.

The Runnin’ Rebels opened the NCAA tournament against the 29-1, No. 3-ranked, San Francisco Dons that were led by Bill Cartwright. The game was no contest as UNLV - led by Reggie Theus’s 27 points and Owens 21 - buried the highly rated Dons, 121-95. UNLV continued its run through the West Region by defeating No. 14 Utah, 88-83, in the semifinals and Idaho State, 107-90, in the Regional final. Owens scored 16 and 24 points in the two victories to lead the Runnin’ Rebels to the first Final Four in school history. He was named MVP of the West Regional.

The National semifinal pitted UNLV against No. 5 North Carolina that was led by Phil Ford, Walter Davis and Mike O’Koren. The Runnin’ Rebels jumped to a 10-point lead early in the second half, but they somewhat self-destructed. “At the end we were unorganized. We had no set plays. If we’d been organized, we’d have been better off,” Owens said postgame. “The only set plays we have on this team are the inbounds plays. Everyone in the game always has the green light to shoot.”

But that freelance style proved ineffective when it mattered most. Owens, the team’s leading scorer, only took six shots in the second half, when the lead evaporated. The Tar Heels slowed the game down and came back to win, 84-83 and deprive UNLV a shot at a national title. “There was a point in the second half when I felt we needed leadership, and I was stuck on the bench,” Owens said after the game. “I thought I could have come off the bench and contributed. I’ve been through many wars. We just didn’t have any leadership out there.” Tarkanian played an eight-player rotation and did not deviate from his normal plan, even when the game seemed to dictate something different.

“We should have been the national champions. It’s really that simple,” said starting forward Sam Smith several years later. But the Final Four appearance did put the Rebels on the basketball map. UNLV became a national competitor for the next 15 years. That squad set NCAA records for most points in a season (3,246), most 100-point games (23) and most consecutive 100-point games (12).

Owens left UNLV as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,221 career points. He played in 118 games with an 18.8 points per game average while also contributing 5.1 rebounds per contest. He shot an impressive 51.7 percent from the field for his career. “Eddie was a great midrange shooter. He would play for 24 minutes a game, but he would get 22 points,” Tarkanian said about Owens several years later. “My wife, Lois, tutored him, and he graduated in four years. I haven’t heard from him since college.”

Eddie was drafted by the NBA’s Kansas City Kings in the second round, with pick number nine in the 1977 draft on June 10. He signed a multi-year contract with the Kings on September 19. Owens participated in training camp, but was cut by Kansas City on October 10, 1977. He signed a few days later with the Rochester Zeniths of the All-America Basketball Alliance, a new minor league. He was joined on the Zeniths by other former college stars Larry Fogle, Pete Trgovich and Andre McCarter. The Zeniths and Owens started out well enough – he was the team’s top scorer – but the team never caught on and was out of business in February.

Owens received a call from the NBA’s Buffalo Braves on March 6, and he was offered a contract. “The Braves called me on Monday. I was definitely surprised, since it is so late in the season,” Owens said. He was signed to a 10-day contract to replace the injured Billy Knight. Owens made his NBA debut on March 12 by playing eight minutes in a 96-90 Braves win. He had one assist and two fouls without scoring. His most extensive action came in his second game, a 120-115 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Owens played 20 minutes while scoring eight points and grabbing six rebounds. He played six more games for the Braves, all losses, before the season concluded on April 9. He finished his abbreviated season in Buffalo playing in eight games with a 2.6 points per game average and an average of 7.9 minutes per game.

The Buffalo franchise moved to San Diego and became the Clippers prior to the start of the 1978-79 NBA season and Owens moved west with the club. He participated in training camp but was released by the Clippers on October 7. He signed with a new version of the Rochester Zeniths who had been reincarnated in the Continental Basketball Association. Owens battled a knee injury and on January 15 he was traded to the Baltimore Claws, who were moving to Utica, New York, to become the Mohawk Valley Thunderbirds. For the season Owens played 12 CBA games and scored 240 points. But his professional basketball career was over. He never made it back to the NBA and finished his career playing in those eight NBA games with the Braves.

He returned to live in his hometown of Houston. According to a Sports Illustrated magazine story, Owens also spent time working in a casino in Las Vegas. Eddie finished work on his degree along the way.

For some reason, Owens was not recognized by UNLV for his basketball exploits at the school until 2016, when his number was retired. “I always wondered why they didn’t show me any love,” Owens said. “I should be up there, statistically. When I found out, I was overwhelmed. I got really excited because it’s been a long time.” Eight other Rebels had their numbers retired before Owens was recognized.

Owens is still the all-time leading scorer in school history, 148 points more than anyone else and that was before the three-point field goal. “I’m thinking about getting a lawyer and looking at the film,” Owens joked. “They owe me about another 500 points.” Eddie was UNLV’s second All-American in school history. “It was an honor just to be in that Final Four,” Owens said. “When we knocked off San Francisco with Bill Cartwright and those guys, that’s when I knew we had something.” As of 2021, Owens also holds the UNLV record for field goals made with 913 and is in the top-10 in free throws made (395), career scoring average and single season scoring average.

“It’s all finally going to come to fruition,” Owens said. “There’s an old saying: The longer the berry stays on the vine the sweeter it is.” He went on to say, “We were the trailblazers, and we did it with hard work. You’re not going to win every game but there’s no excuse for not playing hard.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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