The writer sitting in the Boston Garden press box had seen
enough Laker defeats on the parquet floor to know when another
one was sealed. So when the Celtics went up 118-117 with 2.4
seconds remaining in the Lakers' final appearance at the Garden
last January, he turned to his neighbor and said
authoritatively, "It's o-vah."
"No, it's not," said his neighbor, with equal Bostonian
conviction. "They've got Van Exel."
Within moments Laker second-year point guard Nick Van Exel
appeared near the right sideline just beyond half-court. A 6'1"
coatrack wearing two Celtics and a look of absolute cool, Van
Exel flung up a shot hopeless enough to lighten the heart of
every green-clad person in the place. A half second later,
though, the ball hissed through the net.
Noting the 120-118 final score, neighbor said to writer: "See, I
Van Exel couldn't have said it better himself. Since being
picked a lowly 37th in the draft two years ago, he has found
that last shots can serve as very pointed last words. Few things
delight him more than stepping onto the home court of one of the
24 teams that passed on the opportunity to draft him--10 teams
overlooked him twice--and crushing them with a 30-point game here
or a buzzer-beater there. Silence from the home crowd is music
to his ears. Boos are sweeter still. Like a flower blooming on
the tundra, Van Exel thrives where others might wither. "I love
it when they boo me," he says. "I see it as a sign of respect."
In Los Angeles, a town that applauds flash and sass, Forum season-
ticket holders have voted Van Exel the Most Popular Laker. In
two short years he has emerged as the thrilling, charismatic
floor leader that L.A. had been waiting for since Magic Johnson
retired in 1991. After making the all-rookie second team in '94,
Van Exel broke out as a major NBA talent last year, averaging
16.9 points and 8.3 assists a game as the Lakers advanced to the
second round of the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"Nick has improved so much in the last year," says teammate
Anthony Miller. "No one knows where it came from."
It's simple enough. "I want to be the best," says Van Exel. "I
want to be respected around the league. I want to be feared."
Clipper coach Bill Fitch has called Van Exel "a baby-faced
killer." No doubt Laker assistant coach Larry Drew, a former NBA
point guard, felt a trickle of sweat when he saw Van Exel at a
predraft camp in Phoenix in '93. "When I walked into the gym,
Nick grabbed my eye right away," Drew says. "What I saw in him
was the kind of guard I hated playing against: the guy who can
literally embarrass you."
What other teams saw, apparently, was an attitude problem.
Projected to be a mid-first-round pick, Van Exel languished deep
into the second round as concerns about his character--and his
42% shooting at Cincinnati, where he had led the Bearcats to the
1992 Final Four--gave league G.M.'s pause. "With most people the
first impression you get of them is the most important one,"
says Van Exel's agent, Tony Dutt. "That's not true with Nick."
Reluctant to make eye contact and given to short, clipped
answers, Van Exel did not come off well in some predraft
interviews with NBA clubs. And even he admits that his
countenance--heavy-lidded, with a prominent scar below an
unsmiling mouth--can be intimidating. "It's probably because of
the scar, which I got in a car accident in 10th grade," says Van
Exel. "And probably because I'm so quiet and always looking so
mean. I don't do it on purpose. It's just my natural look."
Two missed flights to a predraft interview in Charlotte added an
air of irresponsibility. And Van Exel's refusal to run sprints
at full speed for Sonic coach George Karl, with whom he had just
had a disagreement over the merits of North Carolina coach Dean
Smith (Van Exel had the temerity to suggest that Karl's former
coach and mentor should have won more than just two national
titles), smacked of insubordination. Van Exel says he missed his
first flight to Charlotte because his agent's secretary had
given him the wrong date and the second because his girlfriend
was involved in a car accident. He was sluggish in Seattle, he
says, "because I figured they wouldn't pick me when they already
had Gary Payton, and I wanted to go all out for the teams that
might want me." Still, his draft-day slide was fully greased.
The Lakers, who had considered selecting Van Exel in the first
round with the No. 12 pick (they used it instead to take North
Carolina's George Lynch), were astonished to find him still
available when their turn came up again at 37. "It took us about
two seconds to figure out what to do," says executive vice
president Jerry West.
Van Exel, cool even in the face of shrinking dollar signs, was
not concerned by his fall. "Some people never expected me to
make it to the NBA at all," he says. "I was excited. People told
me I lost so much money, but I can't lose something I never
had." Confident he could prove himself in a season, Van Exel
signed a one-year contract with the Lakers for $150,000, the
league minimum. This season he embarks on the second year of a
five-year, $9.5 million deal.
His other notable assets: explosive quickness on the floor and
enough self-assurance to float a small armada. "He's got more
confidence than I've seen, maybe ever, for a guy who was picked
in the second round," says Drew.
Particularly undaunting to Van Exel are his own failures on the
court. "Nick could miss his first 17 shots and know he'll make
his 18th and 19th," says former Cincinnati teammate Terry
Nelson. Case in point: In Game 5 of the playoff series against
the Spurs last spring, Van Exel missed his first five
three-point shots but iced one with 10 seconds left to send the
game into overtime. With a half second left in OT, he launched
another off-balance three to win the game and force Game 6. As
the Alamodome fell quiet, Van Exel ran around in wild
celebration, so excited he forgot to do his customary postbasket
shadowboxing routine. "I should have done it," he said
afterward. "I knocked them all out with one punch."
"Some coaches don't like it if a guy has a strut about him like
he knows he can play," says Drew. "I like that. Nick has that
strut about him. If you can back it up, there's no problem."
The first time the rookie second-rounder set foot in Boston's
hallowed Garden, in March 1994, he whispered into the ear of
Laker color commentator Stu Lantz, "Stu, I'm going to break the
three-point record tonight." Van Exel hit six threes that night,
breaking the Lakers' single-game mark. (He later pushed it to
eight in a game against Dallas.) Lantz started calling him Nick
the Prophet. After Seattle beat L.A. by 25 points in Game 1 of
the first round of the playoffs last spring, Nick the Prophet
told Dutt that the Lakers would win the series. The Sonics went
down in four games.
But Nick the Prophet is not among the nicknames Van Exel is
considering tattooing on his chest along with a flaming
basketball. Neither is Nick Van Smack, Saint Nick, Nick Van
Excellent or 'Tude, to mention just a few of the tags that
others have laid on him. Says Van Exel, "It's going to be either
Nick the Quick or Nick at Nite."
Another name not in contention: Nick the Picnic. Although Van
Exel is, according to West, "a wonderful kid," he has caused the
Laker front office scattered moments of aggravation. There was
an incident in Portland last January in which Van Exel did not
play in the second half following a halftime tirade by coach Del
Harris. Van Exel says he saw five guys on the floor at the start
of the third quarter and assumed he wasn't starting. An
assistant coach told him to go in, but Harris said nothing, so
Van Exel sat. He later apologized, and the Lakers brushed the
incident aside as a "miscommunication."
But on other occasions, Van Exel's motives have been both clear
and admirable. Last winter he refused to campaign on his own
behalf for All-Star votes, saying, "I should be voted in based
on how I play." And at an exhibition game in Cincinnati between
the Russian national team and the Bearcats' 1992 Final Four team
last May, Van Exel showed where his heart is. The day before the
game, the Lakers called Van Exel to warn him that he could face
as much as $75,000 in fines from the league and the Lakers if he
played in the game, which was not sanctioned by the NBA. But Van
Exel, who had paid to fly in former Bearcat reserve B.J. Ward
from Milwaukee, played for the 6,400 gathered fans, scoring 10
points. At halftime he presented the school with a $25,000
check--the first installment of a four-year, $100,000 commitment.
The NBA fined him $5,000.
Jerry West called Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins after the game to
find out if Van Exel had played. Huggins informed him that, yes,
he had. "That ----," said West. "He's not afraid of me or
Van Exel can be cavalier, for sure. This is, after all, a guy
who has been known to throw a pack of lighted firecrackers into
a roomful of buddies engrossed in a TV show, just for a giggle.
But fearless? No. "I'm afraid of death," he says. "And heights."
He once had to give up a job cleaning the ceiling fans of an
auto shop in his hometown of Kenosha, Wis., because his lofty
perch--maybe six feet off the ground--made him sick with vertigo.
He vows to never set foot on a roller coaster. "If L.A. ever
wins the NBA title again," says Nelson, "that's one Laker who
won't be going to Disney World."
Nick the Bic shoots left and signs right. His script, on
abundant display on the second day of his three-day boys'
basketball camp on the Cincinnati campus in August, is neat and
legible, not the careless scrawl of one who has grown bored
with signing his autograph. Sweaty campers, ages 8-18, line up
by a table and shyly proffer their items--one per person,
according to camp rules--to be signed. Balls, towels, shirts,
shorts and cards are scooted across the table to Van Exel. He
impassively signs them until he recognizes a face that has
been through the line before. "Not you again!" he growls.
The boy slinks off sheepishly. He has just learned an extra
lesson at camp: You can't fool Nick Van Exel. And Nick Van Exel
certainly won't fool himself. "I could go back to the
playgrounds of Kenosha right now," he says, "and I wouldn't
necessarily be the best player out there. I just had the best
Not everyone would deem what Van Exel had to have been "the best
opportunities." He was raised an only child in a home his
mother, Joyce, vacated every day for the second shift at the
local American Motors plant and his father, Nickey Sr., vacated
for good when Nick was in third grade. "Mom was never there," he
says. "I spent a lot of time by myself." On his own, Van Exel
learned to answer to his own authority and to trust few people.
Gifted on the basketball court, he became cocksure.
In ninth grade he got a scholarship to St. Joseph's High School,
a small, predominantly white Catholic school in Kenosha. He
moved in with an aunt, Jacqueline Huntley, and began to spend a
lot of time with the family of his best friend, Myron Glass. Van
Exel credits his aunt and his friends with keeping him on the
basketball court and out of trouble. "They saw something in me I
didn't see in myself," he says. "Basketball eased a lot of pain
for me. Good things have come from basketball."
His knack for imperiling those good things with hardheadedness
started early. At St. Joseph's, where he was the top high school
scorer in the state his senior year, he failed a biology class
twice because he wouldn't apply himself for a teacher he didn't
like. His dubious prospects as a Division I player and his
failure to take a college entrance exam landed him at Trinity
Valley Community College in Athens, Texas. In a speech class
there, he refused to make eye contact with his audience, which
led to an argument with the professor and an F in the class.
Holding a grim 1.79 GPA at the beginning of his fourth semester,
and short 32 credit hours of the number needed to graduate and
move on to a Division I school, Van Exel looked like a lost
cause to Cincinnati recruiter Steve Moeller, who had been wooing
him for about a year. In mid-January, Moeller quit calling. A
few weeks later Van Exel called Moeller. "Coach, you know I can
make up those hours," he said. "I know I can." With strategic
help from Moeller, Van Exel earned 20 credits that final
semester, six more in summer school and the final six through a
correspondence course. He was the last player to arrive at
Cincinnati that fall. Just call him Nick of Time.
"Nick is at his best when his back is against the wall," says
Dutt. "I often wonder how he'd do if he weren't behind the eight
ball all the time. How would he react if he had been, say, the
Number 1 pick in the draft?"
"That would change you," says Van Exel. "I love being the
At Cincinnati, Van Exel found a fellowship of underdogs,
including three other juco transfers, with whom he formed a
lasting bond through two spectacular seasons that ended at the
Final Four one year and the Final Eight the next.
Almost pathologically quiet off the court, Van Exel was a gadfly
on it. He nagged at teammates, and when he saw something he
didn't like in Huggins's game plans, he said so, which led to
explosive rows with the coach and temporary banishments to the
end of the bench. "What you come to appreciate about Nick is his
honesty," says Huggins. "Sometimes you don't want to hear what
he has to say." Van Exel, he knows, can be contagious. Before
the Final Eight game against Carolina in '93, the normally quiet
Van Exel suddenly interrupted Huggins's review of the game plan.
"Hey, screw that!" he cried. "Let's just go kick their ass!"
"Everybody else stood up and yelled, 'Yeah!'" recalls Huggins.
"Nick's credibility was pretty high at that point."
Van Exel has a son, Nickey Maxwell Van Exel III, now five, who
lives with his mother in Texas and is a huge fan of ... Jason
Kidd. "Last time we played in Dallas, Nickey walked into the
locker room wearing a Jason Kidd jersey," Van Exel says with a
laugh. "I told him he'd better take it off or I'd cut his
Having money to spend on family and friends is just one way
Van Exel's life has changed in the last two years. "I've changed
a lot too," he says. "I'm much better socially, although I'm
still not the type to go up and talk to someone unless they talk
to me first. I'm learning to control my emotions, to not show
bad body language or get so ticked off at refs. You save a lot
of energy that way."
He'll need that energy. There are many arenas still to be
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Nick Van Exel]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUNDVan Exel helped the Bearcats reach the Final Four in '92, then shot down those who doubted he could play in the NBA.[Nick Van Exel cutting down net]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above--Nick Van Exel playing basketball for Los Angeles Lakers]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH L.A.'s strong-willed floor leader is sometimes as much of a headache for Harris as he is for his opponents. [Nick Van Exel and Del Harris]