Hometown: Kenosha, WI
You Know Him From: NBA’s LA Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks
Nick Van Exel
Biography by Mike Johnson
Perhaps NBC broadcaster Bob Costas described the early days of Nick Van Exel’s NBA career the best: “It seemed like there was always some problem, something that he was upset about.” Costas said these words in 1998, when Van Exel was sent from the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA’s penthouse suite, to the Denver Nuggets, the NBA’s dumpster. The main reason for L.A.’s trade? Van Exel’s attitude.
Van Exel didn’t exactly give off the best impression his first few years, and he often butted heads with coaches. He and then-Lakers head coach Del Harris weren’t friends, and they had a well-publicized rocky relationship. Van Exel was also the culprit in one of the NBA’s most infamous incidents, shoving referee Ron Garretson into a scorer’s table during a 1996 game to protest a bad call. Van Exel’s response when asked to apologize to Garretson? “No, no. I would expect an apology from him. If he apologizes to me, I’ll apologize to him.”
Perhaps comments like this made the Lakers eager to get rid of Van Exel by the end of the 1998 season. But lack of on-court talent was in no way a problem for Van Exel in Los Angeles. Selected 37th overall by the Lakers in the 1993 draft, Van Exel was the consummate double-edged sword early in his career. He may have been a headache, but he was as good with a basketball as he was bad with his mouth. In his rookie year of 1993-94, Van Exel made a splash, becoming just the fifth rookie in Lakers history to reach the 1,000-point mark. He joined the very significant company of Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon and James Worthy.
In his second season, Van Exel kept improving, leading the Lakers in both scoring and assists. In the playoffs, he seemed to fulfill his big-game promise, averaging 20 points and 7.3 assists per game in 10 contests before the Lakers bowed out in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs. Van Exel’s career appeared well on its way to stardom, and his next three seasons in L.A. were certainly prolific. He led the Lakers in assists in each season, proving that even if his locker room attitude was bad, Van Exel was a great teammate on the court. He consistently averaged around 15 points per game, and in the 1997-98 season he was chosen to his first All-Star Game as a reserve, scoring 13 points. It would turn out to be his only All-Star appearance.
As his career with the Lakers wore on, Van Exel’s welcome wore out. Sure, his numbers were great. In his five seasons as the Lakers’ point guard, one of the most coveted positions in sports, Van Exel averaged 14.9 points and 7.3 assists per game. But Van Exel’s attitude wasn’t really improving, and the Lakers never reached the NBA Finals in Van Exel’s five seasons there. Speculation began to fuel that Van Exel’s bad attitude would ultimately prevent the Lakers from winning the only thing that matters to them: an NBA championship. So after the 1997-98 season, one in which a knee injury forced Van Exel to miss a career-high 18 games, the Lakers traded their enigmatic star to Denver on June 24, 1998, for Tony Battie and the draft rights to Tyronn Lue. These players didn’t have the talent of Van Exel, but the Lakers seemed plenty happy to shed Van Exel’s baggage. The legendary West, a Hall of Fame player for the Lakers who later became the team’s general manager, was one of the people who genuinely thought Van Exel was a great player in his first couple years with the Lakers. But like most people figured, West said that the shoving incident with Garretson was the beginning of the end for Van Exel’s career with L.A.
By the time Van Exel was traded, West admitted that for the Lakers, the trade was essentially “addition by subtraction.” West proved to be right. Two seasons after the trade and without Van Exel, the Lakers captured their first of three straight NBA &!@*#les. It seemed Van Exel’s career was slipping into obscurity. It seemed that Nick “The Quick,” as he was dubbed because of his speedy first step with a basketball, was not really a great player, just a jerk with a world-class chip on his shoulder.
Nickey Maxwell Van Exel was born in Kenosha on November 27, 1971. He didn’t have the easiest time growing up. Nick’s male role model was a father who stole car stereos out of vehicles while an impressionable young Nick waited in the car. Not surprisingly, his father wound up in prison, and when he got out, he abandoned Nick and his mother in Kenosha and moved to Georgia. Nick’s mom worked hard to compensate, taking a second-shift job at the Chrysler plant. Nick and his mom were afforded just 30 minutes together each week, forcing Nick to largely raise himself. Perhaps it was that type of childhood that gave Nick the chip on his shoulder and the distrusting attitude that got him in trouble in later years around the NBA. Still, growing up, Nick could always at least look to one thing: basketball.
By the time he reached his senior year at St. Joseph High School, Nick had become one of the best prep players the state of Wisconsin had ever seen. With 29.8 points per game, Nick was the state’s leading scorer his senior year, and he led St. Joseph to a runner-up finish at the State Tournament. Van Exel’s stellar high school play led him to college, a place that may have seemed unlikely for him growing up. He began his collegiate career at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, where he excelled with 18.8 points and 6.1 assists per game. Because of his play at Trinity Valley, Van Exel eventually transferred to the University of Cincinnati, one of the top college hoops programs in the nation. Although he had just two years of eligibility left, Van Exel made quite an impact for the Bearcats.
His junior year, Van Exel helped Cincinnati to an 18-2 record and an appearance in the Final Four. As a senior, Van Exel was even better, averaging 18.3 points and 4.5 assists per game. He was a finalist for the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player, and he was named a Third Team All-American. In the process, the Bearcats made it all the way to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. In just two years with Cincinnati, Van Exel became the Bearcats’ all-time leader in three-point field goals made (147), attempted (411) and percentage (.358), although those records have since been surpassed. While at the school, Van Exel majored in sociology. And still, life wasn’t easy. He reportedly slept in the University of Cincinnati gym one summer just to make ends meet.
Once he got to the NBA, however, Van Exel never had a problem making ends meet. Like all pro athletes, he made more than enough money to survive. But after his trade to the Lakers, Van Exel’s career appeared even more unfulfilled than ever. He didn’t just want money. He wanted to win badly, part of a competitive drive that made him the talent, as well as the headache, he was on the court. While in Denver, Van Exel constantly made trade demands because of how bad the team’s record usually was. Avery Johnson, a temmate of Van Exel in Denver, reportedly once tried to counsel the mercurial Van Exel. “Why don’t you just shut up (about trade demands). You’re making $70 million,” said Johnson. “I want to make $70 million and win,” retorted Van Exel. But to say Van Exel was being greedy is a misnomer. In fact, as evidenced by his actions, Van Exel has always been charitable to underpriviledged children, perhaps because they have the same backgrounds he did.
While in Denver, Van Exel was honored with the Chopper Travaglini Award for his generosity in the community. In 2000, he and Nuggets temmate Antonio McDyess deliverd turkeys to underpriviledged children on Thanksgiving. In later years with the Golden State Warriors, Van Exel spearheaded Nick Van Exel’s turkey drop, in which he distributed turkeys to Bay Area shelters and non-profit organizations. In Houston, Van Exel has hosted the Nick Van Exel Charity Weekend. In addition, Van Exel is a member of a different NBA: the National Benevolent Association of the Christian Church. But on the basketball court, Van Exel’s great drive to win can turn him into a much more abrasive personality that he is off the court. So in Denver Van Exel became frustrated, because winning certainly wasn’t common for the Denver Nuggets.
While Van Exel continued to put up impressive personal statistics, the Nuggets went just 89-125 and never made the playoffs in Van Exel’s three full seasons there. Van Exel was so disillusioned with the franchise that he participated in a one-day practice boycott and went AWOL briefly during one season. The views on Van Exel’s personality during his time in Denver can be two-fold. Certainly it’s admirable that he wanted badly to win basketball games. On the other hand, lots of other competitive players on losing teams still retain the ability to take losing with a certain measure of grace. So what right did Van Exel have in Denver to make those around him miserable? More to the point, how can a basketball player seem to be angry all the time when he’s making millions of dollars to play a game, even if his team is losing? After all, Van Exel seemed to portray every loss in Denver as a tragedy. So perhaps that’s why Van Exel probably matured somewhat when he was hit by a real personal tragedy in 2001.
In the summer of that year, Van Exel’s mother was inexplicably shot point-blank four times in a parking lot near her Indianapolis apartment. Long after Nick made it big in the NBA, his mother refused to quit her job at Chrysler, not wanting to ride the coattails of her by-then famous son. Now, she was near death. Though she recovered, the shooter was never caught, and Nick was deeply shaken by the incident. During a Fox Sports Net “Beyond the Glory” episode featuring Van Exel, Nick recounted the shooting incident and became misty-eyed, saying he thought “I may never see my mom again.” Perhaps the incident also forced Van Exel to shed some of his bad attitude. But clearly, his time with the Denver Nuggets didn’t exactly elicit good memories.
Despite the fact that he was still the team’s star on the court, being tucked away on the perenially losing Nuggets seemed to make Van Exel’s career almost irrelevant. He had gone from being one of the league’s bright young stars to just another veteran on a losing team. Van Exel needed a second chance with a winning team. And midway through the 2001-02 season, he got it. Searching for a gutsy scorer to help them in their playoff drive, the winning Dallas Mavericks inquired about the availability of Van Exel, who obviously wanted out of Denver. There was, however, one caveat. Del Harris, the coach whom Van Exel had forged such a bad relationship with in L.A., was by then an assitant coach with Dallas. Management asked Harris whether he could co-exist with Van Exel. If he couldn’t, then Dallas didn’t want Van Exel. To everyone’s surprise, however, Harris not only said he could get along with Van Exel, but heavily endorsed bringing the quick guard to Dallas.
In some way, perhaps it was this move by Harris that taught Van Exel the value of forgiveness and helped to ease the chip on his shoulder. During the rest of that regular season with the Mavs, Van Exel was content to play a supporting role in a cast of stars, averaging 13.2 points in 27 games. But come playoff time, Van Exel transformed into the explosive and feisty player he was with the Lakers. Showing an incredible fearlessness, Van Exel almost carried the Mavs on his back that playoff season, averaging 19.5 points per game. He was the player his teammates looked to when a big shot was needed, three times scoring 35 points and once scoring 40 in the most memorable game of those playoffs, a 141-137 double-overtime Mavs win over Sacramento in the second round. In the end, Dallas fell short of the NBA Finals, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. But Van Exel gained a large measure of respect that had always seemed to elude him throughout his pro career. Van Exel spent another good season with Dallas before being traded to the Golden State Warriors. That trade, however, was because of personnel matters, not because of Van Exel’s attitude. Currently, Van Exel is playing for the Portland TrailBlazers and is off to a good start in the 2004-05 season.
Looking back, it’s clear that Van Exel has gone through a lot in life. And if it’s any wonder whether he’s grown up or not, take what Van Exel said about his son, also named Nick, on FSN’s “Beyond the Glory,” which aired in 2003. “He’s totally the opposite of the way I was. I’m so thankful for that, that he doesn’t have that bad attitude.”
By Mike Johnson
Childhood Home: 6510 17th Avenue
Did You Know?: Just call him Nickname Van Exel. His professional basketball career, along with his brash, arrogant behavior on the court, has so far earned him: “Nick the Quick”, “Nick at Nite”, “Nick the Brick” and “Nick Van Smack.”