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Nick Van Exel: A Tribute to a Los Angeles Lakers Nobody

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Nick Van Exel: A Tribute to a Los Angeles Lakers Nobody

Sometime in Oct. 1997: Yvette, fifth grade, age 11

Dear Journal,

There’s this player, and he plays for the Lakers, that I really like.

He’s fast. Just so super fast! He’s like lightning!

He’s good at shooting threes! He wears some really long socks. I think his name is Nick Axel. I’ll ask my friends when I get to school.

I know it’s Nick, but the last name seemed longer when all the boys said it.

Anyway, I’m going to ask Mom to get me a jersey! If I get it, I’ll write back.  

(big picture of a heart),

Yvette

(more big hearts)

Present Time

I distinctly remember the day Nick Van Exel entered my life. I was 11 and had been playing basketball for about a year, maybe a bit longer. It was a warm day in Oct. 1997 and I had learned the rules of basketball the previous year in fourth grade.

I was getting into what I like to refer to as my “sports persona” era (refer to my bio), and I thought wearing long shorts and high tops should be required as the school uniform.

Instead, I was rocking a white button up shirt and a navy blue skort with some navy blue Mary Jane shoes that I absolutely despised.

I’d refused to wear skirts because it was too hard to play basketball in them, so skorts were the compromise between my Mother and I. (For those of you who don’t know what a skort is—that’s where you wear shorts that have a sewn on flap in front so the front side looks like a skirt.)

So, I had already decided the Los Angeles Lakers were going to be the object of my affection and I would bleed purple and gold until the day I died. And, for the sake of fanhood, I had to pick my favorite player.

My transition into my sports persona was almost complete.

All I needed was a favorite player.

He was a player on the Lakers and was referred to as “Nick the Quick.” I later learned the correct spelling of his name was Nick Van Exel.

His class included players we would come to admire. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Allan Houston, Sam Cassell, and Chris Webber are a few names you may recognize.

But there was something about him.

At the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. He was just an average player, but he played with an intensity and hunger I had never seen.

He could shoot three-point field goals with his eyes closed and his nonchalant attitude was somehow intriguing.

However, if you know Van Exel, you know he wasn’t known for his calm attitude.

In 1996, Van Exel pushed referee Ron Garretson into a scorers table to protest a bad call.

The strained relationship between he and coach Del Harris was no secret to the NBA either. Everyone knew Van Exel had an attitude problem, to say the least, but his numbers were good enough that the NBA looked beyond his rap sheet.

I would read stories about the tension between Van Exel and teammates like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and (my other No. 1 favorite player) Derek Fisher.

I was in seventh grade when I read about the controversial comments he made about Jason Williams and his ostentatious style of play.

"If I was to do it, it would be like, 'You can't bring that playground ball to the NBA.’ But when he does it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God!'"

Van Exel went on to say Williams was able to get away with it because he was white.

While he was basically accusing the NBA of racism, Van Exel wasn’t helping his case any by putting forth such a negative remark to be tagged back to him.

But I admired him.

I was watching FSN’s Beyond the Glory one school night and the episode happened to be about Van Exel’s life.

I turned the volume up and unconsciously began to put away my homework. I didn’t leave the television that evening, not even during commercials, until the show was over.

Van Exel was one of the most dominant shooters during his prime years. He holds the No. 2 record for the Lakers for most three-point FGs made with 750 (he was surpassed by the Kobster).

He holds the No. 7 spot for the NBA record in the same category.

Before Robert Horry was designated Mr. Clutch, Van Exel was dropping the miracle shots.

But no one remembers that.

No one remembers because his temper, fade away stats, and personal instability are more prominent in the minds of many.

But, Nick, I’m here to remind everyone why you were super awesome.

I, fortunately, had the opportunity to see him play with the likes of Eddie Jones. I saw him play with Lindsey Hunter, and all the other Laker hoopsters who are retired, or surely on their way out.

I saw him play with a rookie Bryant, Elden Cambell, Byron Scott, Fisher, O’Neal, Travis Knight, and Corie Blount.

I saw him play against a loaded Chicago Bulls team.

And now, more than ever before, I’m able to pinpoint why the 6’1’’ hoodlum was such an iconic figure in my memory.

Van Exel’s childhood was not what one would expect for a basketball player. Grant it, his bold words and style of play were enough to question his childhood. But the idealized NBA professional more than likely didn’t have the upbringing this kid had.

At the age of 12, Van Exel was riding alongside his father in a hot-wired car. He was fending for himself after his father was jailed, and rarely saw his mother due to her overzealous efforts to provide for the young Nick.

Van Exel’s college career was quite impressive. He led the University of Cincinnati Bearcats to a Final Four appearance and became the university’s all-time leading scorer for most three-pointers made during his time.

And, he reportedly slept in his college gym to make ends meet. Some dedication.

When drafted to the NBA, Van Exel brought forth that aggression on the court. And he was reprimanded for it. Again. And again. And again.

But that wouldn’t deter my admiration for the basketball delinquent. His persistency and willingness to succeed drew me to admire him even more than the average 11-year-old girl’s admiration for the group N’Sync (who was very popular at the time, apparently).  

I remember one particular game, during the regular season, where Nick’s valiant efforts were serving to no avail. His shoulders slumped and he sulkily hung a towel over his head.

Naïve and impressionable, I grabbed my sneakers and headed outside to play basketball. I would not sulk with Nick. I would play for him.

In retrospect, it may have been an odd choice to follow such a troubled player when I was at such an impressionable age.

But his careless antics and fervor attempts to win remained with me, even as he traveled to Denver, Dallas, Golden State, Portland, and finally, his last stop, San Antonio.

So, while I remember watching him play in the 1998 NBA All-Star game, it’s not the reason he resonates within me.

It’s that fearlessness, the long-traveled journey and the dire need to accomplish something.

Nick, you're the reason I sported the No. 9 on my jersey. You're the reason for my cheesy email name. You're the reason I got angry when my team would lose. 

No Nick, you didn’t win the ring.

But you were the deepest Laker. The golden Nugget. The passionate Blazer. The lone Maverick. The fearless Warrior. The shiniest Spur.

Hell, you're Nick "the Quick" Van Exel. And don't you forget it.

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