Van Exel’s life shaped by personal tragedy, coaching quest "It was in his blood to make big shots, Outside of Kobe Bryant, he might have made as many big shots as anyone back then. You'd be surprised how many guys, even great ones, run from taking big shots. Nick never did" - Former Nuggets guard Chris Herren.
Van Exel’s life shaped by personal tragedy, coaching quest
Following Magic Johnson’s stunning retirement, the Lakers were desperate for a spark to reignite their depressed fan base. Enter: Nick Van Exel. With an array of NBA Jam-worthy moves, Nick the Quick catapulted the forum blue and gold back into NBA relevance, quickly becoming a fan favorite in the process. Nick’s outspoken nature on the court and Hollywood smile ushered in a new era of basketball in Los Angeles, while proving his naysayers wrong with every twisting turn to the hoop and soft mid-range floater. Van Exel was as accessible as any up-and-coming star in the league, regularly personifying the emotion inside of the Great Western Forum with his spectacular arsenal of aerial acrobatics, clutch shooting and tough-nosed nature. Nick was an arcade player for Lakers fans, responding to their whims, catching fire at any moment, surprising them with a dazzling drive to the basket when they least expected it.
Van Exel’s tenure in L.A. wasn’t always easygoing though, as he frequently found himself at the center of controversy—whether it be with Head Coach Del Harris, referees (how can we ever forget when he shoved referee Ron Garretson?) or his own teammates. Through it all, Lakers fans supported Nick with the type of fervor usually reserved for only superstar-level players. It’s that same level of passion that makes Van Exel one of the more popular Lakers players of the last two decades.
Van Exel wasn’t a perfect player and truth be told, his averages of 15 points and seven assists during his five years with the team hid his often questionable decision-making and wavering attitude. Despite his faults, the Cincinnati alum wore his heart on his sleeve every time he stepped foot on the court and was a much-needed stop-gap in the post-Showtime years leading up to his eventual trade to the Nuggets shortly after the arrival of the Shaq/Kobe tandem. While Van Exel didn’t get to take part in the Lakers budding dynasty, he’ll always be remembered fondly as one of the franchise’s most exciting entertainers.
Who Van Exel is today comes from mother Wednesday, July 28, 2004
You see Nick Van Exel. I see his mother, Joyce.
You see the newest Trail Blazers guard. I see a woman who worked the night shift for 28 years in an automobile plant.
You see a scorer. I see a single parent who had fried chicken and macaroni dinners ready when her son came home from school.
You see a man with soft hands. I see a woman who permitted her son to dribble a tennis ball, but not a basketball, when inside their two-bedroom apartment in Kenosha, Wis.
You see Nick Van Exel. I see his mother.
Together we see Van Exel, 9 years old, home alone one night.
We hear the apartment fire alarm. We smell the smoke. Later, we see a worried mother racing home from work after learning the apartment building had caught fire.
Then we hear Nick tell it:
"I had to climb out a window. That was one of my scary nights."
There were others. Sometimes Nick used to hear strange noises in their ground-floor apartment. Other times neighborhood kids -- his friends, even -- would rap on the windows, pretending they were burglars.
But Nick never called his mother at work to tell her he was frightened.
"She would have told me to get back to sleep," he says.
You see a man. I see a mother's reflection.
You see a kid who grew up without a father figure. I see a mother who became one.
You hear about the homesick teenager at his community college in Texas phoning home, sobbing. And I hear the mother who told him, "Go ahead, come home. But if you do, you'll spend the rest of your life working in an automobile plant."
Nick didn't come home.
"I listen to my mom," Nick said. "I don't swear around her, either. She don't go for no disrespect."
You see a basketball player known for taking big shots. I see a successful single mother, one of society's biggest play makers.
You see Nick become a father and promise to always be there. And I see his mother become a grandmother, one who knows what he means.
Later, you see Nick in Denver, signing a $77 million contract, then begging his mother to quit her factory job. But I see Joyce, who thanked him, and kept showing up for her shift.
"She wanted to have her own life," Nick said.
So, you see a stubborn son. I see a stubborn mother.
You see Nick, three years ago, driving a van through New York City at 6 a.m., inviting homeless teenagers to come play pickup basketball games. I see a mother who taught her son that kindness was currency.
You see a 1998 NBA All-Star. I see Joyce, a proud mother.
I see her coming home from work one night in July 2001. And I also see a young, slender African American man hiding in the shadows.
The man passes Joyce and says, "Hi." Then he fires a handgun. Five bullets rip through Joyce's body. She's shot twice in the jaw, twice in the chest and once in the leg.
A mother left bleeding on the sidewalk. No suspects. And, you should know, Case No. 1242638 eventually goes cold. But Joyce somehow survives.
So you see a tough basketball player. And I see a tougher mother, one who finally gave up that factory job and moved to Houston to live in a five-bedroom home her son bought.
It's near his own house.
"I'm so happy to be near my baby now," said Joyce, with two bullets forever lodged in her body.
So, you see Nick Van Exel, now 32. And I see his mother, now 50.
And you know, this is what I like most about the new guy.
Nick Van Exel: When you talk about someone who made a ton of impact in a relatively short amount of time as a Mav, NVE was absolutely ‘it'. When he caught fire, nothing could really compare. He was so-so in that first playoffs series loss to the Kings in 2002, but then was a complete ace-in-the-hole during the series against the very same team the year after. In my mind, the 40 points he put up in Sacramento in Game 3 of that series, stealing home-court right back for the Mavs, is quite possibly the greatest playoffs performance by a Mav ever, maybe behind Dirk's efforts in 2006 (Game 7 in San Antonio and the 50-point game against Phoenix, of course). I'll just spout clichés to describe it: fearless, badass, swagger. Airballs a three with under a minute left and down by two, isolates on Dallas' next possession and nails a floater in the lane to tie it up, then makes the go-ahead three in overtime. Incredible. Of course he'd end up being dealt to Golden State for Antawn Jamison in a move which was met with some mixed reactions at the time. Jamison was an impact scorer and NVE was getting up there in years, but it wasn't exactly an area of need, considering how Tim Duncan had made mincemeat out of the Mavs frontline during that series, and even so, the Spurs only just ended up winning.
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