NBA: Nick Van Exel, Beyond The Glory
He's the wild card of basketball. Nick Van Exel has spent a lifetime fighting his own bad reputation. He grew up watching his father choose a life of crime. He nearly lost his mother to a shocking act of violence. He came out of nowhere to lead a team of castoffs to the Final Four. His explosive style brought the magic back to Hollywood, then he sabotaged his own career. But Nick Van Exel drove his way back to the top. Becoming a leader on the court, while learning to make peace with the demons from his past. This is Nick Van Exel,....Beyond the Glory!
A Whirling Dervish on the basketball court and an athlete who plays the game like a man on fire. But away from the court, there lives a very different Nick Van Exel. A quiet man admired for his friendship and generosity. Resolving the puzzle within himself has been the struggle of a lifetime for Van Exel, and the lesson that he's learned along the way have come at a price.
Nick Van Exel Jr. grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by the shores of Lake Michigan, an All-American city that make seams of postcard beauty with those of urban blight. Nick was the lone child of Joyce Van Exel and her husband Nick Sr., a former high school basketball star. As a kid, Nick tagged along to watch his dad hoopin' up at a local gym. But when the games were over, Nick watched his father turn from sports star to street criminal. When Nick was 7, his father was arrested and sent to prison. To pay the bills, his mom took a job at the local Chrysler plant, leaving Nick plenty of time to fend for himself. While Nick's father was in prison, his parents' marriage ended. When Nick Sr. was released a few years later, he left his family and moved from Wisconsin to Georgia. Years went by, then one day, Nick's dad called him on the phone and offered him a plane ticket to visit.
Though abandoned by his father, Nick inherited his (Nick Sr.) passion for basketball. He became a hot shot in Kenosha's small fry league. For Nick and his friends, Myron Glass and Curtis Turner, basketball was their bond and their brotherhood.
Nick's talent paid off when he was offered a scholarship to St. Joseph's high school in Kenosha. But when Nick got there, he felt out of place among affluent classmates. Uncomfortable in class, Nick was a poor student, but on the basketball court, he flourished under freshman coach Ray Knight, a hard-nosed taskmaster who believed in Nick and went the extra mile to prove it. Nick was becoming just that (great player). He led St. Joe's to the State Finals two years in a row, and become the second-leading scorer in Wisconsin's history. By the time Van Exel graduated from St. Joe's in 1989, he was an All-State star and a hot college prospect. After 17 years in Kenosha, Nick was ready to hit the road, where trouble would be waiting.
After leading his team to the high school State Finals, Nick Van Exel was the toast of Kenosha, Wisconsin. But poor grades kept him from enrolling at a four year college nearby, instead Nick journeyed to Trinity Valley Junior College, on the hard scrabble plains of Central Texas. But racial conflicts permeated Trinity Valley. On the court, the players fought opponents with a fury. When the games were over, they fought each other. Depressed and lonely, Nick called his mom and asked to come back home. Joyce told her son to tough it out.
Desperate to leave Trinity Valley, Van Exel hit the books, earning 32 credits in one semester to transfer to the University of Cincinnati. Arriving in May of 1991, he went to school all summer to qualify for a basketball scholarship. Making ends meet by sleeping in the gym. Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins was notoriously tough to play for, but when basketball season began, he and Nick discovered that they shared a fiercely competitive drive. Then they blasted through the NCAA tourney all the way to the Final Four.
Van Exel had come out of nowhere to put Cincy and himself on the map, but one night while watching a TV show about abandoned children, a ghost from his past returned to haunt him. Stunned to hear from his father after years of violence, Nick invited him to Cincinnati hoping to rebuild their relationship. But in the end, Nick says his own bitterness proved too strong to overcome. Instead, Van Exel challenged his emotions on the court. He led the Bearcats back into the NCAA tourney the next season and figured to be a top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft (1993).
But away from the friendly confines of Cincinnati, Nick began to display his resentment toward authority. At a workout in Seattle, he clashed with George Karl, then he skipped workouts in Charlotte twice. By draft day 1993, Van Exel's reputation was in free fall. On draft day, 28 NBA teams passed Van Exel by, but while others saw trouble, Lakers' GM Jerry West saw a diamond in the rough. Nick Van Exel was on his way to Hollywood, to begin a beautiful marriage, and an ugly divorce.
Nick Van Exel came to Los Angeles in 1993 to join a team whose fortunes were more dire than his own. Following Magic Johnson's retirement from AIDS two years earlier, the once proud Lakers were in disarray. For Van Exel, it was just the challenge he had been aching for. From the start, Van Exel electrified the Lakers. He scored a thousand points as a rookie and hit six threes in one game, and revived the spirit of Showtime in L.A.
By Van Exel's second season ('94-'95), he was the charismatic leader of a team on the rise guided by coach Del Harris. Ferocious in the clutch, Van Exel was at his best when the game was on the line. Van Exel drove the Lakers into the 1995 playoffs, led them to a first-round rout of Seattle, then hitting an astonishing game-winner in Round 2 to keep the Lakers' hopes alive. Van Exel's fearless style put the Lakers back on the map and earned the esteem of legendary Laker Jerry West.
Van Exel tried to return the favor. As the Lakers charged toward the playoffs in 1996, he and teammate Eddie Jones asked Magic Johnson to come out of retirement and rejoin the team. But instead of lifting the Lakers toward a title, Magic's return seemed to disrupt their chemistry. The Lakers began to flounder, and Nick found himself battling Magic for control of the team. As the Lakers stumbled, Nick's frustrations mounted. One fateful night, after drawing a technical foul from Ron Garretson, his anger boiled over. Van Exel's blowup was front page news, he was suspended for six games. The damage to his reputation would last longer.
After the season, Jerry West re-tooled the team. He made a trade for the rights to a high school guard named Kobe Bryant, then he landed the biggest catch of all, free agent center Shaquille O'Neal. Just like that, the Lakers went from underdogs to big dogs. With Shaq in the middle, Van Exel was no longer the free-wheeling floor leader of old. As the Lakers struggled to find their groove, tensions grew between Van Exel and the Lakers' mild-mannered coach Del Harris. In the 1997 playoffs against Utah, the Lakers fell short, as Van Exel argued with Harris in front of a national TV audience.
Things looked brighter when the Lakers got off to a hot start the next season ('97-'98), sending four players to the NBA All-Star game, including Van Exel. But Nick's fiery disposition kept him in hot water. The Lakers demolished Seattle and Portland in the first two rounds of the '98 playoffs to advance to the 1998 Western Conference Finals and a return match with the Utah Jazz. The end came fast and hard. Utah humiliated the Lakers with a four-game sweep. Nine days after the '97-'98 season ended, Nick was traded to the lowly Denver Nuggets. His days of running Showtime were over. Van Exel says he was resigned to the idea of a trade, but when it came without any advanced warning, it left a sour taste. Nick Van Exel's career was at a crossroads, soon he'd be facing a crisis of life and death.
After five years with the Los Angeles Lakers, Nick Van Exel was exiled to the Denver Nuggets, a terrible team desperate for a leader. At first, Nick threatened not to go, then he changed his mind. Van Exel answered the call. In the 1999-2000 season, he was a top-10 player in points and assists, turning the Nuggets into a team on the rise. In March of 2000, Denver general manager Dan Issel rewarded Van Exel for his efforts with a $71 million dollar deal. The NBA max.
By Nick's third season (2000-01) with Denver. Trades and injuries were tearing the team apart. When the 2001 playoffs began, Van Exel could only look on as his former team, the Lakers, marched to a second straight NBA title.
By the summer of 2001, Nick made his offseason home in Houston, Texas and was urging his mother to join him there. But Joyce Van Exel had been punching the clock at the Chrysler Plant for 28 years, even moving from Kenosha to Indianapolis to keep her job. Two years from retirement, she told Nick she wasn't gonna quit before her time.
On June 6, 2001, Joyce Van Exel was walking home from work when she was approached by a stranger and shot four times, at point-blank range. Nick rushed to catch a plane in Indianapolis, where his mother laid at a hospital fighting for her life. Nick arrived at the hospital to find his mother barely conscious, and with doctors fearing the worst. Despite bullet wounds in her chest and her face, Joyce Van Exel stunned everyone by surviving. She says that Nick's presence helped pull her through. The man who shot Joyce Van Exel was never found. Once Nick's mom grew strong enough to leave the hospital, Nick moved her from Indianapolis to Houston, and bought her a home near his own. Nick Van Exel's life had come full circle. His checkered reputation would soon come back to haunt him.
When Nick Van Exel began his fourth season ('01-'02) in the fall of 2001, he was discouraged about his future and bitter about his past. When Dallas assistant coach Del Harris began to shake hands after a game, Van Exel walked past him without a word. Facing another hopeless season with the Nuggets, Van Exel made no secret of his desire to be traded to a better team, but his public complaints and high salary made him all but impossible to move.
Just before the trade deadline in 2002, Van Exel learned that the high flying Dallas Mavericks were willing to make a trade to get him, but only on the recommendation of the Dallas coach who knew Nick best, Del Harris. In February of 2002, Dallas made the trade for Van Exel. For Van Exel, the trade to Dallas did more than salvage his career. He says that Del Harris' surprising display of loyalty changed his outlook on life. Nick was grateful to move to Dallas for another reason. 12 years earlier, he had fathered a son, Nick the third (Nick Van Exel III). But the relationship between Nick and the child's mother didn't last, father and son remained close. Now with Nick the Third growing up in a Dallas suburb, they were finally moving into the same town together.
Van Exel seems to have found his home on the court as well, he's an explosive sparkplug for a team that had set its sights on an NBA title. Friends say that Nick Van Exel has mellowed since coming to Dallas, and that his days of controversy may be a thing of the past. As to whether Nick will fully redeem his past, only time will tell.
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