You See What You See

Hi, I'm Eric Nusbaum. I write a baseball blog called Pitchers & Poets with my friend Ted, and sometimes other friends. I've also written for Slate and been an anthology, one time each.

Forgive me. I'm primarily a baseball writer and as such I can't help but turning to childhood memories and nostalgia. It's a reflex. It can also be a coping mechanism. I can be wrong about basketball statistics or strategy or the finer points of its history. But if I'm wrong about myself, then at least you can't prove it.

For example: I was born in 1986 in Los Angeles. I was a sports-obsessed kid. I never cared about Michael Jordan.

Instead, I loved Nick Van Exel. When I shot hoops at the park, Van Exel was the player I pretended to be. This was true from his debut in 1993 until his departure from the Lakers in 1998. My interest may have lingered into one or two of Van Exel's Denver seasons. I don't remember.

Michael Jordan did not belong to me. He was a grimacing bald villain who wore villainous colors and played in a villainous distant city. He was an East Coast player, an Eastern Conference player. In my imagination, East Coast and Eastern Conference belonged to the same amorphous and distant reality. It was cold there and it had nothing to do with Showtime, which was what basketball was supposed to be, and in the mid-1990s, what Los Angeles still wanted it to be.

I grew up in the aftermath of Showtime. We were aware of it, my friends and I, but we only knew Showtime as some inexplicable ideal that the adults of the world placed firmly in the past. Showtime was shadows. It was a mystery. At one point, I must have thought Showtime was a person. Then I thought all fast-breaks were Showtime.

Michael Jordan was fodder for the unimaginative half of the playground. He was too easy to like, too easy to worship. It was too easy to stick out your tongue. Jordan was a brand. He was a constant. And he bored me. I realize now how absurd it is to write that. But what's so interesting about greatness? Why settle for distant beauty when there's something surprising and dynamic and kinetic happening just down the street at the Great Western Forum and on TV every night?

When I started writing this I didn't remember much about Nick Van Exel. I remembered that his nickname was Nick the Quick. I remembered that he feuded with Del Harris and that I never liked Del Harris after that. I remembered Eddie Jones, because Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones were like the Batman and Batman of those Laker teams. I did not remember how exciting he was to watch. Or that he once shoved a referee. I don't think I ever knew that he was from Kenosha, Wisconsin, that he played one season at a community college in Texas, that his first name Nick is short for Nickey, not Nicholas.

Take fifteen minutes to watch him on YouTube. You'll see him passing up a wide open Vlade Divac for a transition three. You'll see him throwing half-court alley-oop lobs to Shaq. You'll see him putting Kenny Smith on the floor with a spin move and then popping a mid-range jumper. Nick Van Exel spun circles – not around anybody necessarily, just in general.

But maybe that wasn't the only thing that drew me to Van Exel. His name was fun to say and his superfluous point guard stylings were easier to emulate than soaring slam dunks. His game was joyous, zealous even. He shadow-boxed after big shots. He took his free throws from a few steps behind the free throw line – the kind of quirk that doesn't have to make sense because in sports things don't have to make sense.Nick Van Exel smiled when he hit big shots.

Van Exel was a second round draft pick. Character concerns. But I didn't know that until I wrote this story. He behaved like a first round pick. He acted like he belonged not just on the court, not just with the ball in his hands and the game on the line, but on SportsCenter in perpetuity. And this was before you were supposed to act like that. I was a child. I knew nothing of questionable decision making. I knew nothing of efficiency. I knew nothing of his draft position. But it didn't matter to me.

At first, they didn't matter to Jerry West either. “I thought we had found a player who was going to be there for ten or fifteen years,” he says in Van Exel's Beyond the Glory Episode (available on Youtube.) “I rooted for him so much because I saw the rough edges going away.” The truth is, I saw the edges but not as rough. I saw them as dynamic. People talked about Van Exel. He merited opinions. He was a lot like my favorite Dodger player at the time, Raul Mondesi.

Raul Mondesi's career mirrored Nick Van Exels. He broke in at the same time, winning the 1994 Rookie of the Year Award. He swung at every pitch. He butted heads with managers. He showed off. There was a tattoo of a cannon on his right bicep, and sometimes between innings after he finished playing catch with a ball boy, Mondesi would toss a ball into the crowd and then show off the cannon. His arm was volatile. In the same way that Nick Van Exel might throw the occasional unnecessary no-look pass, Raul Mondesi would take the occasional unnecessary headfirst dive. Van Exel was traded after the 1998 season. Mondesi after the 1999 season.

Do the players we are drawn to as ignorant children say something about the kinds of fans we will become as less ignorant adults? I didn't know any better when I decided that Nick Van Exel was my favorite basketball player or that Raul Mondesi was my favorite baseball player – if it was even a decision at all. They weren't my favorites because they were the best – they weren't even the best players on their teams. But they were local and they were compelling. . I was just a kid in LA in the 90s seeking something exciting.

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At 3/31/2011 12:25 PM, Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

This is great. I've thought for a couple years that in some ways Nick Van Exel would be the perfect guy to profile to get to the bottom of that weird NBA epoch. He did everything--was the best player on good teams (LA) and bad (Denver), starter, All-Star, off-the-bench weapon (Dallas), cagey veteran, ref-shoving nutjob... You can't quite call him a journeyman, because he was too good a player, but he sure did get around.

At 3/31/2011 11:08 PM, Blogger Tom Deal said...

replace "michael jordan" and "nick van exel" with any pap player and any awesome dude respectively, and you basically have my mission statement as a fan of basketball.

At 4/01/2011 1:07 AM, Blogger EricNus said...

In one sense, it didn't have to be Van Exel. Tom, you're right about the general nature of it. But in another, it kind of has to be. Because Van Exel kind of IS that everything everyman awesome dude.

At 4/01/2011 12:00 PM, Blogger roadkiller said...

I grew up in southern California a little before you, witnessed the Showtime teams first-hand, and remain a diehard Lakers fan to this day. Still, when people ask who my favorite all-time Laker players are, I always include Van Exel on my short list. Those 90s teams didn't win the way I was used to, but Van Exel made the games fun. The rumor was that Shaq wanted Van Exel traded after the 1998 season because he chanted "1, 2, 3, Cancun" instead of "1, 2, 3, Team" at practice during the playoffs, but I wasn't happy with the team or with Shaq when we got rid of him for far less than he was worth. Also, I'm surprised the video you linked didn't feature the last shot ever taken by a Laker at the old Boston Garden: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pV1YZoUGO7c I'll never forget watching that game and hysterically calling my brother afterward to discuss Van Exel's greatness. Great post!

At 4/01/2011 11:11 PM, Blogger Don said...

I'm from Cincinnati and watched a lot of Bearcats games growing up. Van Exel was a bit of a legend in my family because of his arguments with Bob Huggins.

At 4/02/2011 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Celts fan I was super jealous of those Lakes teams. Not because of their win-lose record but due to their swag. Van Exel was brash, creative, and so engaging.

Anyone see a link between Van Exel and Monte Ellis?

At 4/02/2011 8:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Piece! As a life long Laker apologist, with an unexplainable appreciation for character flawed athletes (Pedro Guerrero), I understand your childhood fascination for Mr. Van Exel. I started the Isiah Rider fan club, and am currently working on something for Matt Barnes!

At 4/03/2011 10:28 PM, Blogger David Murphy said...

I don't know if the players we're drawn to as kids say anything about who we're drawn to as adults. It could be. We're drawn to so many things when we're young. Dirt, bugs, ocean, candy, homemade carts that splinter when we crash. One of the first players I was drawn to was Lew Elcindor with the Bucks. My dad called me downstairs to watch him on the old b&w Zenith... he was impossibly long and languid, popping gum, afro swaying, making shots that I thought were impossible. He was different from the player he later became. I don't think watching him influenced my later appreciation for Slava Medvedenko. Maybe I could blame all the acid I wound up taking as a teenager? Van Exel was definitely cool.

miscultured - Isiah Rider fan club - major props!

At 4/04/2011 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude, this brings back memories. I'll always be a die hard knick fan, but i rooted hard for the mid 90s lakers because of the campbells Tony and elden, peeler, van exel, Lloyd Daniels, teague etc. and of course now I hate the lakers especially after living in LA from 07-10.
Anyway, my dad and his entire family is from Arkansas, and I got to enjoy the 93 elite 8 and sweet 16 with him at the meadowlands, when Arkansas lost to UNC in the elite 8. The prior game was UNC-Cincinatti, and Nick put up something like 31 in the first half. He was absolutely reigning on donald Williams IIRC, that they ended up wticking George lynch on him in the 2nd half of the game. Nick only ended up scoring 3 in the 2nd half I think, as we all know Lynch ended becoming a Bruce Bowen type in the pros thanks to being able to shut down nearly anybody he guarded. Ever since that point though, I always rooted for Nick and I loved when he was a nugget as I lived in Colorado for a couple years in my younger days and have always rooted for the nugs especially the laphonso Ellis Chris Jackson mutombo team. All in all, fun story.

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At 4/08/2011 4:26 PM, Blogger Dominic said...

Thanks for the post, brings back some great memories as do the comments (I was thinking about Van Exel's shot in the Garden too!). You have to add that he was clutch. I remember him against the Spurs in the conference semifinals in 1995 hitting a three to send it to overtime, then hitting a game-winning three in OT. Van Exel was sure fun to watch. Great comparing him Mondesi. Some athletes just have an aura for local fans that draws you to them.

At 4/09/2011 5:27 PM, Blogger CoolWhip11 said...

Love it. I've been wanting to write a Van Exel piece for about 5 years now. Just always loved the guy. Loved when he hit huge shots and did the reverse 'raise the roof' gesture. I see parallels with him and Timmy Hardaway. I also loved Hornicek for the same reason, dude just flat-out balled (but obviously didn't have the swagger).

At 4/19/2011 6:54 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

R U serious? Horacek had swag on a hunnid. Remember how he would do that weird thing where he's touch his face (as a shout-out to his kids) before shooting a FT? That is "untentio" (WV) swagged out.

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At 9/19/2011 5:51 PM, Blogger -N said...

This post could have come from the recesses of my mind. I felt the same way about Van Exel, just like many of the posters here have stated. I'm a diehard Lakers fan, and as another poster stated, he cracks my top 5 all time favorite Lakers - just for the sheer fun and joy he brought while playing the game, which translated so well while you were watching the game.

Nick was fearless and feisty, and didn't give a f***. I think that's why we all liked him.

The Holy Trinity of the pre-Shaq/Kobe era Lakers teams was Nick Van Exel, Cedric Ceballos and Eddie Jones. This team frustrated every year in the playoffs, but boy they were so much fun to watch. Those teams of the 90s made me fall in love with the Lakers and shaped me into the diehard fan that I am today.

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