Editor’s Note: For as long as the NBA season is stopped, we’ll be taking a look back at players from Lakers history that we can’t stop thinking about. Today, we remember Nick Van Exel.
Nick Van Exel is probably better known at this point for his love of iced coffee, but once upon a time well before Twitter, he was one of the league’s most exciting point guards with an extremely cool nickname and a playing style that was quite simply ahead of its time.
Nick The Quick, as dubbed by Chick Hearn, was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 37th pick in 1993 out of the University of Cincinnati. Jerry West knew his point guards. Van Exel and Eddie Jones would make for one of the most fun backcourts in Lakers history, even if those teams never really had a shot at winning a championship until Shaquille O’Neal showed up.
Van Exel was only a Laker for five seasons, but made the All-Star team in that final year when he joined O’Neal, Jones and some kid name Kobe in the game. He went on to play 15 NBA seasons with five total franchises. For an early second-round pick, that’s a pretty tremendous career.
Maybe the most incredible accomplishment of Van Exel’s career, however, was somehow making a Del Harris team fun. Everyone involved in pulling that off should be in the Hall of Fame, in my not at all bitter opinion.
As fun as Quick was given the era he played in, his shooting ability and green-light approach to basketball probably was a little ahead of his time. Van Exel shot 35.7% on almost 5 attempts per game from three. In this era, both those numbers could have gone up given the focus on shooting ability and the number of threes taken on a nightly basis.
More importantly than any of that, though, was his signature celebration. Look upon it now, in all its majesty:
Somewhere, tucked away in my parents’ library of home videos, is a clip of a 11-year-old Anthony Irwin running down the court throwing wild punches in an homage to his favorite player.
Van Exel was, quite unfortunately, the starting point of the Lakers’ history of inexplicably trading flashy left-handed point guards. In ‘98, he was sent to Denver for Tony Battie and Tyronn Lue.
Between that and his voluntarily surrendering of his starting spot to Derek Fisher (not sure how that was taken negatively, but okay), Van Exel’s time had run its course with the Lakers. That’s just how it goes, unfortunately.
A couple years later, the Lakers would trade Jones and others for Glen Rice, fire Harris, hire Phil Jackson, and launch themselves into the three-peat era. But that stretch in the mid-’90s was some of the most fun the Lakers have ever been, and that was mostly in part due to Van Exel’s free-wheeling play and thrill at bombing from just about anywhere.
If Van Exel’s low-point was that practice huddle and his eventual trade, then his high-point fairly easily eclipsed it. In the final game between the Lakers and Celtics in the old Boston Garden, he caught the ball with 2.4 seconds left in the game and was completely swallowed up by a double team. He turned, faded away, and launched a prayer of a shot.
“It’ll count if it goes... AND IT WENT. IT WENT!” shouted Hearn.
And just like that, the Lakers, who were so historically tortured in that building, closed it up by celebrating over a dejected Boston team.
Once gain, Van Exel made Harris look cool despite an offense completely lacking in any creativity whatsoever. Just an incredible accomplishment, and part of why even if he never won a title, he’ll always be someone longtime Lakers fans have a soft spot for.
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