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The origins of ‘1-2-3 Cancun!’, explained

One of the most infamous sayings around the NBA has its origins within the Lakers at the foundation of one of their best teams in franchise history.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Among the many enjoyable regular segments on NBA on TNT, “Gone Fishin’” ranks among the most popular. When seasons come to an end in the postseason or even if a franchise is eliminated from playoff contention, you can expect TNT to have a graphic with players photoshopped onto various vacation destinations.

The tradition stems at least partly from the sarcastic saying “1-2-3, Cancun!” that has lived within NBA circles for years. It’s a sardonic saying centered around the idea of NBA players taking vacations mainly to Cancun — at least many years ago — and how their focus shifts from the current season to what is happening after the season once it becomes evident their fate is all but sealed.

But did you know the origins of “1-2-3, Cancun!” involves a Lakers team that would go on to eventually become 3-peat champions?

Although the Lakers eventually became the dominant force and franchise in the early 2000s, they had to endure some soul-crushing beatdowns from the Utah Jazz in the late 1990s to get to that point. Both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons came to an end at the hands of the Jazz with the Lakers winning just once in their nine postseason meetings.

Those meetings are most commonly remembered for the Kobe Bryant airballs that helped shape his incredible journey to the top of the game, but they also spawned the infamous “1-2-3, Cancun!” chants.

As the latter of those two seasons was coming to an end, the Lakers were down 3-0 in the series to the Jazz and, moments before Game 4, guard Nick Van Exel hoped to lighten the mood a bit. As the team prepared to head out onto the court, the Lakers huddled, hands on top of one another ready for the ceremonial “1-2-3, Lakers!”

But Van Exel mixed things up, instead shouting Cancun at the end. In the years since, Van Exel has ensured it was simply a joke to lighten the mood, including in Howard Beck’s piece for Sports Illustrated in 2022.

“But I didn’t say it loud so that everybody could hear it,” Van Exel recalls. “I think it was only a few people that heard it. And they started laughing a little bit. And that was my point, was to loosen the bunch up. … I’m a jokester. I like to have fun, keep everybody loose.”

The problem was, while Van Exel claims he was being light-hearted, Shaq reportedly was not laughing and went to the front office to demand he be traded, according to an LA Times article a week after Van Exel was sent to the Nuggets for Tony Battie and the draft rights to Tyronn Lue.

Shaquille O’Neal, the captain, went to management with the story, exacting a vow from Jerry West that Van Exel would never again wear a Laker uniform.

In the years since Van Exel was dealt, Shaq downplays the situation, telling Beck and Sports Illustrated that it was “time to make changes” that led to the deal. Regardless of how involved Shaq was, the implication with a “1-2-3, Cancun!” chant is that you’re giving up on the team, something he (expectedly) pushed back on to the LA Times in 1999.

“I say things all the time as far as, ‘Well, this is my last game with you guys. See you again when I come in here with 40,’ just to keep guys loose and laughing,” Van Exel said recently.

“It’s just when things are going wrong, somebody says something wrong, especially me, it seems to be blown out of proportion and people get to finger-pointing.

“Everyone who was in that locker room with me knows I’d never give up on the team. But finger-pointing happens. I never meant anything wrong.”

As well-intentioned as Van Exel may have been, it was a joke that was bound to backfire and it’s no surprise the team used that as part of the reasoning to trade him.

Even if Van Exel lost his spot with the Lakers in some part to the joke, that didn’t stop it from entering the lexicon of the NBA. Coaches, players, media, and everyone else all have made reference to it at some point, like Alvin Gentry after his Pelicans bowed out of the playoffs in 2018.

So, next time you see a coach reference it in a postgame presser, TNT do their “Go Fishin’” segment or — heaven forbid — a player yell it during a huddle on the court, you can think back to Nick Van Exel and his role in inventing one of the funniest sayings in the NBA.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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