An Inside Look at Nick Van Exel

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The scar?

The horizontal one below his lip. Nick Van Exel got that when he was about 16 and took his aunt’s car for a late-night drive. The next thing Wonda Tennant knew, the police were banging on her door around dawn with news of a crash.

Teenage Nick apparently fell asleep at the wheel, just before the big tree on the side of the road took the charge. He wasn’t going too fast, but the result still wasn’t pretty. His face was freckled with glass. There was a gash about an inch above his chin, the reminder of which is still visible. On the other hand, his body was still in much better shape than the car’s, so he promised to buy his aunt new wheels one day.

And, of course, she immediately began to hold her breath. Forget the millions that have come his way as point guard of the Lakers, a run that’s about to begin its fifth season. Back then, this guy who eventually would become known for his full-court press of an attitude didn’t even dare to dream beyond going to a college big enough so he could play on TV once.


The other scar? The origin of that one is a little more difficult to pin down. Second or third grade, he thinks. When Nick Van Exel Sr. walked out of his family’s life.

Having since worked himself into so many jams that it’s only a matter of time before he’s fingered for putting that iceberg in front of the Titanic, Van Exel, now about a month shy of his 26th birthday, thinks this is the root of his problems. He cannot say for sure, especially since others have come from equally painful circumstances without eventually going pro wrestler on a referee during a game, or refusing to enter a game after halftime, or getting in a shouting match with Coach Del Harris during the biggest game of the season, or accusing other referees after a tough loss of being on the take. Even if he later said he was kidding about that last one.

Van Exel made the tube, all right. Right where his own son could watch how not to behave, then call his dad on the cell phone the night Van Exel delivered the forearm shove to Ron Garretson in Denver, asking why he was “fighting” with the official.

Because of what happened 18 years ago, huh? Maybe it isn’t an excuse after all, since anyone close knows of the wall that has been built up, of the chip on his shoulder that is so big Evel Knievel in his prime wouldn’t have tried to jump it. This man is still wrestling with authority, to the point that he finally decided to seek counseling, and spoils his 7-year-old son, who lives outside Dallas, to such an extent that family members can’t help but wonder if it’s as much compensation as the love that is also obvious.

“You have to know how he grew up,” said Bob Huggins, his college coach at Cincinnati. “He does have a wall around him. But the people inside of that wall have the best friend they could have.”

Kenosha, Wis., offered a Midwestern background with just enough of an inner city to help form his edge. He never owned a basketball, and still hasn’t, not counting the time he walked off with one after practice at Cincinnati. His father was a memory, and his mother, Joyce Van Exel, worked the 3 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift on the assembly line at the car factory during most of his formative years. She was often around Nick for all of 20 minutes after he came home from school, just long enough to cook his favorite meal and talk as if the 24-second clock was about to expire.


“There’s a few ways I look at it,” he said. “It doesn’t help that I grew up like that because I really didn’t have a father figure in my life, a person who can sit there and tell me, ‘No, you’re not going to do this’ or ‘Yes, you’re going to do that.’ I never had that. I never had a guy who I had to take command from. I think that’s one of the reasons why I have a lot of problems with guys with authority over me. Like Del. I’ve had problems with Del. And me and Huggins used to argue a little bit.

“That’s the negative reasons. But a good reason is that it made me grow up a lot quicker, understand life. I probably don’t know everything about life, but I know a lot more than other kids do. Just being able to handle certain situations. Being able to come through.”

It helped to have family in the same city and friends who have grown to become the same. The Glass family lived a few blocks away, and Van Exel and Myron Glass became like brothers. They still are. He called Myron’s parents aunt and uncle.

This was not the strangest of roles for Walter Glass, a man given to concern about the emotional well-being of others anyway. Glass, when coaching his son’s basketball teams in youth leagues, always had the players pass to the scrub in the final minutes to make sure everyone scored. Van Exel simply became the one he unofficially adopted.

“This is the sad part,” Walter Glass said. “I remember his father, he used to promise to get Nick to come to Atlanta or come by and visit. But he never sent for him. I think that’s one thing that really stuck with him.”

All these years.

Nick Van Exel Sr. called again when his son was in high school (he led the state of Wisconsin in scoring as a senior), and then, finally, came in person during the Cincinnati years. That was about the time Van Exel learned of two half-sisters. Later, as a senior, someone called out of the blue and announced himself as another of his father’s sons, a half-brother, which proved to be true.


Suddenly, he had more family than he knew what to do with. He doesn’t have much of a relationship with the girls, both younger than 10 years old and living in Atlanta, and isn’t quite sure how to handle it because he can’t open up to them, but he still invites them when the Lakers play the Hawks. The visit this year is Dec. 19, so he wants to take them Christmas shopping. The half-brother lives in New York.

Through it all, Van Exel can’t escape the obvious as to why his father has tried to develop more of a relationship the last few years, a conversation every two or three months serving as the improvement. Because the son has money and fame.

“I don’t worry about it,” he said. “But I know that’s pretty much what it is.”

The disappointment has gone to good use. As Van Exel dedicates himself to becoming more involved in charities, instead of merely talking about it, work with single-parent families and disadvantaged youths has become the specific. Because he can relate.

Last summer, he spent a weekend of volunteer work in New York City with Covenant House, a shelter for people of all ages. On Friday night, shortly after arriving, he was in the van that drove around “looking for strays,” the runaways who needed housing. The next day, he played basketball with some of the people living there and talked with others. That someone would tell him no Knicks had even come by made the trip worthwhile in itself.

He talks of starting his own foundation. For now, he is involved in the work spearheaded by others, most prominently the National Benevolent Assn., a 110-year-old organization based in St. Louis. When the Lakers were there earlier this month for an exhibition game, Van Exel, having already become involved, visited two of the facilities, Olive Branch, a home for pregnant teenagers, and the Emergency Children’s Home.

Upon arrival, a little boy ran up to him, talking tough. In a considerable setback for his own reputation, Van Exel asked him why he had to have such a hard edge. The kid was sent to silence.


“Are you really Nick Van Exel?” he wondered upon gathering his footing again.

“Who are you really,” came the reply.

Van Exel dropped down to look the boy right in the eyes. The boy gave his name.

“That’s hard work sometimes,” the adult said.

As in, it’s hard to be yourself sometimes.

“That,” said Cindy Dougherty, president and CEO of the association, “was exactly what Nick was saying.”


The unpredictability?

It’s definitely there, and no one is safe, even those who don’t wear black and white stripes and make a call that goes against him. Those nearest and dearest to him. Friends. Family.

One minute, all is calm. Van Exel is relaxing, quiet. Someone falls asleep. Big mistake.

Van Exel goes for his video camera and a glass of water. He means to humiliate. He sneaks up, slowly waves his hand to make sure the victim is asleep, frames and focuses the shot, and finally tips the cup so that the water slowly spills. On impact, even if a few drops, the person will jump or scream or do whatever.

Some 40 such sorties have been recorded on film, a cassette he takes great pride in. It’s his specialty. Back in college, he would also light firecrackers in the showers. That one has yet to debut in the pros.

“Over there at the Lakers,” he said, “they’re so tense they’d probably think it was a bomb going off or somebody in there shooting.”

Just Nick, that card.

Not a bad guy, he wants people to know, despite what his on-court actions may have indicated.


Not a racist, he insists, as a hurtful and one-sided Sports Illustrated article implied through interviews with people who knew him back when.

“Heck no,” he said. “How can you be racist but supposedly have been with a white girl? How could you be racist? I don’t understand that?”

Or when his Aunt Wonda, the one who went into the rental-car business without realizing it, invites a stranger into her house and introduces you to her husband of 15 years. A white man.

“No, no, no,” Jeff Tennant said. “Geez, I’ve been with her 23 years, just about as long as Nick can remember. He’s always treated me fair.”

It seems Van Exel battles his image as often as he battles the SuperSonics or Rockets. So, at this advanced state of his career, when he has talked of the possibility of retiring when his contract expires after two more seasons, he wants to do something about that. He wants to be known as a good guy who plays under control and gets along with everybody.

You know, the same things he said a year ago.

“I said the same thing, but I didn’t go as deep into it last year,” he said. “This year, I went a little deeper into it, and I’ve been more dedicated to the things I’ve been doing. Like with all the charity things. I think this is a start for me because I hadn’t done much in the past few years. . . .


“Playing ball this summer, not even worrying about if a guy makes a call. Just, whatever. I’m doing that so good it’s unbelievable, as much as I want to argue out there on the court. . . . I just walk away from it. Just turn around and go to my man. Whoever makes the call, it’s a whatever.

“Do I care what people think about me? I care that I would like people to know Nick Van Exel the person. That Nick Van Exel on the court, that’s not me at all. That’s like my back side or whatever. I don’t like people to get that twisted.

“I think the Nick people should know about is not the person who’s real hyper, who has so much energy on the court. Off the court, I’m just a real laid-back person, like to keep back to myself. If I see people in public, I’ll speak, I’ll sign autographs and do this and that. But I don’t even like to do that much. That’s how normal I want to be.

“Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made a few mistakes, and I blame that all on myself. But me, the only time I get in trouble is on the basketball court, and for people to get that confused with the real Nick Van Exel--Nick the Quick, it’s a big difference. I hope people don’t get the two mixed up.”

Said Joyce Van Exel: “I can see he’s trying to make a change. He’s being more open. Before, he wasn’t.”

Nick the Considerate? A couple of years ago, when Cincinnati’s Final Four squad reunited to play the touring Russian national team in a charity game, he heard that one former Bearcat, by then working as a teacher in Milwaukee, couldn’t make it. Van Exel sent him a plane ticket.


Nick the Dependable? “I can tell you this,” Huggins said. “If somehow I was in dire straits and had one phone call to make, someone I knew I could trust to do whatever had to be done, I’d call him.”

Nick the Improving? “You know how Del likes to talk?” said Corie Blount, Van Exel’s teammate with the Lakers and Bearcats. “He stands there like everybody else and listens. Usually, he’d just walk away. He’s pretty focused. You can see it.”

Nick the Honest? The Tennants got their new car on Oct. 14, 1996.


The new attitude?

“It’s definitely new,” Van Exel said.

He chuckles.

“Definitely new.”

And, of course, still early.

“It’s going pretty good so far. I think it’s another start for me.”