Famous Last Words

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yeah, he said it.

As a joke, Nick Van Exel insists. To get the guys laughing at a tough time. And he was misunderstood, he says now, not for the first, but for the worst and last time as a Laker.

Van Exel said and did a lot of dead-serious things as a Laker, some wild, suspension-provoking things, and this is what he’s going to be remembered for?

“1-2-3 . . . Cancun!”

It was a cold, cold time for the Lakers. They were trailing Utah badly in the Western Conference finals--on their way to being swept--and at the end of practice, Van Exel joked about retreating to somewhere warm and sandy while his teammates chanted a rallying cry.

Maybe it was especially funny to Van Exel because Jerry West was always telling him that if he wanted to leave the Lakers, West would gladly trade him someplace cold and bad, “like Vancouver,” Van Exel recalled.

But to a few Lakers--Shaquille O’Neal reportedly at the top of the list--Van Exel’s flippancy came across as an unmistakable signal that he had jumped ship.

So Van Exel is in Denver now--one of the key pieces of the remodeled Nuggets--and set to face the Lakers tonight for the first time since his draft-day trade.

“And, you know,” said his friend and former teammate, Eddie Jones, “he’s getting ready to try to kill us.”

If certain Lakers don’t understand that his Cancun chant was a poorly timed attempt at gallows humor, then Van Exel says it was simply the last misunderstanding of his misunderstood Laker career.

“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.”

Van Exel always did know how to light a fire as a Laker, didn’t he? He just never knew how to avoid torching himself in the process.

*

In Denver, Van Exel, as he was in his first three seasons--pre-Shaq--with the Lakers, is the unquestioned leader, the point guard who was the key reason prime free-agent forward Antonio McDyess shocked the league by signing with the Nuggets.

But the turnaround will not be immediate. Through the first three games, all losses, Van Exel is averaging 14.7 points and seven assists, making only 34.8% of his shots.

Van Exel, who wore No. 9 with the Lakers, has switched back to his college number, 31, with the Nuggets.

“I want to forget about ol’ No. 9 and get all those past things out of my system,” he said amiably.

But right now, so close to the burning issue, there are still some things he does not mind discussing about the Lakers and his departure.

Perhaps surprisingly, the rawest comments were directed not at Coach Del Harris, with whom he had a public and very troubled association for years, but at West, the Laker executive vice president who publicly defended Van Exel through so many controversies.

After trading Van Exel--for the rights to Tyronn Lue and Tony Battie, who was subsequently traded to Boston for Travis Knight--West said it hurt him that Van Exel would not return his calls in the days before the trade.

“I don’t remember him trying to get ahold of me,” Van Exel said. “I think that’s just something to tell the media so he can look good in media. I’m not hard to get ahold of. . . . You page me, I always returned their pages.

“You would think somebody could just wish you well. But I never received a phone call. [Last week] I received a fax from Jerry wishing me well, but it really didn’t mean anything.”

More than anybody, Van Exel says, West, the man who drafted him in the second round after other general managers feared his attitude, should know that he was no quitter.

When Van Exel came back from knee problems late in the season, asking that Derek Fisher stay in the starting lineup, some Lakers figured that Van Exel was already distancing himself from the team, almost forcing a trade.

In the playoffs, Van Exel was ineffective, shooting only 33.1% and averaging 11.6 points.

“Well, I’m sure they’re going to look at it as far as trying to get me out of there, blame it on me as excuse,” Van Exel said. “Derek, throughout the season, his confidence was going up and down, up and down.

“So I figured if he was starting, his confidence would be up. . . . I’m always going to have confidence. I guess they didn’t see it that way. I guess they felt I was giving up.”

Van Exel said he knew the Lakers were going to blame him, then trade him. The deal was no surprise.

“Didn’t hurt me,” he said. “It’s just going to make me stronger--it’s opening up doors for me. See, knowing you’re going to get pimped, you have a better sense of it when it happens. You feel better.

“You get pimped and you don’t know it, that’s when it hurts. . . .

“Oh yeah, of course, when it was all said and done I was the guy who, quote, gave up on, unquote, the team, didn’t really want to win.

“The players who were on the team my first two years know what type of player I am. Jerry West knows. Yet he’s making comments to people that I gave up on them. Once a person like that says that, everybody else feeds off it.”

Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who made the key phone calls to Denver before the trade, said it was time for both parties to move on.

“Our relationship with Nick had always been a good relationship; he performed well for us,” said Kupchak, who also points out the Lakers wouldn’t have made the deal unless they were intrigued by Lue and Battie. “But he never seemed quite happy. At the time, it just seemed like the thing to do. . . .

“Another year had gone by and Nick still wasn’t happy. Just seemed to be a lot of the same lingering problems that we both had.”

After so many bitter moments with Harris, Van Exel is surprisingly unemotional about him now, taking on the same flat mood that characterized the last season of their relationship--outwardly fine, but cool.

The heat came up during the 1997 playoff loss to Utah, when Van Exel refused to go to the sideline to talk to Harris early in Game 4, was immediately yanked from the game, and later said he probably could no longer coexist with his coach.

Though there were no explosions last season, Van Exel said, the rift never was fixed.

“I think internally it wasn’t good,” Van Exel said. “That was probably what was killing both of us. . . . I think internally we both still sort of felt that Utah series. . . .

“I spoke my mind too much. Really, that was the boiling point. I competed too hard and let my emotions get the best of me, sometimes.”

So it was a choice of either him or Harris?

“Did it come down to that? I’m sure it did, Del and myself,” Van Exel said. “If they don’t win a championship this year, I wonder who they’re going to blame it on.”

There are no championships ahead for Van Exel, at least for the next several seasons while the Nuggets rebuild. Although he is a free agent at the end of the season, he says that he is committed to Denver, especially after spending the off-season persuading McDyess to sign.

“When you get a guy like Antonio, when you beg him and you become good friends with him and he comes to your team, why would I leave?” Van Exel said.

“That would be like management saying it and not having the loyalty. . . . For me to up and leave, that wouldn’t be right for him. I would rather keep losing than do that. I wouldn’t abandon him like that. . . . I’m not that type of person.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Nick Knacks

New Nugget Nick Van Exel played five seasons for the Lakers after being drafted in the second round (37th pick overall) of the 1993 draft:

*--*

Year FG% APG PPG 1993-94 .394 5.8 13.6 1994-95 .420 8.3 16.9 1995-96 .417 6.9 14.9 1996-97 .402 8.5 15.3 1997-98 .419 6.9 13.8 Totals .410 7.3 14.9

*--*

Tonight

Lakers at Denver

6, Channel 9

NBA Notes: Sprewell to miss three to six weeks because of a hell injury. page 7