On March 28 of this year, I covered a splendid college basketball game in the swamplands of New Jersey that sent the winner to the NCAA's Final Four and the loser home to sulk. The game was a definite doozy, not settled until the last minute of overtime and won by North Carolina, which went on to become national champion.
The leader for North Carolina was a calm-looking, hard-working young man named George Lynch, whose relentless rebounding brought the Tar Heels back from 15 points behind. Lynch lacked flash. He was an anonymous type who went about his business, then caused eyebrows to rise afterward when everyone looked at the box score and found 21 points, 14 rebounds and six steals, which happened to be Lynch's numbers in this particular game.
Lynch seemed a perfectly responsible player in the game and a perfectly lovely person after it.
As for the losing side, Cincinnati's leader was a cocky little character whose name alone, Nick Van Exel, sounded like something out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although he had established himself--and plainly thought of himself--as the team's supreme player, Van Exel two nights earlier had been benched by his coach after taking senseless shots, drawing a technical foul and yelling "Shut up!" to the fans from Virginia who razzed him.
You should have seen him against North Carolina. With a hair-trigger on his shooting finger, Van Exel by halftime alone had fired off 10 three-point shots. He made six of them. Cincinnati was ahead, 29-14, and well on its way to a Final Four date with Kansas. Van Exel even gave one of those Michael Jordan-like "I can't miss" shrugs to the scorer's table as he ran by.
Then came the second half. Van Exel took 10 more shots. He made one. North Carolina changed defenders, putting Derrick Phelps on him, and made Van Exel vanish. After scoring 21 points before halftime, he ended the overtime period and packed up for home with 23.
"His defense didn't bother me," Van Exel said, obnoxious to the very end. "Nobody's defense bothers me."
This game was to be the last stop either for George Lynch or Nick Van Exel on their way to the NBA. For all their contributions to their respective schools, for all their fame on campus, the only thing that seemed likely at this point in time was that Lynch, as something of a rock-steady role player, would be lucky to be claimed very early in the NBA draft, while Van Exel, as a lightning bug reminiscent of Kenny Anderson, would probably be near the top of many lists.
They both became Lakers this week. But whereas Lynch was the 12th choice of the entire draft, Van Exel was still there hanging, a plum yet plucked, when the Lakers' next turn came around, 37th.
I can't say that I would have been terribly eager to have Van Exel play for my basketball team, but I will say this: I'm not sure the last time I saw someone with this much talent last this long in a draft. Had I been drafting 37th and seen Van Exel's name not yet crossed off, I would have sat there rubbing my eyes in disbelief. This kid might be a pain, but he can play.
Jerry West, who did the picking for the Lakers, was one of many who thought the 6-foot-1 point guard had enough talent to go among the top dozen in the draft. The Lakers, who chose 12th, had "worked him out and considered him maybe a 12," West acknowledged. And unless he meant 12 was his shoe size, I think he meant Van Exel had first-round skills.
Van Exel was one of college basketball's bright stars last season when nobody I know outside of Mississippi had ever heard of Lindsey Hunter. I was blissfully ignorant of this hotshot from Jackson State until a few weeks ago, when people suddenly began raving about his play at an audition campsite and how he once scored 48 points against Kansas. Until then, Van Exel was my idea of a shooting star.
I guess he shot himself in the foot. They tell me Van Exel was as irresponsible as ever, even missing airline connections to recent NBA appointments. So maybe his future is the CBA. Or maybe, just maybe, the Lakers stole themselves a great player Wednesday, a wild bronco who simply needs to be roped.
In that same game last March, there was another player on the floor, Corie Blount, who was as steady for Cincinnati as Lynch had been for North Carolina. The odds on Blount being drafted ahead of Van Exel seemed long, and when he became a Chicago Bull this week, even Blount said: "I could have seen me going in the second round."
But he didn't. The kid from Monrovia impressed NBA people with his attitude as much as his play. He was so modest that after being drafted by the three-time champions, Blount said: "I've seen these guys all these years on TV and wondered how they do the things they do. I see the moves they make and think: 'There's no way I could stop them.' But I'm going to try."
Van Exel needs to learn humility from his teammates, new (Lynch) and old (Blount). No more of this: "Nobody's defense bothers me." He still may be an NBA player. But the Lakers did have their priorities perfect in this draft's two rounds--first take the class, then take the sass.