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He'll Gladly State His Case : Lakers' Van Exel Proves That He Is More Than Talk

January 11, 1994|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he went to Seattle early last summer for a pre-draft workout with the SuperSonics, point guard Nick Van Exel of the University of Cincinnati, a projected first-round pick, was told to start at the baseline and run to the far free-throw line six times.

He jogged the first one. George Karl, the SuperSonics' coach, told Van Exel he could do better than that. Coach, Van Exel replied, my next one is a cool-down.

"And I did the exact same thing, the same way," Van Exel said. "He came over, kind of chewed me out a little bit, and that was it."

Van Exel figured there was no point in going all out because the SuperSonics were already loaded at point guard and wouldn't draft him. He would try hard for somebody else. And so, when it came time for the 23rd pick, Seattle grabbed 6-foot-11 Ervin Johnson.

Came the second round and Van Exel, surprisingly, was still available. So who was frantically trying to move up for another quick selection, jostling for position with several other teams who had a similar move in mind, hoping for the same draft-day steal that the Lakers would eventually get at No. 37?

George Karl and the SuperSonics.

Few things better illustrate the case of Van Exel, who some think is a case, period. Here was a 22-year-old, who had shot all of 38.6% as a senior, telling an NBA coach where to get off--and that coach still wanted him.

"We saw an individualist," said Karl, who already had more than his share with the SuperSonics. "But we also saw a winner. There's that thin line."

THE INDIVIDUALIST

Van Exel has two diagonal marks shaved in his eyebrows, something he started in ninth or 10th grade while growing up in Kenosha, Wis. Last spring, friends wanted him to go and watch the draft in person in Auburn Hills, Mich., where all the action was that day, but he chose to stay in Cincinnati and have 15 or so friends over for a party. By the time Laker General Manager Jerry West called to say they were going to take him, Van Exel was drunk.

And then there is his attitude, the one that earned him the nickname Nick Van Smack from Jim Rome of XTRA radio and ESPN2.

A taunting, erratic-shooting, flight-missing, take-that bravado.

"When I'm not talking, (and) just going through the motions, that's when I'm not having fun," Van Exel said. "But when I'm out there talking, to other teams and my players, that's when I'm having fun."

He was five games into his first exhibition season when he was taunting Gary Payton. He mouthed off to the Suns in the regular-season opener. And when a Laker threw down a slam in the face of some Trail Blazer a few games later, Van Exel shouted, "Way to dunk on his gluteus maximus"--or something to that effect. Portland's Clifford Robinson fired back, "You gotta get some game or something before you come here talking."

But the swagger never stops. When agent Tony Dutt said he could get a two- or three-year deal last summer, the ultra-confident Van Exel told Dutt to instead take one season at the league minimum of $150,000. Then he could become a restricted free agent next summer, when they could get a new contract from the Lakers at first-round money.

So when the ultra-competitive Van Exel starts to have his playing time cut, to the point that he is averaging 22.5 minutes the last six games and hasn't exceeded 30 in three weeks, and he begins to get frustrated, it's hard to hide that, too.

"Right now, I'm not having much fun out there playing," he said. " . . . I don't know what I can put the blame on. I'm just going to have to go out there and get into my old ways, but right now it's hard because we're losing and my minutes kind of went down."

One more thing about Van Exel--his image:

It's only half true.

Off the court, he is quiet and unassuming, happy to stay home and watch television, preferably sports. Even before games, not long before transforming into the motor mouth looking for an on-ramp, he is nervous during chalk talks as the Laker coaches go over final scouting reports. He hates that time.

Could it be that he is really covering feelings of being nervous and insecure?

"Sometimes," Van Exel said during a quiet moment, "I think it is."

THE WINNER

He couldn't even get noticed in Kenosha by the nearby big school, Marquette, and got only two letters from Wisconsin.

Instead of signing with Ball State or Kent or some other smaller school, Van Exel went to junior college, hoping to build his stock for one of the major schools. He chose Trinity Valley Community College in Texas, lured by the chance to play with another recruit, Shawn Kemp. A week later, Kemp declared for the NBA draft and Van Exel endured two years of what he called "the worst experience of my life."

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