DENVER — The emotions that have helped fuel Nick Van Exel's rise from unknown junior college player into a feared NBA point guard--though referees were not previously included among those who were supposed to be afraid--became his undoing Tuesday night. Maybe the Lakers' too.
Turning a relatively minor call into a major issue that should have even bigger repercussions, Van Exel blew up after getting ejected in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 98-91 loss to the Denver Nuggets and sent official Ron Garretson airborne and onto the scorer's table with a forearm shove. The league office will likely hit back today with a lengthy suspension and fine that comes just as the Lakers are in a tight race for homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
"First of all, it's not very smart," Magic Johnson said. "You can't do that, no matter how frustrated you are or what foul has happened. Not at any time in the course of the season, but especially not now. It's going to set us back."
What sent Van Exel into a rage that startled the Lakers and also left them angry about the inability of the team captain to control his emotions is unclear because he left without comment. After being ejected with 3:23 remaining, he later left the locker room during a timeout with 26.5 seconds to go, stopping at a door leading out of McNichols Arena until he saw reporters approaching. He then turned and boarded the team bus.
Making the incident more shocking was that it seemed to come from nowhere. Garretson--the son of the NBA's supervisor of officials--had just called a foul on Nugget Dale Ellis. The Lakers, down by 10 points, called a timeout. As Van Exel walked toward the bench, Garretson blew his whistle and called the first technical, a motion that was obvious enough to get a reaction from fans but apparently went unnoticed by Van Exel.
As he reached the huddle, Van Exel seemed to realize the call. He walked back toward midcourt, weaving through the Nugget cheerleaders about to begin a routine. He went to Garretson, heading for a drink of water, and the two walked toward the scorer's table. Van Exel continued to argue and finally was restrained by Rudy Garciduenas, the Laker equipment manager and the only person from the bench to attempt to intercede.
Van Exel started to return to the huddle, but appeared to turn his head and say something else to Garretson. That brought technical No. 2 and the ejection.
Van Exel broke free from Garciduenas' hold and, before Magic Johnson could get close enough to intercede, went back toward Garretson. That's when Van Exel made the contact, delivering a blow with the left arm that knocked the referee, about 5 feet 7, off his feet and onto the table, landing on his hip.
Garretson, looking stunned, started to come back at Van Exel and shouted at him, then stopped. Laker Coach Del Harris, immediately aware of the penalties that will follow, threw his arms in the air in exasperation.
"I turn away from him. He pushes me," Garretson told a pool reporter afterward. "I have no idea what part [of Van Exel made contact], at that time I was not paying attention to him.
"Instinctively, I started to do something that I think I quite possibly would regret and caught myself, and his players took him. And basically that was the whole entire incident. From my standpoint, I will go back to my boss and my boss' boss and the head of security and tell them specifically what was said, in the manner in which it was said. And whatever the league chooses to do from that point on in terms of [penalties], that's entirely up to my supervisors. And that's it."
Garretson would not be specific on why Van Exel got either technical, attributing them only to a pair of "unsportsmanlike" comments. But when asked whether he had provoked the incident by calling Van Exel a dirty word, as a ballboy claims Van Exel told him, the referee said:
"I'm not going to get into that. I'm not even going to get into a question and answer. I mean, we won't even go off the record because, well, that's not true. That's not true."
The next move belongs to Rod Thorn, the NBA's senior vice president in charge of basketball operations. Sometime today, with the Lakers 3 1/2 games ahead of the Rockets for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, he will announce the suspension and fine that could sideline Van Exel for the rest of the regular season.
That would be seven games, one more than Dennis Rodman got for head-butting official Ted Bernhardt on March 16. In Van Exel's favor is that Rodman's prior record was a factor in that penalty. Working against him is that league officials will want to discourage any further assaults on their referees.
"A long punishment, for the rest of us," is what Nugget center Dikembe Mutombo predicted. "They could say now maybe we did not get the message after the first one, Rodman."