Nick Van Exel wants this clear: He never quit on his team, never meant to imply it and never meant to offend anyone. He surely never intended to launch a meme—mostly because, well, no one in 1998 knew what a “meme” was when Van Exel blurted out his wry rallying cry:
“One, two, three … Cancun!”
“It just popped in my head,” Van Exel says now, chuckling over this odd little origin story. “It wasn’t like it was scripted.”
It won’t technically be in the script Tuesday night, either, when TNT’s Inside the NBA broadcasts what could be its final show of the 2022 playoffs. But if the Warriors complete their sweep of the Mavericks, you can bet someone—Shaq, Kenny or Chuck—will send Luka Dončić & Co. into the summer with a cheeky, ubiquitous refrain:
“One, two, three … Cancun!”
And Van Exel, watching from his own vacation, will sit back, smile and shake his head.
“I probably should have trademarked that thing,” says Van Exel, now an assistant coach with the Hawks.
If you watch the NBA playoffs, you know the bit: A team gets eliminated, and it becomes instant fodder for the “Gone Fishin’” segment—with players and coaches magically transported onto yachts, beaches, piers and the occasional banana boat. Hilarity ensues. Oh, does it ensue.
And then, invariably, someone will shout out Cancun, the vacation hot spot on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Always Cancun. Not Maldives or Mykonos, not Aruba or Fiji or Zanzibar. Nope, just Cancun. And that’s because of Van Exel.
It’s because during the 1998 Western Conference finals, the Lakers—then built around a young Shaquille O’Neal (26) and an even younger Kobe Bryant (19)—were, for the second straight spring, getting absolutely destroyed by the Jazz, a veteran-laden powerhouse led by Karl Malone and John Stockton.
The Lakers were flashier and more talented, with Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher flanking O’Neal and Bryant. But the Jazz were more mature and methodical and ultimately overpowering.
“We were young,” Van Exel says. “We had guys that wanted to get their points and do their thing, as opposed to going out there and winning as a group.”
The series was heading for a sweep, and everyone knew it.
The mood at the Great Western Forum was dour as the Lakers huddled up in a back hallway before running out for Game 4. “One, two, three … Lakers!” they all bellowed to break the huddle. Except for one mischievous voice: “One, two, three … Cancun!”
“But I didn’t say it loud so that everybody could hear it,” Van Exel recalls. “I think it was only a few people that heard it. And they started laughing a little bit. And that was my point, was to loosen the bunch up. … I'm a jokester. I like to have fun, keep everybody loose.”
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Van Exel was 26 at the time, a five-year vet. His voice mattered, in good times and bad. He’d tried on other occasions to rally the Lakers with impassioned speeches—“I would get emotional; I started crying and s---,” he recalls. “And of course, the s--- didn’t work. But that was my job.”
Anyway, in this instance the battle was already lost. No NBA team had ever come back from a 3–0 deficit (nor has any team since then).
“It was just a funky mood,” Van Exel says. “And I don’t think anybody that was in that huddle really had confidence that we were gonna come back and win the series.”
No, they would all soon be on vacation. A little tropical-themed joke seemed fitting, at least to Van Exel. But perhaps not to everyone.
A month later, the Lakers traded Van Exel to the Nuggets for veteran Tony Battie and the draft rights to Tyronn Lue. A week after that, the Los Angeles Times, in an unsourced item, reported for the first time on the “Cancun” quip—and indicated that O’Neal had complained to team president Jerry West about it. The clear implication was that West traded Van Exel because of it.
To which Van Exel, hearing the item read to him today, can only laugh. “It definitely wasn’t that,” he says.
“I was traded in the middle of the season,” Van Exel says. “I knew I was gone waaay before [June]. But they had to put their hat on something. Somebody had to be the scapegoat.”
There were more obvious reasons for the trade. Van Exel had clashed repeatedly with head coach Del Harris. The Lakers had a surplus of talented young guards in Bryant, Jones and Fisher, and growing payroll concerns. And, in Van Exel’s recollection, the team had started to break into factions that season.
“Things started to change a little bit,” he says. “You know it, you can feel it, you can sense it. So I was gone way before then.”
O’Neal is dismissive of the story now, saying, “I'm not gonna blame it all on Nick. I was a part of that, too.”
Meaning, the Cancun chant? “Uh, maybe.”
“I don't want to just blame it on one guy,” O’Neal says. “So just say it was me, Nick, Eddie, everybody.”
No, Van Exel says with a laugh, it was just him—a fact Horry confirms. (“He said it as a joke to make everybody more relaxed.”)
“I’m not gonna sell my guys out,” O’Neal says. “Look, we all have the same mentality. Bro, when you go down 3–0 against the Spurs and Utah, there ain’t no coming back. Everybody knows that. You can go down 2–0 and have a chance, but when you go down 3–0, one game left? There ain’t no comeback. So I don’t want to just blame it on them. We all had that outlook, including me: Well, we’re not gonna win this year. So let me go and put up my 40 and then after the game go back to Orlando and chill.”
And the Van Exel trade? “It was just time to make some changes,” O’Neal says.
(The original report also indicated Van Exel made the remark—which it quoted as “Cancun, Cancun, Cancun”—on a practice day, with the Lakers down 2–0. Van Exel and Horry, however, both say “One, two, three … Cancun!” happened minutes before tip-off of Game 4, which would make today, May 24, its 24-year anniversary. Please celebrate responsibly.)
The “Cancun” story back then came with a clear implication: that Van Exel was quitting on his team. Horry dismisses the notion, saying, “I don’t think anybody was mad about it.” Van Exel is adamant that his intentions were pure.
“Everybody around there knew me,” he says. “They knew I wasn’t quitting on them. That would be the last thing they would have said about me.”
But why Cancun? Why not Maui or Barbados or the Caymans?
“I just knew Cancun was a vacation spot at that time,” Van Exel says.
Indeed, Horry recalls Cancun being a popular destination for pro athletes and entertainers of that era.
And now it’s a punch line that’s so universal in NBA circles, even coaches and players will reference it when their season ends with a thud, as then Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry did in 2018. It’s just that most viewers probably have no clue about its origins.
It’s not even clear exactly how or when it entered the Inside the NBA lexicon. “Gone Fishin’” has been a show staple since 2002. But the Cancun quips, according to TNT officials, didn’t really take hold until sometime around ’15, when O’Neal invoked the reference. By ’16, show staffers were integrating Cancun into “Gone Fishin’” graphics.
Van Exel says he enjoys it all greatly, though he hasn’t been to Cancun himself in many years, and he’s not sure it’s still the best reference.
“There’s a lot of different vacation spots that they can say as opposed to Cancun,” he says. “I don't know how many guys are going to Cancun nowadays.”
He has his own new favorites, but he’d just as soon not share them today.
“No, because then [TNT] will probably try to throw them in there as well,” he says, laughing. “I’ll keep it to myself.”
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