Las Vegas, Nevada - August 2021
On a sweltering summer afternoon in the desert, Nick Van Exel's iPhone rang. It was Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Nate McMillan. The two former NBA players had battled in the Western Conference three decades earlier.
McMillan, an oversized combo guard for the Seattle SuperSonics, faced an electrifying point guard in Van Exel and the Los Angeles Lakers 20 times from 1993-1998. Van Exel and the Lakers won 11 of those games. 'Nick the Quick' outscored 'Mr. Sonic' 18.1 to 3.7 points per game when they faced one another. The two competed in some fun playoffs series that epitomized the decade.
Since then, they have both become distinguished NBA coaches - a grueling and often treacherous career path for fiery ex-players. As part of his duties for the Dallas Mavericks, Van Exel was in Las Vegas for the NBA Summer League. The basketball guru was scouting young players in search of a diamond in the rough.
McMillan wanted to know if Van Exel was interested in joining his coaching staff in Atlanta. "I told him yeah. I was excited for the opportunity. I thought this team has a lot of good young players... I was just excited because the team is definitely trending upward, and it was a good situation." The following week, Van Exel was flown out to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a sitdown meeting over dinner with McMillan.
"He just wanted me to just hone in on the guards. Especially Trae. He also said, 'Help all these guys out.' It's not just about X's and O's and things like that because we have a young group. So there's going to be times when guys get a little frustrated, and you know the head coach can't do everything. It's just impossible in the NBA. So you need guys to be able to talk to players and calm them down or whatever it may be. Through an NBA season, a lot of things happen - good and bad."
McMillan knew what he was doing by bringing Van Exel into the fold. Everyone remembers Van Exel's legendary playing career. However, most people are unaware that he spent the last decade quietly toiling in the most important (yet unglamorous) jobs in basketball. His scouting and player development skills are just as heralded as his devastating jab steps.
Atlanta, Georgia - October 2021
"You're ruining some nice hot coffee," McMillan teases Van Exel. It's early in the morning before the coaches' meeting, and even 'Nick the Quick' needs some caffeine. But the heat and humidity still have a firm grip on Atlanta well into the fall. "That's really the only way I can drink it because I'm a sweat hog. I really can't drink hot coffee like that."
It was an epiphany for Van Exel when he discovered iced coffee on that fateful day before a golf outing with Eddie Jones and his buddies. Since that time, his affinity for the beverage has been well-documented. Between meetings and practice, Van Exel takes his iced coffee to the film room, where he breaks down game tape with the team's prodigy point guard.
"Trae does a lot of good things on the court. And there are things that he can definitely improve with. That's managing games. We've been trying to work on how to manage games." Van Exel praised Young's decision-making in pick-and-roll situations but expressed his desire to see Young be more "Chris Paul-ish" in changing his speed and direction.
"We'll watch it, and he may see things on the film that he didn't see in the game, which is normal. That's every player that ever played in the NBA. Once you see it, you get a better feel on where your outlets are, the pick and roll situations, advancing the ball quicker, giving your players a chance to attack the basket quicker in transition... Definitely trying to improve defensively, just being in the right spots. Having more of a sense of urgency now because people are looking at this team a lot different because what they did last year - there's a lot at stake now."
That may sound like a lot to keep in your mind while playing because it is. But Van Exel understands the process and appreciates the delicate nature of constructing lasting relationships in the association.
"You have to build the trust first. I don't know Trae. I just knew Trae from afar when I used to come to games during my scouting. So you have to build trust with players. You have to be genuine with players. You have to know what you're talking about. I'm in the stages of just building the trust with him. He's very receptive, though."
Van Exel has been where Young is now. The All-Star game appearance, multiple shoe commercials, quarrels with referees. However, he's never going to be heavy-handed or preachy with the 23-year-old. Instead, he prefers a more organic approach.
"But me personally, I like to go have dinner with a player and just talk to them. Get their feelings, how they're feeling, their emotions, stuff like that, and get to know them a bit more. I haven't had a chance to do things like that, but hopefully, in time, we'll get that sitdown. An outside of basketball sitdown, and you're just talking and building that trust with each other."
Denver, Colorado - November 2021
The Rocky Mountain air is crisp and cold on the morning of November 11. The Hawks have a rare two consecutive days off before they face the Nuggets. Twenty-three years ago, Van Exel was traded from Tinsel Town to the Mile High City. Still in his prime, the phenom channeled his anger into a tour de force where every opponent had to pay for the perceived wrongdoings of Lakers brass Del Harris and Jerry West.
When asked if there was a current player that reminded him of himself, Van Exel replies flatly, "Not really. I thought Isaiah Thomas was a pretty good player. Plus, he was left-handed. I always said my game was kind of herky-jerky, streaky. So I thought Isaiah was kind of like that." The comparison makes sense. During the 2016 playoffs, Thomas erupted for 42 points against the Hawks. Thirteen years prior, Van Exel scored 40 points in a playoff game against 'The Greatest Show on Court' Sacramento Kings.
After three and a half prolific seasons in Denver, Van Exel began his second act as a mercenary sixth man for contenders seeking veteran leadership and unconscious shooting. His stops included Dallas, Golden State, Portland, and eventually San Antonio before retiring in 2006.
"I really didn't think about coaching until 2003, when I was with the Mavericks. But, being a point guard in the NBA, if you're vocal, if you're calling meetings, planning events for your team, you're supposed to pretty much be an extension of the head coach. That's pretty much coaching on the job. I think most really good point guards are coaches while they're playing."
Perhaps the universe was conspiring to prepare Van Exel for coaching. He played under Mike D'Antoni, Don Nelson, and Gregg Popovich. It should come as no surprise that the rebel point guard put his own twist on what he learned from the Hall of Fame coaches. "I just get a lot of things they did really well, and I just have notes and bring that to my style of coaching. And things they didn't do well, I threw it in the trash," Van Exel says with a chuckle.
"But there was a lot of great things I took from them. Nelly wasn't afraid to throw out a junk lineup. He wasn't afraid to junk the game up. I think you need to be that kind of coach, whether it's in high school, college, wherever you are, don't be afraid. Trust in what you believe in. Popovich was really about his best players, holding his best players accountable. Once he did that, everyone else followed suit - I thought that was really good. D'Antoni was an offensive genius along with Don Nelson."
The lessons learned from spending most of his life in the NBA are evident. I asked how he planned to celebrate his upcoming 50th birthday on November 27. "I don't have anything planned because I'm so basic. I just go with the flow. I love to have a cigar here and there, and that's about it for me. If I can have me a cigar and get a win against the Knicks, that would be a great birthday present."
There were so many more topics I wanted to cover but would have gone beyond the scope of this article. I could spend hours picking Van Exel's brain on everything he's been through. This is the man that JAY-Z name-dropped in Beyonce's 'Crazy in Love.' He played alongside a young Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson was his first NBA coach before eventually becoming his teammate. What was with his funky free-throw stance and penchant for buzzer-beaters? (If you don't know, ask the Celtics, Spurs, and Pacers.)
The charisma and flash that Van Exel played with defined an era of mid-90s basketball. If you research Lakers lore, between the Showtime and Shaq-Kobe dynasties, there is a 6'1 shadow-boxing, salsa-dancing guard that made SportsCenter compulsory viewing. Then, at the start of the new millennium, Van Exel evolved into the ideal role player. Now at almost 50-years-old, 'Nick at Nite' finds himself in an integral position to another new team.
Van Exel brings decades of experience to his role with the Hawks. The knowledge he is passing down to the young players will make a tangible difference on the court this season and beyond. McMillan made a savvy move by teaming up with his old competitor. Now it's up to the fans to get Van Exel to his rightful spot in Springfield, Massachusetts.