James Roberts saw it coming. On the morning of April 10 Roberts,
the manager at Mancino's Pizza & Grinders in Louisville, was
setting up for the lunch crowd when Nick Van Exel's face popped
onto the television screen in the corner of the restaurant.
Roberts is not a fan of Van Exel's, even though the two were
teammates for two seasons at Trinity Valley Community College
(TVCC) in Athens, Texas, but this was one highlight he wanted to
Roberts studied the screen as the Los Angeles Lakers' guard
argued a foul call in a game against the Denver Nuggets the
previous night. Referee Ron Garretson slapped Van Exel with a
technical foul, and when the player demanded an explanation, the
official admonished him for being "a smart-ass." Van Exel
responded with a barrage of expletives, called the 5'6"
Garretson "a little midget" and was then hit with a second
technical and ejected from the game. At that moment Van Exel
shoved Garretson into the scorer's table with a forearm. "I
heard that other people shook their heads and couldn't believe
it," Roberts says, "but I shook my head and remembered back five
years. I knew Nick had it in him a long time ago. I knew he was
a time bomb waiting to go off. I know he's gone off before."
Like all good point guards, the 6'1" Van Exel is a decision
maker, a player who relishes the challenge of deciding who
should take the big shot. It's off the court that the Ex-Man's
judgment is questionable. He says he hasn't done anything that
warrants his being called a "bad person" and claims there is
nothing on his record about "beating up people or anything like
that." But in the next moment he admits being involved in a 1991
altercation with Roberts that left his former teammate
hospitalized. Van Exel says he remembers squaring off with
Roberts, watching Roberts being knocked to the ground from the
blind side (witnesses say that blow was delivered by another
TVCC athlete and close friend of Van Exel's), then kicking
Roberts in the face while the victim lay unconscious. "I kicked
him one time," says Van Exel. "One good time."
One good time? A guy who was out cold? "When you're fighting,
it's not like I'm going to feel sorry for you," says Van Exel.
"When you're fighting, you're fighting."
And then there is the matter of what several witnesses and the
alleged victim herself say was Van Exel's physically abusive
relationship with Kim Waites, his girlfriend at TVCC. "I've
never hit a girl in my life," says Van Exel, 24. "I never choked
a girl in my life either." Then Van Exel backs off a little,
something he rarely does on the court. "As far as ever throwing
any punches at her, choking, I can take a lie-detector test on
that," he says. "I'm pretty sure on that. If I did that, I
definitely don't remember that."
Then there is Van Exel's explanation for why 36
players--including such luminaries as Maryland's Evers Burns,
Western Kentucky's Darnell Mee and Tennessee Tech's John Best,
none of whom is still in the league--were drafted before the
Lakers called his name in '93. "Everybody just wants me to be a
bad person," says Van Exel. "They try to put that label on me: a
With Van Exel, who sees so much of the court but so very little
of himself, it's always "they." In truth, though, Van Exel
brought the bad-person label upon himself, and some NBA execs
who passed on him are surprised not by the violent behavior he
exhibited against Garretson but because it took this long for it
to surface. An examination of the Ex-Files from TVCC, where,
obviously, Nick-at-Nite meant much more than classic reruns,
shows Van Exel to be, as one observer put it, "a tough actor."
Waites says that Van Exel once grabbed her by the throat and
slammed her down on a bed in a jealous rage before being
restrained by a TVCC teammate. "He accused me of cheating on him
when I hadn't," she says. The teammate confirms her account but
does not want his name used. And at least two other ex-TVCC
players say they witnessed abusive behavior directed at Waites
by Van Exel. Joe Hooks says that Van Exel sometimes slapped
Waites, something she denies. Robert Osborne says that Van Exel
would smack Waites around "because he was always upset any time
he caught her talking to white guys." (Waites is white, as is
Even as Van Exel reluctantly offers his version of the incident
with the fallen Roberts, he understates the severity of his
aggression. Osborne, who went on to play at Virginia
Commonwealth and is now preparing to enter law school at Samford
University in Birmingham, remembers that Van Exel pounded
Roberts's head into the concrete about seven times. "I felt like
he could've killed that boy easy," says Osborne. "It was scary."
Roberts says that he had to be hospitalized overnight and that
his right eye was swollen shut for several days.
There were no arrests in the incident, which was handled by TVCC
campus police. Roberts says the campus police told him he could
not press charges, "because I couldn't specifically say who did
what," a circumstance caused by the fact that he was unconscious
before he hit the pavement. A spokeswoman for the campus police
last week declined to comment on the incident.
That was not Van Exel's only run-in with teammates at TVCC.
According to Adam Sanderson, who played with Van Exel in Athens,
one spring weekend in 1990 Van Exel acted as the lookout while
two other teammates broke into Sanderson's and Roberts's rooms
and stole some clothes and other personal items. Roberts says
that after he and Sanderson confronted Van Exel and one of the
other teammates and threatened to press charges, the stolen
goods reappeared at their doorsteps. "It was a miracle," says
Roberts sarcastically. Van Exel does not deny his part in the
break-in, explaining it this way: "That was basically guys just
acting immature, basically being away from home. Guys just doing
the wrong thing."
Van Exel chooses to believe that his bad-boy label and his low
selection in the '93 NBA draft were the result of incidents that
occurred shortly before the draft. First, he missed two
scheduled flights to visit the Charlotte Hornets. (He has since
explained that he missed the first because he was given an
incorrect departure date and the second because a friend had an
auto accident.) Then he went through a legendarily bad interview
and workout with the Seattle SuperSonics. "A lot of coaches
around the league know each other pretty well, and they talk,"
says Van Exel. He's half right: The primary reason he did not go
early in the draft was not the missed flights and the Seattle
interview but NBA gossip, which does travel, and accounts of
what happened between Van Exel and Sonics coach George Karl
traveled faster than most.
"It was the worst interview we've ever had with a player, bar
none," says Karl. By that time Van Exel had moved on from junior
college and spent two seasons at the University of Cincinnati.
He had helped the Bearcats make the regional finals of the 1993
NCAA tournament before they were eliminated by North Carolina.
When Van Exel met with Karl at a hotel in Seattle later that
spring and saw that the Sonics' coach was wearing a North
Carolina cap, he offered the opinion that given all the talent
he had to work with, Dean Smith should have won more NCAA
titles. "I asked him what made him an expert on coaching," says
Karl, who played for Smith at Chapel Hill. After the interview
in a Seattle hotel Van Exel went to his room and reappeared
wearing a Duke hat. "I loved it," says Karl.
Karl says that Van Exel loafed through the agility drills and
all but quit on the 300-yard shuttle run. Guards generally
complete it in 50 to 55 seconds; Van Exel ran a 1:08 on his
first try. Karl says he called Van Exel "a real asshole," then
told him that if he turned in a respectable 55 seconds in the
second run, Karl wouldn't say anything, but "if you dog it, I'll
tell the league." Van Exel looked at Karl and said, "This second
one is going to be a cooldown." He ran it in 1:20.
Some observers might look at Van Exel's challenge to Karl and
conclude that it shows a delightfully defiant spirit and an
admirable competitiveness. Heck, even Karl, an admitted
hardhead, concedes that some part of him "had to love the guy."
In perhaps the ultimate testament to Van Exel's talents, Karl
tried desperately to trade up in the draft to select him.
That mix of talent, determination and a touch of the outrageous
brings athletes such as Van Exel second chances, third chances
and even 10th chances. "He's been told everything he wants to
hear, not what he needs to hear," says veteran agent Ron
Grinker, who said no when one of his clients, University of
Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, asked him to represent Van Exel.
That so many are so willing to overlook so much partly explains
why problem cases such as Van Exel seem to abound in
professional sports. The comments of Van Exel's coach at TVCC,
Leon Spencer, are revealing. While he concedes that Van Exel had
an "air of arrogance" that he detested, Spencer also professes
not to remember the incident in which Roberts was severely
beaten. "Of course," says Spencer, who recently completed his
32nd season at TVCC, "I don't choose to remember the unpleasant
things." Guy Furr, an assistant at TVCC when Van Exel was there,
claims that the coaching staff couldn't get to the bottom of the
Van Exel-Roberts incident, and then he tries to explain away
Van Exel's part in it. "I don't think [Van Exel] could have hurt
that big guy," says Furr, who's now an elementary school
administrator in Athens. "He was just puny." Informed that Van
Exel didn't hit the 6'8" Roberts until someone else had knocked
Roberts out, Furr said, "That doesn't sound fair. But it would
explain a lot." So do comments such as those.
Lakers executive vice president Jerry West is certainly no babe
in the woods, yet even he could not keep himself from gambling
on Van Exel's seductive skills. So he drafted him in the second
round, after choosing the less talented but less risky George
Lynch of North Carolina. West was told by other NBA general
managers that he had picked a bad seed, and he spent the next
three years trying to prove them wrong. Van Exel made mistakes,
but there was good in him, said West. Van Exel frequently showed
what Grinker describes as "a punk attitude" on the court, but
West believed he would grow up. He never did, though, or he
hasn't, at least, to this point. Last season in a Jan. 9 game at
Portland, Van Exel was irked by coach Del Harris's halftime
tirade and refused to go onto the court to open the second half.
Van Exel and the Lakers now call it a case of miscommunication.
This season Van Exel had amassed 10 technical fouls before his
outburst against Garretson. Some sources within the Lakers
organization say that his frustration over a recent decrease in
his playing time may have helped trigger the Garretson incident.
Those sources also say that if the NBA had handed down a stiffer
penalty--Van Exel was given a seven-game suspension, from which
he is scheduled to return on Thursday against the Houston
Rockets in Los Angeles--Lakers officials would have supported it.
Sure, there are explanations for Van Exel's occasionally
childish and churlish behavior. And there are explanations for
his violent actions in the past. Van Exel grew up in an unstable
environment in Kenosha, Wis. His father left home when Van Exel
was in the third grade, and after his mother, as she puts it,
"got into some trouble" (she would not be more specific), he
moved in with his aunt Jacqueline Huntley and her family. Van
Exel says that his father sometimes called from Atlanta with an
offer of an airline ticket that his son could use to visit him
but that when Van Exel arrived at the airport, there was never a
ticket waiting. "Because of my father I'm the type of person who
doesn't trust anybody," he says.
Without proper supervision Van Exel got into trouble. He started
driving at age 14, though he could barely see over the
dashboard. One night when he was 15, he borrowed a car belonging
to his aunt Wanda Tennant, stayed out all night and fell asleep
driving home. The car struck a tree and his jaw hit the steering
wheel so hard that his lower teeth cut through his lip. The
wound required 70 stitches and accounts for the huge scar below
his bottom lip.
Van Exel didn't apply himself in high school, didn't have the
2.0 grade point average necessary to play basketball as a
freshman in Division I, neglected to take the college entrance
exam and ended up at TVCC. That's where he earned the reputation
for being, as Osborne put it, "a gangsta hooper." Van Exel
describes his two years at TVCC as "the worst experience of my
life," and it was no picnic for those around him. "Sometimes he
was happy-go-lucky, other times he was a raving lunatic," says
ex-teammate Hooks. "You didn't really want to hang around him
because you didn't know which he'd be."
A lot of NBA folks are still not sure what they should expect
from Van Exel, or when. "A lot of people might go on first
impressions," Van Exel said last week. "I go on sixth and
seventh impressions." That's about where many people in the
league are with Van Exel, and so far, what they see is not so