Maybe you'd be rattled too if Tyra Banks walked in while you
were putting on your shorts, but, really, would it reduce you to
a puddle of flop sweat, a trembling, dry-mouthed candidate for
CPR? Yes? Well, of course it would. Reading this, just the
mention of Tyra Banks unnerves you. But what if you were a Los
Angeles Laker, wealthy and cool, suave and sophisticated, at
ease in the world of glamour? Still yes?
O.K. In that case we won't belabor (too much) Nick Van Exel's
apparent medical condition, which, upon meeting our swimsuit
cover gal, bore more than a passing resemblance to cardiac
arrest. Most of the Lakers took it in stride when Banks, out for
an evening to catch her favorite team courtside, flashed an SI
press credential and swooped through their dressing room at the
Great Western Forum before a Saturday night game with the
Pistons. Shaquille O'Neal seemed all right with it and, for a
photo op, even pretended to be interviewed by her. Nor did Shaq
seem nervous when she called for some moisturizer and they
slathered up their arms together--surely the first time a scribe
and an athlete swapped skin cream.
Other Lakers were cool too. Maybe supermodels don't show up all
the time, but there's always a certain amount of celebrity
traffic through their room, in their house, and it doesn't pay
to come unglued every time Dyan Cannon or Sharon Stone swings
by. A man who could say "Hey, Tyra" as he adjusted his socks was
being belligerently blase, but blase all the same. Such a man
was a pro's pro.
Yet here was Van Exel, a fourth-year player on the cusp of
stardom who presumably has seen a thing or two in his travels,
hiding in the trainer's room. "Come out here, Nick," a teammate
yelled. Banks, who used to attend Lakers games with her father
when she was an eight-year-old growing up in Inglewood, had gone
from player to player, posing, chatting, having a fan's great
time. But where was Van Exel? She had been told he was an
admirer of hers, and yet he had gone and disappeared, like
February 21, 1997
Because she is a woman of spunk, Banks marched right into the
normally off-limits trainer's room and confronted Van Exel, who
retreated, quivering, into a corner. As her beauty is unique and
startling, she may be accustomed to having a profound effect on
the men she meets (in an entirely unrelated incident, the writer
of this piece left the keys locked in his car and the engine
running when he arrived to meet her for the game), but she
admitted later that nobody had ever held a cushion in front of
his face by way of introduction.
Poor Nick. The photographer and Banks coaxed him into an upright
position, and though he was sweating visibly, they talked him
into putting his trembling arm around her. Someone said to coach
Del Harris, who was watching, amused, that we'd all know why if
Van Exel shot bricks later that night. "Ah," said Harris,
dismissing the whole scene, "he's been shooting bricks." Still,
it couldn't have been comforting to see your point guard falling
apart before your eyes just minutes before a big game.
Nor was it all that reassuring--from the Lakers' point of view,
anyway--to see Van Exel come out for the tip-off with Banks's
initials on his sneakers. A red TB on each shoe. Oh, boy.
Nothing good could come of this. Banks was obviously worried,
but she tried to put a good spin on her Lakers makeover, all the
same. "Don't you think Shaq's skin looks nice and supple?" she
asked, hopefully. In fact, his skin didn't seem the least bit dry.
For all that, she was as excited to be at the Forum as certain
Lakers were to have her there. She's a huge basketball fan, a
sometime player and a known consort of Li'l Penny in Nike ads.
Because most of her modeling work is in New York, she's more
likely to be seen courtside at a Knicks game, true, but her
heart is with the Lakers. And getting to watch them from
courtside, about a hundred rows closer than when she was a kid,
sweetened the deal. "Oh," she said, surprised at her view, "you
can see my initials."
Banks, having sprouted to 5'8" by the time she was just nine
years old, had a natural interest in the center play. "That's an
awful lot of shoving around, don't you think?" she said. But as
a onetime bench warmer, she was also intrigued by the reserve
players. She said that her grade school coach would employ her
for the center jump and then set her right down until garbage
time. "I had no self-esteem," she said. With that in mind, she
took notice of rookie guard Derek Fisher, demoted to third
string that day, as he reclined on the floor, the farthest Laker
from the coach. "Do you think you could play in the NBA for like
three years and not get in for even a minute?" She seemed
concerned about the possibility of sustained humiliation.
Banks, being a true fan, knew that things wouldn't get really
exciting until the final minutes and so spent the early going
doing what everybody else in the Forum was doing--looking
around. "Jack Nicholson. Just look at him," she said, pointing
to his courtside seat. "He looks like a star just sitting
there." She must have wondered if she looked like a supermodel
just sitting there, so she struck a few provocative poses in her
seat, throwing her long legs about. A few camera flashes may
have gone off.
She was also interested in the Laker Girls, at least by way of
comparison with the Knicks City Dancers. This troupe looked a
little too tame for Banks. "The Knicks girls are buff," she
said. "They come out with nose rings and knee pads. These
girls...look, that one looks just like Claudia Schiffer." Just
like her? "Well, not just. Claudia's four feet taller." It was
speculated that the look-alike was engaged to a magician too.
"Maybe the kind that does children's parties," she decided.
She also thought the Forum Club, which she had visited before
the game, was tame in comparison with The Club at Madison Square
Garden. She had seen Magic Johnson and Tiger Woods pass through
but otherwise thought it was a little light on glamour.
Although, Banks did admit, she wasn't exactly in the swirl
herself. When her swimsuit calendar came out last September, the
publisher asked for a list of her celebrity friends to invite to
the party. She couldn't think of one. "I'm such a stay-at-home,"
she said. The publisher wound up inviting Scottie Pippen and a
few other NBA players, and Banks was in heaven.
Finally the game got interesting, which is to say the Pistons
pulled to within three points with 2.2 seconds left, their ball.
Banks was smug in anticipation of a victory. "What could
happen?" she said. Well, Detroit's Grant Hill bounced one off
the glass--a Banks shot--from 30 feet to tie the game and send
it into overtime. "A three-pointer," she cried in surprise. "I
forgot. Have I been talking like a girly-girl here or what?"
It took two overtimes and some missed free throws by the Lakers,
but the Pistons went on to win 100-97, perhaps inevitably. As
the crowd made its way out, Banks wondered if there had been
anything she could have done, except not be there. Although Shaq
had a good night--18 points, 19 rebounds and noticeably soft
skin--Van Exel continued in his shooting slump, hitting only 3
of 11 from the floor. Who's to say it wouldn't have happened
anyway? Two nights later, with zero supermodels courtside, Van
Exel recovered his touch and led the team with 24 points. On the
other hand, Shaq's skin looked a little dry.