Following Magic Johnson’s stunning retirement, the Lakers were desperate for a spark to reignite their depressed fan base. Enter: Nick Van Exel. With an array of NBA Jam-worthy moves, Nick the Quick catapulted the forum blue and gold back into NBA relevance, quickly becoming a fan favorite in the process. Nick’s outspoken nature on the court and Hollywood smile ushered in a new era of basketball in Los Angeles, while proving his naysayers wrong with every twisting turn to the hoop and soft mid-range floater. Van Exel was as accessible as any up-and-coming star in the league, regularly personifying the emotion inside of the Great Western Forum with his spectacular arsenal of aerial acrobatics, clutch shooting and tough-nosed nature. Nick was an arcade player for Lakers fans, responding to their whims, catching fire at any moment, surprising them with a dazzling drive to the basket when they least expected it.
Van Exel’s tenure in L.A. wasn’t always easygoing though, as he frequently found himself at the center of controversy—whether it be with Head Coach Del Harris, referees (how can we ever forget when he shoved referee Ron Garretson?) or his own teammates. Through it all, Lakers fans supported Nick with the type of fervor usually reserved for only superstar-level players. It’s that same level of passion that makes Van Exel one of the more popular Lakers players of the last two decades.
Van Exel wasn’t a perfect player and truth be told, his averages of 15 points and seven assists during his five years with the team hid his often questionable decision-making and wavering attitude. Despite his faults, the Cincinnati alum wore his heart on his sleeve every time he stepped foot on the court and was a much-needed stop-gap in the post-Showtime years leading up to his eventual trade to the Nuggets shortly after the arrival of the Shaq/Kobe tandem. While Van Exel didn’t get to take part in the Lakers budding dynasty, he’ll always be remembered fondly as one of the franchise’s most exciting entertainers.
Check out this great Beyond the Glory piece below for an interview with Jerry West and others who talk about why the Lakers were willing to take a risk on Nick and what made him such a special athlete.