"When the game's on the line, I don't want the ball in anyone's hands but Nick's. . . "
- Former Denver Nuggets Coach Dan Issel
Nickey Maxwell van Exel II was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin to parents Joyce and Nickey Maxwell, on November 27, 1971. Like many NBA players, Van Exel was a child of the projects, and was brought up mostly by his mother while his father bounced in and out of prison. His mother worked the night shift, so she and her son would only briefly cross paths as young Nick was coming home from school and his mother was going off to work. NVE was pretty much left to his own devices, and spent nearly all his time playing basketball in local parks.
In 1992, while attending Trinity Valley Community College in Texas as a sociology major, NVE transferred to the University of Cincinnati to play basketball as a Bearcat. In his only full season with the Bearcats Van Exel established himself as bona-fide NBA material, averaging 18.3 ppg and leading his team to the Final Four. He was named a third-team All-American in 1993 while at UC. In the 1993 NBA Draft, NVE was chosen in the second round by the L.A. Lakers with the 37th overall pick.
A starter in 80 of 81 games in his rookie season, NVE averaged 13.6 ppg in 1993-94, and was named to the All-Rookie Second Team. His 1 099 points exceeded the total points scored by 31 of the 36 players drafted ahead of him. The next year he upped his numbers to 16.9 ppg along with 8.3 apg. The 1995-96 season saw NVE's numbers level off at a solid 14.9 ppg with 6.9 apg. It was in 1996 when NVE broke the NBA record for highest fine when he was levied $25 000 for shoving a referee, along with a seven game suspension.
He continued in a similar vein in 1996-1997, notching 15.3 ppg and 8.5 apg, as well as getting into a televised shouting match with Lakers assistant Coach Del Harris during the Western Conference Finals, for which he was fined $10 000. It was during this incident when NVE infamously referred to Harris as the "white devil". In 1997-98, Van Exel contributed 13.8 ppg and 6.9 apg, as well as being levied $10 000 along with a two game suspension for fighting with Monty Williams of the San Antonio Spurs, and flipping the bird to the crowd. Nonetheless, NVE receieved his first NBA All-Star selection that year.
But his high-profile teamates had had enough of Van Exel, and after five seasons with the L.A. Lakers, he was exiled to Denver when Shaquille O'Neal complained about NVE's bad attitude. On June 24, 1998 NVE went to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Tony Battie and the draft rights to Tyronn Lue. After suiting up for the Nuggets, NVE faced a 180 degree transition from a team that won 50 or 60 games a season to a team that struggled to win 20. Deeply ingrained with a desire to win, NVE kept his head up and gave it his best shot.
His first season with Denver saw averages of 16.5 ppg with a team-high 7.4 apg. NVE was ranked ninth in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio in the entire NBA. He topped this in 1999-2000 by notching 16.1 ppg, along with 9.0 apg, which put him in a tie with Sam Cassell of the Milwaukee Bucks for 2nd in the NBA for assists. In 2000-2001 NVE averaged 17.7 ppg, 8.5 apg and 3.4 rpg in 37.9 minutes. He ranked 3rd in assists, 7th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and 14th in three-point field goals made.
The summer of 2001 saw Nick's life take an unforeseen twist after a random act of violence made a target of his mother, Joyce. After returning home from her job of 28 years at the Daimler-Chrysler plant in Indianapolis, she was shot five times by an unknown assailant right outside her apartment. A year later, Joyce Van Exel is still recuperating. She must see doctors weekly for checkups and therapy, and to this day has one bullet left in her chest. Still, her recovery is nothing short of miraculous and Joyce responded by moving to Houston, TX, where Nick spends his offseasons, in order to be closer to her son. In her honor, the heel of one of Nick's sneakers reads "JVE", while the other says "III" in honor of his 12 year old son Nickey Maxwell Van Exel III, who lives in with his girlfriend in Garland, TX.
"Losing, losing, losing. If you’re a real competitor, you cannot stand it. Winning and losing is what this is all about. There are guys who do this for the money, who are satisfied with the money. That’s not me. Maybe it’s a sense of pride, or maybe, for me, it’s the fact that losing tears me apart. When I’ve lost a game, I just go home. I don’t want to go out. I don’t want anybody to see me like that.’’ -NVE, on what he hates most about the NBA
As the 2001-2002 season began, Nick seemed destined to put up his usual stellar stats despite playing for a substandard squad. Instead, in a move that pulled him out of public favor for good in Denver, NVE demanded to be traded, saying he was tired of losing. "Nick the Quick" became known as "Nick the Prick" overnight. Rumors abounded about the fate of NVE. A trade to the L.A. Clippers seemed a likely bet, and NVE pointedly told reporters that he would be very upset if he found himself still in Denver after the trade deadline. On deadline day (February 21, 2002) Mark Cuban, the dynamic owner of the Dallas Mavericks, swept into Denver and traded Juwan Howard, Donnell Harvey, Tim Hardaway, a 2002 first-round draft pick, and $1 million in cash, picking up Raef LaFrentz, Avery Johnson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Nick Van Exel in a deal that shocked the league.
Despite being demoted to a backup role in Dallas behind emerging superstar Steve Nash, NVE appears to be without complaint. In the 2002 playoffs, he dropped 14.4 ppg and 3.8 apg for a loaded squad. Even opponents noticed his stellar play, including Sacramento Kings Forward Chris Webber who dubbed NVE "the heart and soul" of his team. Even playing alongside former nemesis Del Harris who now coaches on the Mavs' staff doesn't seem to bother NVE. Despite being known around the league as a punk and a whiner, NVE has been on his best behaviour since arriving in Dallas. As the man himself says:
"Sure, I'm angry and moody and evil, but only on the basketball court. I want to win so bad, I'm angry at everyone. I've got to get mad so I can perform well. But for me, a bad guy is someone who carries that anger into their personal life. And I don't do that. Nobody can say that about me."
Del Harris himself agrees, having vehemently told the press: "Regardless of what you've heard, he'll give you 20 points, he'll play hard. He's really not a bad guy." As far as NVE's personal life is concerned, his offcourt persona is more like that of a saint than a thug. Nick has previously been honored with the Chopper Travaglini Award for his generosity in the Denver community, and used to host "Nick Van Exel's Golden Nuggets" in which 13 underpriviledged children and their sponsors attend home games. He and Antonio McDyess were known to deliver turkeys to the underpriviledged on Thanksgiving, and Nick has held a number of benefits in the Houston area in order to give back to the community and raise money for worthy causes, such as underprvileged children and battered women.
* UPDATED: NVE was traded to the Golden State Warriors along with Evan Eschmeyer, Avery Johnson, Popeye Jones and Antoine Rigaudeau in exchange for Antawn Jamison, Chris Mills, Danny Fortson and Jiri Welsch on 8/18/03.