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 hall 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 al 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 Robert 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'; 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.