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 see.
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 bad person."
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 Osborne.)
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.