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 blasé, but blasé 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 some...little kid.
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 court-side 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.