How certain was Lakers coach Del Harris that his relationship with volatile fourth-year point guard Nick Van Exel had deteriorated beyond repair? Last Thursday afternoon Harris vented his frustrations in an interview with SI, no longer keeping behind closed doors the problems that have been festering between them for much of the three years Harris has coached Los Angeles.
"Something has to change," Harris said. "I'm not the one who put this in the spotlight, but since it's out there, I've had enough. It's an ongoing struggle for me to get Nick to play the up-tempo game. That's the way the owner [ Jerry Buss] and [executive vice president] Jerry West and I want to play, but when it doesn't happen, I'm the one who takes the heat, and I'm tired of it. I've been eating s—- for three years. No more. I won't take any more hits for a kid who won't even walk over in the middle of a basketball game to receive instructions."
Harris was referring to an incident at the Forum on May 10, in the early moments of Game 4 of the Lakers' Western Conference semifinal series against the Jazz, which Utah led two games to one. Harris called Van Exel to the sideline to give him information to relay to forward- center Elden Campbell. Van Exel, according to Harris, waved him off and kept playing. Furious, Harris yanked Van Exel from the floor just 1:57 into the game, and the two became embroiled in a shouting match. L.A. lost that game 110-95, and two nights later the Jazz eliminated the Lakers with a 98-93 overtime victory at the Delta Center.
The argument was the climax of a tension-filled season for Harris and Van Exel. "Nick's problem is he has a deep-seated mistrust of authority," said Harris. "He's a high-maintenance kid. Jerry [West] has to meet with him once a month just so he can keep him straightened out."
Several hours later Harris called SI and said he had sat down with Van Exel and West and was now hopeful that he and Van Exel could coexist. In their meeting, said Harris, Van Exel promised to push the ball upcourt, think passing first and scoring second, and briskly appear at court-side whenever his coach summoned him. "Maybe I'm naive," Harris said, "but what I've heard from Nick just now has changed my mind. What he said came from the heart. I think he's come to understand that a coach has a role, and for us to be successful, he has to respect that."
Harris's courtside confrontation with Van Exel refueled reports that Chuck Daly was waiting in the wings to take Harris's job. West said on Thursday that there's no truth to that rumor, adding, "I'm not the owner, but as far as I'm concerned, Del is our coach. Period."
According to team sources, West was disappointed that Harris hadn't called a timeout to address Van Exel in the huddle, instead of pulling him from the game and drawing attention to their conflict. However, West is increasingly frustrated by Van Exel's emotional outbursts. In Los Angeles's 1995 second-round playoff series against the Spurs (which L.A. lost 4-2), Van Exel infuriated Harris by refusing to join the Lakers' huddle during timeouts. Late in the 1995-96 regular season Van Exel was suspended for seven games after he shoved referee Ron Garretson.
West said Harris and Van Exel need to get past their differences. "I'm not upset with anything about our basketball team except that I want everyone to get on the same page," he said. Although Harris and Van Exel may have achieved that last Thursday—at least temporarily—Harris remains firm in his belief that Van Exel must bend to the wishes of the franchise. "I'm not an isolation-game advocate," Harris said. "I don't want a standing offense, with Shaq [ center Shaquille O'Neal) anchored to the post. Nick likes to play the two-man game with Shaq, which is fine, but not at the cost of a stagnating offense. I'd also like to see Nick penetrate to distribute, instead of penetrating to score."
The Lakers have explored trading Van Exel in the past and likely will do so again. His toughness, talent and relatively low $1.9 million salary are attractive to other teams. But West will not deal him unless the Lakers get equal value, which is a tall order.
Van Exel was unavailable for comment last week, but his agent, James Bryant, said his client wants to remain with Los Angeles. "Nick wants to win with such a passion that sometimes that passion causes him to do things that get him into trouble," Bryant said.