?The Mavs are winning. "You put Van Exel back on a bad team, and he'd be just as much of an a—hole as he always was," says one Western Conference general manager. Even Van Exel concedes that he isn't a good fit on a struggling squad. "I like to win too much," he says. He still frowns and grimaces and offers up other spoiled-brat looks when things don't go right, which they frequently don't on bad teams. "I think Nick has grown, and he'd be better in that respect now," says Harris, who was Van Exel's coach for four sometimes volatile seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. "But I hope we never have to find out."
?Van Exel has benefited from an improved relationship with Harris and a developing one with Johnson. With an NBA r�sum� that includes pushing an official, flare-ups with teammates and flipping the bird at fans, Van Exel's most shameful offense may have been when, because of their Lakers history, he brushed by the extended hand of Harris before a game last season when Van Exel was with the Denver Nuggets. Harris is so universally respected that Van Exel might as well have knocked an ice-cream cone out of a kindergartner's hands. Yet shortly after that incident, when Nelson solicited Harris's advice on whether to pull the trigger on the seven-player deal that brought Van Exel to Dallas, Harris gave a thumbs-up. Van Exel has noted on several occasions that Harris's forgiveness was a timely show of trust that helped him mature.
Johnson, who came to the Mavs in that same trade, has counseled Van Exel on what he calls "off-court issues." Van Exel won't talk about them other than to say, " Avery's helped me a lot." Johnson wants to keep their discussions private but, like Harris, says they have to do with getting Van Exel, who had an unstable upbringing in Kenosha, Wis., to stop being so suspicious of those "outside of his circle," as Johnson puts it. "All I wanted to achieve was to help Nick find peace off the court, and I think he has that now," says Johnson, who's a combination of pit bull and pulpit preacher. "When you go out on the court without a lot of weights holding you back, it's easier to play."
?Van Exel's brand of prickly leadership is not only accepted by the Mavericks but also needed. Despite the Mavs' reputation as the 21st-century version of Showtime, none of the major players who preceded Van Exel to Dallas ( Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Nowitzki) are particularly outgoing. As time has passed, Van Exel—increasingly savvy about public relations—has become the team spokesman. He can go on a straight-faced riff, as he did when the German 7-footer Nowitzki sat beside him after Game 7 of the Portland series, talking about how "certain Mavs pretend they don't understand English when it comes time to come out and set a pick." And he can be efficiently frank, as he was when he told his teammates in no uncertain terms that they were respecting Sacramento "more than we're supposed to" after a 124-113 loss in Game 1 at American Airlines Center.
"F 'em," Van Exel said of the Kings when he spoke to the media afterward. That's exactly what he said—not the whole curse word, just the one letter, and it served as an economical wake-up call. It was recited so often in the ensuing days that Eddie Sefko, who covers the team for The Dallas Morning News, suggested to owner Mark Cuban that it be discreetly engraved on championship rings.
Thoughts of a championship are still absurdly premature, of course, despite the Mavericks' victory in Game 1. But expect the Dallas firecracker to become a major factor in what shapes up to be a high-scoring series. For these days, Van Exel—herky but no longer quite so jerky—is hard to ignore, even if you're navel-gazing.