The Nick of Time

Nick the quick says, "Stand and salute me, pay homage to my knee-highs."
Dallas Mavericks

Strange things happen on Saturday nights in Dallas. People roam the streets freely, wildly intoxicated and blissfully oblivious. It is a night of escape. Sometimes, if the drugs and drink are strong and mixed together properly, the night yields an epiphany. Last Saturday was such a night.

I watched the Mavs and Kings battle for four incredible, uncertain quarters in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal. Then it went to overtime, which is how things got weird. A friend was in town from L.A., and we were hanging out with two girls (that's not the odd part, though I suppose it is a little curious that two girls wanted to kick around with me and my idiot buddy). Unfortunately, none of them had any desire to watch one more minute of basketball. They begged me to leave the apartment in search of more libations and better "entertainment," but that's a sordid tale for later. Reluctantly, I agreed; we put the VCR on record and headed off.

That was supposed to be it for hoops, because when you wander into Deep Ellum shortly before midnight, you expect a lot of things--silicone and collagen among them--but you don't expect to watch basketball. As we waded through an extremely crowded scene full of beautiful people, I was totally shocked. There, inside one of Dallas' more trendy bars, every head in the house was turned toward one of three TVs, all of which were showing the Mavs game. Hardly anyone moved. I watched both overtimes there and saw Dallas win. The patrons were elated. Some talked about the victory; most talked about the why.

"Can you believe Nick Van Exel?" someone would ask, before three others would fall all over themselves with effusive praise.

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That night, in a hugely important game, Van Exel all but willed the Mavs to victory. He scored 40 points, most of which were fired from a variety of impossible angles and nearly all of which came in key moments. Better still, he was all snarl and swagger, hopping defiantly down the court after a big play, arms straight at his side, a wise-ass smirk spread across his face. The bar people drank it in like vodka. They toasted him long after the game had ended.

That's when it struck me: This is Van Exel's team now, and his town, too. Dallas is a city that likes its athletes talented, but they must also have grand personalities. The bland don't excel here--that's for places like Indianapolis or Cleveland. Really, can you see a guy like Tim Couch holding the attention of a bunch of local drunks long into the wee hours?

"Nick's can feed off it," Michael Finley said earlier in the year, before Van Exel was averaging close to 20 points per playoff game, not to mention countless hearts won. "He's a fighter. The crowd loves a guy like that."

So, too, should the Mavs, because he is a rare commodity.

The playoffs are a different entity altogether, set apart from the regular season by urgency. Teams shorten their rotation because they have to win right now, not when they return from a long road swing. The best players see the court; the dead weight decays along the sideline. That's the way it works. It's why Shawn Bradley--despite Mark Cuban's insistence during the regular season that the 7-foot-6 center has value--has seen his playing time diminish significantly. Through Game 4 of the Kings Series, Bradley had yet to play double-digit minutes. (Sweet...finally, someone over there is paying attention.)

Conversely, Van Exel, one of the league's best bench options, has taken on a primary role. His minutes, points, assists and rebounds have all increased. Late in several games, it was Van Exel--not the members of the Big 3--with the ball in his hand and a gleam of confidence in his eye. It is that last bit, his command of difficult situations, his brashness, that makes him this club's true leader. Steve Nash is an able point guard, and Dirk Nowitzki and Finley are fine scorers, but rarely do any of them inspire. Could be you buy into the quiet captain, the guy who forges the path by example. Personally, I'd rather have the shit-talker out front, the badass with an attitude as big as his will.

Then, that's probably part of the reason he's with the Mavs right now and not starting for some other team. Van Exel has long had a reputation around the league as a troublemaker or a loudmouth. After being cast off by the Lakers, he was banished to Denver before being rescued by the Mavs. Even then, he was supposed to be an extra in the trade that brought big man Raef LaFrentz to town. And now who's become the key to that deal?

"He's not a bad guy," says assistant coach Del Harris, who coached Van Exel with the Lakers. "He's a good guy. He's fiery. Sometimes people take that the wrong way, or get the wrong impression. He's helped us immeasurably."

The Mavs almost traded Van Exel, you know. A few months ago, when Bradley and LaFrentz were particularly inept (i.e. typically unable to do much of anything, especially grab rebounds; good thing they have multimillion-dollar deals that will keep them in town until God, or the Clippers, sees fit to take them off our hands), rumors were whispered about Dallas being in the market for a more competent interior player. For the senile, the hot potential deal at the time had Van Exel heading to Miami for Brian Grant and Travis Best. Nearly all the pundits, Charles Barkley being the most vocal, excoriated the Mavs and owner/mad scientist Mark Cuban for not making the trade. In retrospect, with the way Van Exel is playing this postseason, those people have assumed the role of the fool. Full disclosure: I'm a member of that group; I sit at Barkley's right hand.

Ah, but this is my mea culpa. Because anyone who can score career playoff highs in back-to-back games, as Van Exel did, is OK by me. And besides that, I enjoy his candor. There's something to be said for someone who will stand in front of a camera or microphone and admit that he sucked or that his team has choked--all things Van Exel has let fly. Better still, he said he would have traded himself to get that much-needed post player and thereby improve the team. Who doesn't have a soft spot for martyrs?

"Man, I just want to win," Van Exel said when all that was going down.

It is a cliché, often repeated but seldom true. Van Exel meant it, we know that now. We also know how much better the Mavs and this town are for having him around.

It's not Saturday as I write this, but I'm going to the bar tonight to hoist one in his honor.

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