You See What You See
Hi, I'm Eric Nusbaum. I write a baseball blog called Pitchers & Poets with my friend Ted, and sometimes other friends. I've also written for Slate and been an anthology, one time each.
Forgive me. I'm primarily a baseball writer and as such I can't help but turning to childhood memories and nostalgia. It's a reflex. It can also be a coping mechanism. I can be wrong about basketball statistics or strategy or the finer points of its history. But if I'm wrong about myself, then at least you can't prove it.
For example: I was born in 1986 in Los Angeles. I was a sports-obsessed kid. I never cared about Michael Jordan.
Instead, I loved Nick Van Exel. When I shot hoops at the park, Van Exel was the player I pretended to be. This was true from his debut in 1993 until his departure from the Lakers in 1998. My interest may have lingered into one or two of Van Exel's Denver seasons. I don't remember.
Michael Jordan did not belong to me. He was a grimacing bald villain who wore villainous colors and played in a villainous distant city. He was an East Coast player, an Eastern Conference player. In my imagination, East Coast and Eastern Conference belonged to the same amorphous and distant reality. It was cold there and it had nothing to do with Showtime, which was what basketball was supposed to be, and in the mid-1990s, what Los Angeles still wanted it to be.
I grew up in the aftermath of Showtime. We were aware of it, my friends and I, but we only knew Showtime as some inexplicable ideal that the adults of the world placed firmly in the past. Showtime was shadows. It was a mystery. At one point, I must have thought Showtime was a person. Then I thought all fast-breaks were Showtime.
Michael Jordan was fodder for the unimaginative half of the playground. He was too easy to like, too easy to worship. It was too easy to stick out your tongue. Jordan was a brand. He was a constant. And he bored me. I realize now how absurd it is to write that. But what's so interesting about greatness? Why settle for distant beauty when there's something surprising and dynamic and kinetic happening just down the street at the Great Western Forum and on TV every night?
When I started writing this I didn't remember much about Nick Van Exel. I remembered that his nickname was Nick the Quick. I remembered that he feuded with Del Harris and that I never liked Del Harris after that. I remembered Eddie Jones, because Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones were like the Batman and Batman of those Laker teams. I did not remember how exciting he was to watch. Or that he once shoved a referee. I don't think I ever knew that he was from Kenosha, Wisconsin, that he played one season at a community college in Texas, that his first name Nick is short for Nickey, not Nicholas.
Take fifteen minutes to watch him on YouTube. You'll see him passing up a wide open Vlade Divac for a transition three. You'll see him throwing half-court alley-oop lobs to Shaq. You'll see him putting Kenny Smith on the floor with a spin move and then popping a mid-range jumper. Nick Van Exel spun circles – not around anybody necessarily, just in general.
But maybe that wasn't the only thing that drew me to Van Exel. His name was fun to say and his superfluous point guard stylings were easier to emulate than soaring slam dunks. His game was joyous, zealous even. He shadow-boxed after big shots. He took his free throws from a few steps behind the free throw line – the kind of quirk that doesn't have to make sense because in sports things don't have to make sense.Nick Van Exel smiled when he hit big shots.
Van Exel was a second round draft pick. Character concerns. But I didn't know that until I wrote this story. He behaved like a first round pick. He acted like he belonged not just on the court, not just with the ball in his hands and the game on the line, but on SportsCenter in perpetuity. And this was before you were supposed to act like that. I was a child. I knew nothing of questionable decision making. I knew nothing of efficiency. I knew nothing of his draft position. But it didn't matter to me.
At first, they didn't matter to Jerry West either. “I thought we had found a player who was going to be there for ten or fifteen years,” he says in Van Exel's Beyond the Glory Episode (available on Youtube.) “I rooted for him so much because I saw the rough edges going away.” The truth is, I saw the edges but not as rough. I saw them as dynamic. People talked about Van Exel. He merited opinions. He was a lot like my favorite Dodger player at the time, Raul Mondesi.
Raul Mondesi's career mirrored Nick Van Exels. He broke in at the same time, winning the 1994 Rookie of the Year Award. He swung at every pitch. He butted heads with managers. He showed off. There was a tattoo of a cannon on his right bicep, and sometimes between innings after he finished playing catch with a ball boy, Mondesi would toss a ball into the crowd and then show off the cannon. His arm was volatile. In the same way that Nick Van Exel might throw the occasional unnecessary no-look pass, Raul Mondesi would take the occasional unnecessary headfirst dive. Van Exel was traded after the 1998 season. Mondesi after the 1999 season.
Do the players we are drawn to as ignorant children say something about the kinds of fans we will become as less ignorant adults? I didn't know any better when I decided that Nick Van Exel was my favorite basketball player or that Raul Mondesi was my favorite baseball player – if it was even a decision at all. They weren't my favorites because they were the best – they weren't even the best players on their teams. But they were local and they were compelling. . I was just a kid in LA in the 90s seeking something exciting.