As he inches closer toward his goal of becoming a college or NBA head coach, Nick Van Exel hasn’t been able to shake the events of December 2010.
A Dallas County jury sentenced Van Exel’s son, Nickey Maxwell Van Exel, then 22 years old, to 60 years in prison for the 2010 shooting death of his longtime friend Bradley Eyo. A jury found the younger Van Exel guilty of murder after prosecutors said he shot Eyo and then dumped his body on the east side of Dallas near Lake Ray Hubbard.
Nickey Van Exel’s attorney said the two men were playing with a shotgun at Nickey Van Exel’s home in Garland when it discharged, and that Nickey Van Exel didn’t know the gun was loaded.
“It probably haunts me,” said the elder Van Exel, who played 13 seasons in the NBA. “I wouldn’t say every day, but it’s on my mind.
“When it first happened it probably haunted me for like the first two years because I knew [Eyo] so well, I knew his brother very well. He stayed at my house in the summers. I took him to the [NBA] Finals in 2006 – he and his brother – when Dallas played Miami, and I had them in Miami.”
During the trial, Nick Van Exel wept on the witness stand and apologized to Eyo’s family on Jan. 31, 2013, the day his son’s sentence was handed down. Time, Van Exel acknowledged, is now his primary coping mechanism.
“For me, I look at both sides,” said Van Exel, who played the 2002-03 season with the Dallas Mavericks. “If I was on the other side I would be upset, angry.
“Then I look at it like, this is my son, this is who I fathered. I didn’t raise him to be that way.”
The incident shattered two families.
Fast-forward to today and Van Exel being named the head coach of the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League last month.
It’s a grand opportunity for a man who spent one season as an assistant coach at Texas Southern, three as a player development coach with the Atlanta Hawks, one as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and last season as an assistant coach with the Legends.
“I think I’ve come a long way from being a player to trying to get to that new journey,” Van Exel said. “And people respect it now, so I think it will be a good situation. I think people are starting to realize that I’m serious about it.”
The Legends are basically a farm team of the Mavericks, who are high on Van Exel and his innate skills and fundamentals.
“He had some very magic moments in a Mavericks uniform,” said Donnie Nelson, the owner of the Legends and president of basketball operations for the Mavericks. “He did his time in terms of coaching and paid his dues with the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks and with the Texas Legends last year.
“So he’s not only got the star status, but he’s also worked for this opportunity. We’re just pleased and blessed beyond words to have him as our new coach with the Texas Legends.”
Van Exel, a one-time All-Star who averaged 14.4 points and 6.6 assists in 880 career NBA games, is keen on the teaching aspects of the game and developing players.
“I’m a big developmental guy,” Van Exel said. “I think development is very important because some of these guys are good players, but they don’t know how to play the game. Once they understand how to play the game, they’ll see it a little bit differently.”
It took Van Exel some time to see things a little differently when he was coming up through the basketball ranks. Raised in a single-parent home by his mother, Joyce, in Kenosha, Wis., Van Exel was often left alone at home while his mom worked the second shift at a Chrysler plant.
Then, after making the All-State team as a senior, Van Exel came to East Texas, enrolling at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens. It didn’t take long for Van Exel to become homesick.
“Trinity Valley was a culture shock,” Van Exel said. “Coming from Wisconsin and having never really lived out of the state and being away from my mom, it was different.
“I think it was around Christmas time [as a freshman], I called my mom and I said I’m ready to come home, and she said if you do you’re going to be just like a lot of these other good players in the area that’s going to be at home. And when she said that, it made sense. I didn’t see it at the time, but it made sense, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to stick it out.’ “
A quick, flashy point guard, Van Exel led Bob Huggins’ Cincinnati Bearcats to the 1992 Final Four and to a two-year record of 56-10.
Van Exel, however, was known for being emotional. He did so as a way of protecting himself from others.
“When I got on the court, the court was my home and I protected myself as far as a basketball player to where I was moody,” the 43-year-old Van Exel said. “But off the court I’m the nicest person in the world.
“If you come and talk to me I’ll have a conversation with you. But the media, or people who didn’t know you, they always saw you as a basketball player, but there are two sides.”
His upbringing reflects it.
“I wish I was a Grant Hill or those guys who were raised with two parents and understood you’ve got to do it this way, but I wasn’t. So I understood that basketball was like, this is my protection,” Van Exel said. “Looking back, you really don’t need that shield, but a little bit of it you do, because you don’t know if this person has your best interest.
“That’s how we are as athletes. We come from the inner city and the projects, and we can’t trust everybody. Until you grow up and mature, then you’ll see that it’s not that bad, and then you’ll let the shield down a little bit.”
Van Exel admits his mom was his confidante and security blanket. She died in 2006, the same year he retired from the NBA.
As for his son, Van Exel is hopeful he’ll be released early from prison. How early, he doesn’t know.
“We’re trying things for an appeal,” Van Exel said. “I think one appeal got denied, so we’re still fighting it.
“That was [Nickey’s] best friend. I think he loved his best friend. I think he made a terrible mistake, an accident.”
In the meantime, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has watched the ascension of Van Exel’s promising career as an X’s and O’s practitioner from afar and has respect for his coaching acumen.
“It’s not easy for star players to get on the coaching side and then pay their dues and work their way up,” Carlisle said. “I’m extremely impressed with the way that he’s approached it.
“He’s never felt the least bit entitled to anything. He has worked for everything that he’s gotten and he’s worked for this opportunity, and he deserves it.”
Dwain Price: 817-390-7760, @dwainprice
The Van Exel file
Nick Van Exel played 13 seasons in the NBA, including one All-Star appearance in 1998, before joining the coaching profession.
- June 30, 1993: Drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers out of Cincinnati
- June 24, 1998: Traded to the Denver Nuggets
- Feb. 21, 2002: Traded to the Dallas Mavericks
- Aug., 18, 2003: Traded to the Golden State Warriors
- July 20, 2004: Traded to the Portland Trail Blazers
- Aug. 29, 2005: Signs free-agent contract with the San Antonio Spurs
- May 24, 2006: Retires from the NBA
- Oct. 15, 2009: Hired as Texas Southern assistant coach
- Sept. 8, 2010: Hired as Atlanta Hawks assistant coach
- June 17, 2013: Hired as Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach
- Nov. 11, 2014: Hired as Texas Legends (D-League) assistant coach
- July 8, 2015: Promoted to Texas Legends head coach