It was meant to be a joke, and according to Nick Van Exel, it was a joke. But boy was it poorly timed. It sure wasn't the first one by Nick the Quick, but it ended up being his last wearing purple and gold.
It was the spring of '98, and the Lakers were trailing the Jazz badly in the WCF, with only a game away from getting swept. Bear in mind Utah bounced LA from the post-season the year before, so losing to them again was going to be a hard pill to swallow for the Lakers. Everyone was laser-focused on at least extending the series, not giving the Jazz the satisfaction of eliminating the Lakers in four.
In such a tense atmosphere, Van Exel decided it was on him to loosen things up. That's when the infamous chant happened - to this day, the most poorly timed joke in NBA's history. Instead of chanting "Lakers," Van Exel shouted "Cancun" from a team huddle at the end of practice before Game 4. Translation - he had already given up on the series and was in the vacation state of mind.
You can imagine something like that rubbing everyone involved with the organization the wrong way. Shaquille O'Neal was at the top of that list, as he believed Van Exel's frivolity was the ultimate proof of him jumping ships. Nick denying it didn't help his situation.
Everyone who was in that locker room with me knows I’d never give up on the team. But finger-pointing happens. I never meant anything wrong.
Nick Van Exel, LA Times
Shaq wasn't the only one who wasn't happy with Van Exel's actions. Jerry West, the Lakers' GM at the time, publicly stated his disappointment with the Cancun fiasco.
I had never heard anything in my life like that. ‘Shocked’ doesn’t begin to describe it.
This all happened months after Van Exel had given his starting spot to Derek Fisher - a move that was the first signal of Nick giving up on the team. It was another of Van Exel's decision that didn't sit well with West. He wanted to see his best point guard in the starting lineup.
I don’t know if he gave up on the team, but I just would have preferred him to say, 'I’m the leader on this team, I want to start.’ I think the leader of your team has to be a leader at all times. Sometimes, he seemed not to want that responsibility.
You can tell Nick the Quick was already on thin ice with The Logo, and it was only a matter of time before West loses his patience. Then came the Cancun joke - the final straw that ended Nick's career in LA. On June 24th, 1998, the Lakers traded Van Exel to the Nuggets for Tony Battie and Tyronn Lue, ending his five-season run with the LA team. Over 378 games played for the Lakers, Nick averaged 14.9 PPG and 7.3 APG and had also made an All-Star team in '98.
The core of Van Exel, O'Neal, and the young emerging shooting-guard in Kobe Bryant was going to set the NBA on fire. And they did it, but only as a duo. All because of the most poorly timed joke in the history of the league.