One of the worst things a point guard in the 90s could see was that they were playing the Sonics that week. Especially if you’re a 22-year-old rookie and the coach wanted to go over your matchup with Gary Payton. No amount of coaching can prepare you for what’s about to happen. Nick Van Exel knows that all too well.
Their first encounter took place during the preseason, right before Van Exel was about to make his professional debut in the NBA. Bear in mind, Payton was just coming off his third season in the league and had started to make a name for himself. He had just been given a nickname The Glove and was already one of the most intense and in-your-face defensive guards in the entire association.
Coming into his first matchup against Payton, Nick the Quick was up for a challenge. Van Exel had that confidence about him, like whoever he was up against, it didn’t matter. The no-fear mentality is what kept him in the NBA for 13 years. It’s what kept him going when he was 22, facing The Glove for the first time, as well as when he was 34, playing against prime Kobe Bryant. His body may have changed, he may have lost athletic abilities, but the approach has always stayed the same.
It’s a character trait, something that you simply have or don’t have. And Nick at Nite had it. He had shown it from day one, showing no compromise to no anyone – not even to arguably his toughest defensive matchup in the entire NBA.
Maybe the third or fourth preseason game, we playing Seattle in the Forum. And GP, I knew about GP ’cause, you know, he was The Glove. Little nervous, but ready for the battle. I did a move on The Glove, man, and this dude just shoved me all the way across the floor. With two hands, like, ‘ugh!’ So I had to get up, go to him, like you know ‘what’s up’ you know we jawing. He said ‘I’ve been waiting on you, I’ve been waiting on you.’Nick Van Excel, Knuckleheads Podcast
That was Payton testing Nick. Lonzo Ball went through the same thing when he faced the NBA’s biggest Patrick Beverley in his professional debut. Pat gave him a hard time, annoyed him on a possession-basis, even knocked him on the floor, and he did all that to test the guy. To show Lonzo he’s going to have a hard time in the NBA, regardless of how talented he is. It was a lesson hard-learned, but one that you can’t put a price on.
You have to have your mind in the right place when going up against guys like that. It took some time for Lonzo to adapt to it, and Van Excel adapted to it right away. Maybe it’s because Nick expected it to happen. It was a nightly occurrence in the league back then.
I knew that everybody is gonna try you. They gonna try you, and if you don’t stand up for, you know, who you are, man you gonna get dusted in this league.Nick Van Excel, Knuckleheads Podcast
And Nick the Quick did stand up. He had set the tone for himself that he’s not going to be messed around with. Guys kept trying, but he would always strike back. That’s how it was back then; you just couldn’t back down from a challenge, or else you would’ve been eaten alive. After Van Excel stood up to Payton, Nick got himself off the menu. He became the hunter, instead of becoming the prey.