When you’re in a club with Shawn Marion, Steve Francis, Vinnie Johnson and legendary coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, you’re in great company.
Former Maverick standout and current scout for the team Nick Van Exel joined that fraternity recently when he was voted into the 2020 induction class of the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame.
The honor comes 30 years after Van Exel was a standout point guard for Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, about 70 miles southeast of Dallas.
“It’s a great honor,” Van Exel said this week. “Back in the day, juco used to be like Division I basketball. I was only being recruited out of high school by mid-major conferences and I wanted more than that.
“Grades had something to do with it. I was a knucklehead back in the day. So junior college was a way to keep playing basketball at a high level while taking care of some other things.”
The NJCAA hall of fame alerted Van Exel of his pending induction earlier this year, although he’d heard rumors before that. The actual ceremony has been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Van Exel, who has lived in Frisco for many years, spent time as an assistant coach at Atlanta, Milwaukee and Memphis. He also was head coach for the Texas Legends in 2015-16. He now scouts for the Mavericks, working with the basketball operations staff led by Donnie Nelson, Michael Finley, coach Rick Carlisle and owner Mark Cuban.
He’s come a long way from those uncertain days leaving high school and starting his college basketball career in what he calls “a country town with horses everywhere.”
“It was tough,” he said. “Being away from home was scary. I was 18 years old and didn’t know anything.”
The only other junior college Van Exel considered was Mesa Community College in Arizona. But he opted for Trinity Valley after a rather unusual recruiting visit.
“I got on a plane and when I landed, I was in Houston,” Van Exel said. “I don’t know why I flew there, but I got off the plane and nobody was there. I found a pay phone and called the assistant coach and he said: I’m at the airport, where are you? I told him I was at the airport, but he was at DFW Airport.
“So you talk about scared. I didn’t have any money and I had to wait until he drove from Dallas to Houston. Then we had to go back to Athens. That should have been my wake-up call about junior colleges. But I made the decision to stick with it.”
It paid off. Van Exel spent two years at Trinity Valley. He put up gaudy numbers, averaging 19.1 points per game, which was enough to get the attention of a lot of major college programs.
TVCC does not have a longstanding basketball pedigree. At that time, San Jacinto near Houston was a far more established junior college factory for producing basketball talent.
“San Jac was like a major-college team,” Van Exel said. “That team was loaded. I remember going against Sam Cassell, who went there. I remember how he trash-talked me, but we became friends from that point on and now he’s still one of my best friends.”
That is a common thread. Athletes who went to junior college “definitely have some kind of bond,” Van Exel said. “We went through a hard road.”
TVCC has produced just one other NBA player apart from Van Exel, but it’s another good one: Shawn Kemp, who spent most of his career with the Seattle SuperSonics and like Van Exel also was an NBA all-star.
When Van Exel’s time at TVCC ended, he settled on Cincinnati, which at the time had a strong program under coach Bob Huggins.
The Bearcats made the NCAA Final Four in 1992, Van Exel’s junior season. They were knocked out in the Elite Eight the following year.
Van Exel went on to be drafted 37th overall (10th in the second round) in the 1993 draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. He spent five years with the Lakers and was an all-star in 1997-98.
He was traded in 1998 to Denver, then on Feb. 21, 2002, he was dealt to Dallas in a huge trade that also brought Avery Johnson and Raef LaFrentz to the Mavericks. Tim Hardaway Sr. and Juwan Howard were among the assets they sent to the Nuggets.
As a sixth man for coach Don Nelson, Van Exel was a major part of the first two playoff runs the Mavericks made in the Dirk Nowitzki era.
For his 13-year career, Van Exel averaged 14.4 points and 6.6 assists, starting 670 of the 880 regular-season games he played.
“It turned out to be the right route for me to take,” Van Exel said of his career jump-start in junior college. “Everybody does it differently.”
Van Exel, by the way, is the second former player with strong Maverick connections to be honored in hall-of-fame fashion 2020. In February, assistant coach Darrell Armstrong was inducted into the Orlando Magic’s Hall of Fame for his accomplishments with the Magic during his playing days.