Banking on the Baby-Faced Killer 

This year's Warriors look like the Bad News Bears. Can hobbled superstar Nick Van Exel pull 'em together? Good question.

A few weeks ago in downtown Oakland, a ball of microphones and tape recorders stood on a hardwood basketball court waiting for player Nick Van Exel to emerge from a weight room. The Golden State Warriors' droopy-eyed superstar was scheduled to meet the local media for the first time, and reporters were eager to get a whiff of Van Exel's famously mercurial attitude. It was the team's "Media Day," and many of the younger players stood around in their brand-new uniforms grinning that interview-ready grin, but few of the newshounds took them up on the offer.

"I know what they're doing here," announced one anxious reporter who wore the goatee of the stocky man. "They're holding Nick back because they know once we talk to him, we're gone." His brethren nodded; they weren't fooled, either. On cue, out strutted the man whose round face and steely gaze earned him his nickname: "The Baby-Faced Killer." Van Exel, now 31, coolly waved back his hand -- a hand with finely manicured nails -- and the crowd backpedaled without protest.

In August, Van Exel had been traded from one of the league's elite teams, the Dallas Mavericks, to the Warriors, one of the league's worst. The Warriors haven't reached the playoffs in nine years, and losing has become such a custom that East Bay residents can't be blamed for taking a moment to recall whether the team still exists. When Van Exel learned his contract had been shipped to Oakland, he summed up his feelings to a reporter this way: "I'm not saying I was doing backflips when I got traded. But I wasn't going to kill myself, either."

Suicidal tendencies averted -- for the moment -- Van Exel's arrival to the Warriors comes at a unique time for the franchise. Despite nearly a decade of insufferable losing, last season's squad actually came within a bounce pass of the last playoff spot. With such an inspired finish, many fans and players believed the team's momentum had finally swung toward the win column, and a stable cast of players had been set for the future. But during the off season, the team's reclusive owner Chris Cochran orchestrated surprise trades that sent away five players -- nearly half the locker room -- including the team's captain and marquee draw, Antawn Jamison. In return, the owner lowered his employee payroll to that of a burger joint, but managed to assemble, yet again, another patchwork of ragamuffin talent who lack the bling-bling game of Van Exel. Precisely what Cochran bargained for, and what Warriors fans will be stuck rooting for, will become clearer tonight as the team commences its 82-game season.

"[Former Pistons coach Chuck] Daly once told me you don't even know your team until the fiftieth game of the season," said Eric Musselman, the Warriors head coach, sweeping aside a kind suggestion that his team looked DOA already. Musselman has the physique and intensity of a marathon runner, but at Media Day, he was as optimistic as a Little Leaguer on Opening Day. "But I'm hoping to know what we've got before fifty games." He paused and winked. "Maybe, by, say, the 48th game?"

Until then -- February 7 versus the Denver Nuggets -- Musselman can take solace in the knowledge that at the very least, his roster has the charm of a Bad News Bears outfit: high on quirk value, low on potential -- and who's to say that's not a winning solution these days? In a year when the scrappy Florida Marlins won the World Series, East Bay basketball fans may have reason to believe. Or not.

In Jason Richardson, the Warriors have perhaps the most electrifying player once he gets airborne; he's been the NBA's reigning Slam Dunk Champion for the past two years. Yet the highly acrobatic and youthful player, who's usually as happy as a puppy, grew perturbed at Media Day when a reporter reminded him that defenders around the league knew all about his one glaring weakness: dribbling the ball. Essentially, he can't. Not with any authority, at least. Between measured gulps of a protein shake the chiseled Richardson told the reporters, a bit tersely, "I've been working on it."

At center, the team employs the league's smartest man. Standing six-foot-five and weighing in at 260 pounds, Adonal Foyle has a master's degree in sports psychology and runs a nonprofit called Democracy Matters, committed to campaign finance reform. Foyle, a native of the island St. Vincent, endears himself to those who aren't accustomed to worshiping multimillionaire athletes with comments such as "I feel a responsibility to involve myself in society, and make it better."

To NBA scouts, though, Foyle is too soft against his opponents, and he moves too slow.

Across the court, fans will find Mike Dunleavy, last year's rail-thin rookie who, when entering a game, showed all the confidence of a kid entering a haunted house. To bulk up against the men this year, Dunleavy explained, he'd gained fifteen pounds of muscle during the off-season. "I've never been this big," he said, looking down at his newly broad shoulders. "It's weird."

Troy Murphy, the team's Irish enforcer, has a nose that zigs and zags; last season he punched two Portland Trailblazers after the game ended. Murphy, whose nickname is "Horse," also developed an eloquent shooting game last year, adding long-range, high-difficulty shots. Now in his third year, on Media Day he was upset about a foot injury and wasn't much in the mood for talking.

Yet the team's overall drive and persona may depend on point guard Nick Van Exel, and his leadership as well as his health -- Van Exel recently underwent knee surgery and will miss the first five games of the season. His rep has been that of the stereotypical overpaid and undercommitted athlete. When he played for the lowly Nuggets, Van Exel was accused of taking a dive each time he touched the ball just so the coach would trade him away. Now older, Van Exel claims he isn't that kid anymore, and that he relishes his starring role with the Warriors.

One of the first questions Van Exel took came from Art Spander, the gray-haired Oakland Tribune columnist. Spander asked about the player's time with the Los Angeles Lakers when Van Exel argued with the team's general manager and spouted off to reporters about lack of respect and playing time.

"Man," Van Exel interrupted, raising his shoulders to his ears in defense, "why do we have to bring that shit up? That was ten years ago." Before Spander could answer, another question came floating in, and Van Exel turned his attention away from the columnist.

"Look," Van Exel said later. "We've got a good mix here. We've got some young guys who aren't just learning the game -- they know what to do. And we've got some veterans here who know what it takes to win. It's a matter of whether we can get those two to intertwine. If we can, we can win."

Van Exel spoke with such earnestness that he seemed to convince his questioners. Without prompting, he said it was his job in Oakland to score points and make the people around him better players. He was tossing them unexpected passes in practice, he said, just so they'd be ready to always expect the unexpected from Nick Van Exel come game time. He was a man and a player, he added, and wanted a championship just like everybody else.

Before the reporters would let him go, they asked what he'd do if it turned out this was just another dreary Golden State season -- how would he stay upbeat?

"We gonna see," Van Exel said. "We gonna see."

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