Nick Van Exel wants to be clear: he has never resigned from his team, never wanted to imply it and never wanted to offend anyone. He certainly never intended to publish a meme—especially since no one knew what a “meme” was back in 1998, when Van Exel uttered his tongue-in-cheek battle cry:
“One, two, three… Cancun!”
“It just popped into my head,” says Van Exel now, chuckling at this weird little origin story. “It wasn’t scripted.”
It also won’t technically be scripted Tuesday night when TNT is on Inside the NBA airs what could be his final show of the 2022 playoffs. But when the Warriors wrap up their win over the Mavericks, you can bet someone — Shaq, Kenny, or Chuck — will send Luka Dončić & Co. off to summer with a cheeky, ubiquitous refrain:
“One, two, three… Cancun!”
And Van Exel, watching from his own vacation, will sit back, smile and shake his head.
“I probably should have trademarked that thing,” says Van Exel, now an assistant coach with the Hawks.
If you watch the NBA playoffs, you know the part: a team is eliminated and instantly becomes fodder for the “Gone Fishin'” segment – with players and coaches magically landing on yachts, beaches, piers and occasionally transported by banana boats. Laughter sets in. Oh, it turns out.
And then, invariably, someone will be screaming Cancun, the vacation hotspot on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Always Cancun. Not Maldives or Mykonos, not Aruba or Fiji or Zanzibar. No, only Cancun. And that’s because of Van Exel.
That’s because the Lakers — then built around a young Shaquille O’Neal, 26, and an even younger Kobe Bryant, 19, — were utterly devastated by jazz for the second spring in a row during the 1998 Western Conference Finals , a veteran-laden powerhouse led by Karl Malone and John Stockton.
The Lakers were flashier and more talented, with Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher flanking O’Neal and Bryant. But the jazz was more mature and methodical and ultimately overwhelming.
“We were young,” says Van Exel. “We had guys who wanted to get their points and do their thing instead of going out and winning as a group.”
The series was on its way to being a breakthrough, and everyone knew it.
The mood in the Great Western Forum was somber as the Lakers huddled in a back hallway before running to Game 4. “One, two, three… Lakers!” they all yelled to break through the crush. Except for a mischievous voice: “One, two, three… Cancun!”
“But I didn’t say it out loud for everyone to hear,” Van Exel recalls. “I think there were only a few people who heard it. And they started laughing a little. And that was my point, was to loosen up the pile. … I’m a prankster. I like to have fun, keep everyone relaxed.”
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Van Exel was 26 at the time and had been a vet for five years. His voice counted, in good times and in bad. He had tried to mobilize the Lakers with impassioned speeches on other occasions – “I got emotional; I started crying and s—” he recalls. “And of course the S— didn’t work. But that was my job.”
However, in this case the battle was already lost. No NBA team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit (and neither has since).
“It was just a funky vibe,” says Van Exel. “And I don’t think anyone who was in that group really trusted that we were going to come back and win the series.”
No, they would all be on vacation soon. A little joke about the tropics seemed appropriate, at least for Van Exel. But maybe not for everyone.
A month later, the Lakers traded Van Exel to the Nuggets for veteran Tony Battie and draft rights to Tyronn Lue. A week after that Los Angeles Times, in an uncredited article, first reported on the “Cancun” joke — and pointed out that O’Neal had complained to team president Jerry West about it. The clear implication was that West Van Exel acted on it.
Which Van Exel, hearing the article read today, can only laugh about. “It definitely wasn’t,” he says.
“I was traded mid-season,” says Van Exel. “I knew I was gone waaay In front [June]. But they had to put their hat on something. Someone had to be the scapegoat.”
There were more obvious reasons for the trade. Van Exel had repeatedly clashed with head coach Del Harris. The Lakers had a surplus of talented young guards in Bryant, Jones and Fisher and growing concerns about payroll. And as Van Exel recalls, that season the team had started to break up into factions.
“Things started to change a little bit,” he says. “You know it, you can feel it, you can feel it. So I was gone long before that.”
O’Neal now dismisses the story, saying, “I’m not going to blame Nick. I was part of it too.”
That is, the Cancun chant? “Uh, maybe.”
“I don’t want to blame just one guy,” says O’Neal. “So just say it was me, Nick, Eddie, everyone.”
No, says Van Exel, laughing, it was just him – a fact Horry confirms. (“He said it as a joke, to make everyone more relaxed.”)
“I’m not going to sell my boys,” O’Neal says. “You see, we all have the same mentality. Bro, if you go down 3-0 to Spurs and Utah, there’s no turning back. Everyone knows that. You can lose 2-0 and have a chance, but if you lose 3-0, is there a game left? There is no comeback. So I don’t just want to blame them. We all had this attitude, myself included: Well, we’re not going to win this year. So let me go and put my 40 up and then go back to Orlando after the game and relax.
And trading with Van Exel? “It was just about time we made some changes,” says O’Neal.
(The original report also noted that Van Exel made the remark — which he cited as “Cancun, Cancun, Cancun” — on a day of practice when the Lakers were 2-0 down. However, Van Exel and Horry both say, ” One, two, three…Cancun!” happened minutes before the tip of Game 4, which would mark its 24th anniversary today, May 24. Please celebrate responsibly.)
The “Cancun” story had a clear implication back then: that Van Exel was retiring from his team. Horry dismisses the notion, saying, “I don’t think anyone was mad about it.” Van Exel insists his intentions were pure.
“Everyone here knew me,” he says. “They knew I wasn’t going to give them up. That would be the last thing they would have said about me.”
But why Cancun? Why not Maui or Barbados or the Caymans?
“All I knew was that Cancun was a vacation spot back then,” says Van Exel.
In fact, Horry recalls that Cancun was a popular destination for professional athletes and entertainers of the time.
And now it’s a punchline so universal in NBA circles that even coaches and players refer to it when their season ends with a thud, like then-Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry did in 2018. It’s just that most viewers probably have no idea where she’s from.
It’s not even clear exactly how or when it enters the world Inside the NBA Dictionary. Gone Fishin’ has been a staple of the shows since 2002. But the Cancun jokes didn’t really catch on until sometime around 15, according to TNT officials, when O’Neal invoked that reference. By ’16, the show’s staff incorporated Cancun into the graphics of Gone Fishin’.
Van Exel says he’s enjoying it all very much, even though he hasn’t been to Cancun himself in many years, and he’s not sure it’s still the best reference.
“There’s a lot of different vacation spots you can name as opposed to Cancun,” he says. “I don’t know how many people go to Cancun these days.”
He’s got his own new favorites, but he’d rather not share them today.
“No, because then [TNT] will probably try to throw them in there too,” he says, laughing. “I’ll keep it to myself.”
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