Why Do NBA Players Go to Cancun?

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Many do not know (or care) about the history of running jokes, but wouldn’t it be a good time to talk about it? After all, “funny” never goes out of style. One of the most famous NBA jokes is the chant, “1, 2, 3, Cancun.” It started with Nick Van Exel, an All-Star point guard for the Lakers in the mid-90s. What’s the origin of this joke, and why do NBA players go to Cancun? Consider yourself warned, but the backstory is funny and sad at the same time.

What is Cancun Known ForWhat is Cancun Known For?

Cancun is regarded as the Mexican Caribbean’s beating heart and a tourist’s paradise. The place has been a vacation spot for so long that everything it does caters to tourists. Cancun’s popularity among vacationers stems from its mix of beautiful beaches, clear blue sea, pleasant weather, and, most importantly, excellent air and land connectivity.

But what Cancun has to offer doesn’t stop there. Apart from the beaches, Cancun can also whet the appetite of history buffs. The Yucatan peninsula, where Cancun is located, was the center of religion, trade, and culture in the Mayan period. If you’re into ancient civilization and that kind of stuff, there is no shortage of that in Cancun.

Here’s the kicker: Apart from the beaches, weather, and rich history, the lineup isn’t complete without sumptuous cuisine. Cancun has become an international stop, so it features food from around the world. You can start with traditional Mexican food and make your way to contemporary fusions. You may choose to fine dine in lavish restaurants or grab a quick bite from food stands lining up in the street.

The point is Cancun is known to be a heart-stopping tourist destination close to America. On average, it is only a 3-hour flight from the United States; if you’re in Miami, it’s only an hour and 35 minutes away by plane.

What Does Cancun Have to Do with NBAWhat Does Cancun Have to Do with NBA?

Well, NBA players are rich young men who can afford to go anywhere for vacation. However, “Cancun,” particularly the chant, “1, 2, 3… Cancun,” took on a new meaning in the NBA, thanks to Nick Van Exel.

Here’s a little history lesson. Nick “the Quick” was a point guard for the Lakers from 1993 to 1998. In his last year in Los Angeles, Van Exel made the All-Star team, but the Lakers fell short in the playoffs in 1997. The Jazz eliminated the 4-1 in the Conference Semifinals.

But in 1998, the Lakers were facing a similar fate. The Lakers were down 3-0 against the Jazz, and in an attempt to lighten up the mood, Van Exel made the joke in the Lakers huddle. “1, 2, 3… Cancun.” Apparently, Shaquille O’Neal didn’t find it funny, and neither did former Lakers GM Jerry West. They thought Van Exel was already giving up on the series, thinking about vacation. 

O’Neal reportedly went up to West and demanded Van Exel be traded. Van Exel was already in a precarious situation with “the Logo” after voluntarily giving up his starting spot to Derek Fisher. West felt Van Exel should show some force as one of the team’s leaders, but he gave his spot away. 

After the “Cancun” fiasco, the writing was on the wall. Van Exel was traded to the Nuggets for Tony Battie and the draft rights to Tyronne Lue a week after that incident.

What Does Cancun Joke Mean in NBAWhat Does Cancun Joke Mean in NBA?

The Cancun NBA joke meaning was clear as day. Nick Van Exel may point fingers at his jokester personality, but it ultimately means he’s ready to exchange the ball for a glass of Mojito and the sandy beaches. So, the “123 Cancun” meaning refers to a team’s impending vacation– whether it implies not making the playoffs or being on the verge of getting eliminated.

Now an analyst/jokester at NBA on TNT, O’Neal seemed to have gotten over the joke. Well, as long he’s dishing the punishment, he is. In the wake of the Lakers’ 121-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns to get eliminated in the 2021 playoffs, Shaq and his crew trolled the Lakers hard with the Cancun joke. 

If they’re not making fun of everybody else’s playoff shortcomings, Shaq and the rest of the NBA on TNT guys like to come up with the “Gone Fishin'” joke, which is pretty similar.

Another reference to the “123 Cancun” chant was at the end of Alvin Gentry’s speech in the 2018 playoffs. The Warriors eliminated Gentry’s Pelicans in the semifinals, and just as he was about to leave, he quipped: “What is it? 123 Cancun?”

Wrapping Things Up: Why Do NBA Players Go to Cancun?

Do you know a joke that’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time you didn’t know how to react? It’s funny if you’re making the joke but heartbreaking if you’re on the receiving end. That’s the “123 Cancun” joke in a nutshell.

First, what does Cancun mean? Cancun is in the Yucatan Peninsula, the easternmost part of Mexico. Thanks to its turquoise waters, sandy white beaches, phenomenal cuisine, and rich history, it is a widely-known international vacation spot.

So, how did the Cancun joke make its way into the NBA? The responsible party was Nick Van Exel, then of the Los Angeles Lakers. In the huddle after practice, Van Exel quipped, “123 Cancun” instead of the usual “123, Win” or whatever phrase a team comes up with. At the time, the Lakers were down 0-3 in the Conference Finals against the Jazz. Some of his teammates, like Shaquille O’Neal, did not take it kindly and demanded the front office trade Van Exel, which the FO obliged.

Why do NBA players go to Cancun, and what does the joke mean? Well, NBA players go to Cancun or any other vacation spots in the offseason to destress and lick their wounds after a long season. Shaq did not like the joke at the time since it implied Van Exel was already giving up on the team. Today, if you hear NBA personalities like Shaq or Charles Barkley quip “123 Cancun,” they are probably trolling teams that didn’t make the playoffs or have been eliminated in the postseason. Either way, it means the players are all going on vacation.

We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

Hoops Addict
Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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