Rich, But Not Spoiled

Mitch Kupchak spends as much time on the floor as in the air, and not much of his $800,000 salary
November 23, 1981

It was the kind of restaurant in which the waiters lap at the table in elegant waves, sweeping away soiled place settings of expensive china and fine crystal in discreet silence. Mitch Kupchak, who was chewing on a piece of Yorkshire pudding, put down his fork for a moment and, while he wasn't looking, a waiter snatched it.

It was Saturday night in Los Angeles and Kupchak had the feeling that at any moment a waiter would take that away, too, returning with Sunday morning in a light butter sauce under glass. Slowly he dug the toe of one of his size 15 Adidas sneakers into the thick carpet, nearly crushing an unfortunate waiter who happened to be slithering through the rug. As the headwaiter approached, Kupchak began to gnaw on one of his fingers.

Some people at a nearby table, the headwaiter said, had recognized the Los Angeles Lakers' newest star. "They told me to bring you a bottle of our best champagne," he continued, "and then tell you they didn't want you to break training and bring the bottle back to them so they could drink it." Kupchak laughed and ambled over to share a toast with his admirers, one of whom was Robert Rauschenberg, the renowned artist. Rauschenberg insisted that his new friend be on hand at the opening of his one-man show of photographs at a Los Angeles gallery in late December. It would be a black-tie affair, the artist said. Please come. Kupchak, who once went to the White House wearing jeans and no socks to meet the President of the United States, looked crestfallen for a moment. "That could be a problem," he said. But before Kupchak could utter another word, Rauschenberg generously offered to buy him a tuxedo for the occasion. "I don't know who that Russianburger guy is," Kupchak would say later, "but I like his attitude."

If it takes a good attitude to recognize one, then Kupchak's judgment on such matters is eminently reliable. Even before last July, when he signed an offer sheet with the Lakers for $800,000 a year over seven years and, in effect, forced the Washington Bullets to trade him to L.A., Kupchak had been winning friends and influencing games with his attitude. "Mitch helps a team in a lot of ways that can't be measured in box scores," says Dallas Maverick Forward Tom LaGarde, a teammate of Kupchak's at the University of North Carolina. "You've got to keep on your toes against him because he plays so hard all the time. The guy's relentless."

The fact that Kupchak had started only 15 games in five seasons with the Bullets; that he has had two back operations in the last six years; and that he had never had the kind of rebounding statistics of, say, Jim Chones, the journeyman power forward who was one of the players for whom Kupchak was traded, tended to make some people skeptical of his worth. "I don't think $800,000 a year for a Mitch Kupchak, who's a second-stringer with a bad back, is good judgment," San Diego Clippers owner Donald Sterling said at the time. More than a few cynics suggested that Kupchak's value as a free agent was inflated because he's white. Even Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who defended the offer he'd made Kupchak when it was announced, has qualified his support somewhat lately. Buss was unhappy with Coach Paul Westhead when Westhead benched Chones early last season, despite the fact that Chones was the Lakers' leading rebounder. Last month Buss clearly seemed to be hinting that giving up Chones, Guard Brad Holland and first- and second-round draft picks for Kupchak was all Westhead's idea. "Now we'll find out if Westhead is a genius," Buss said. "He wanted the talent. Now let's see what he does with it." The first thing Westhead did was install a new offense, including 25 or 30 new plays. The team was slow adapting to the innovations and there was some grousing about Westhead's overcoaching. But that seems to have been overcome, as most things are, with a four-game winning streak through last weekend.

At 6'10" and 235 pounds Kupchak is mobile enough to play power forward and big enough to play center, and Westhead has used him at both positions, starting Kupchak in the corner and moving him to the middle when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar goes to the bench. Though the Lakers are still looking for another backup center, Westhead has been enthusiastic about his newest recruit since the start of training camp. "I can't believe that a player of his ability and intensity is here," Westhead says. "He's the kind of player who will knock you down, say excuse me, and then knock you down again." The Laker players, a volatile mix of talent and egos, have been impressed with Kupchak, too. "We get more activity at strong forward from Mitch," Forward Jamaal Wilkes says. "We've got five people out there now who can fill it up. Mitch likes to get in there and mix it up on the boards. He plays the D. The man wants to win."

If the NBA had an all-floorburn team—and perhaps it should—Kupchak would be on his knees leading it. When he was playing in Washington he once hit the court 14 times in a game against Kansas City, diving for loose balls as if they were just so many pearls and the game was his oyster. "Some guys can use their speed to get loose balls," Kupchak says, "but I have to dive on 'em. Maybe most players don't do it because it doesn't feel real good. Unless you're conditioned to it, it's a hard habit to get into." And what's Kupchak's reward for wreaking this magnificent mayhem? "Every minute I'm not playing, I'm either sleeping or putting ice on some part of my body," he says.

With Kupchak's attitude, why were so many people upset when the Lakers made him a millionaire? No non-starter had ever been paid the kind of money Los Angeles was giving Kupchak, and underlying the question of whether he could earn his keep with the Lakers was the matter of whether he had done anything in Washington to deserve even the chance to prove himself. Dick Motta, who coached Kupchak in Washington for four seasons before taking over the Dallas Mavericks, considers Kupchak's recognition long overdue. "The NBA has been way behind in recognizing that your bench is what wins games for you," Motta says. "Coming off the bench isn't an easy role because your friends and family are all telling you that you should be starting, but Mitch had the kind of temperament that allowed him to do it and really make a contribution. He's totally unselfish, which gives the Lakers a completely different dimension. He's the kind of player every coach wants."

That's all well and good, but the fact remains that Motta chose to start Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes ahead of Kupchak for four years. It seemed significant to some of Kupchak's acquaintances that he took uniform No. 41—Unseld's number—when he joined the Lakers, as if to say that if he couldn't win Unseld's job, he would at least take Unseld's number. In truth, 25—Kupchak's number with the Bullets—was being worn by reserve Alan Hardy when Kupchak got to Los Angeles. Hardy has since been cut, and though Kupchak says he would eventually like to get his old number back, he doesn't deny that wearing 41 is a kind of homage to Unseld.

"When the trainer offered it to me, I knew right away whose number it was," Kupchak says. "I thought it would raise a few eyebrows. It's funny. I tried for five years to move Elvin and Wes out, but Elvin had a body that never got old, and Wes said he'd kill me if I took his spot." Unseld finally retired last spring after 13 seasons with the Bullets, and Hayes was traded to his hometown of Houston, to which he'd wanted to return for years. Kupchak says that what he wanted all along was to remain in Washington, that he had hoped to be with the team "forever," but the Bullets were unable or unwilling to match the Lakers' offer. "It seems ironic that after all that time trying to get rid of those two, I was the one who was moved out," he says.

When Kupchak took his verbal offer from the Lakers back to Bullet boss Abe Pollin, he offered to stay for $700,000 a year, $100,000 less than his Laker agreement. But all Pollin countered with was $500,000 a year for a guaranteed five years. Kupchak took the Laker deal, but first he called a reporter who covered the Bullets to explain what had happened: "I want the fans to know that I want to stay in Washington.... I was there when we won a championship and I'm willing to be a part of their rebuilding plans."

Even as a backup player Kupchak had several good seasons with the Bullets, the best of them being 1977-78, when Washington defeated Seattle in seven games for the NBA title. After missing four weeks during the middle of the season with torn ligaments in his right thumb, Kupchak came back during the Bullets' drive to the championship and averaged 19.2 points in their final 22 games. After the championship series was over, the victorious players and coaches were invited to the White House to meet President Carter. The players were advised to wear their everyday clothes, and most of them interpreted that to mean jackets and ties. As did Kupchak. However, he showed up in jacket and tie but no hose, no doubt a sartorial first for presidential receiving lines. "I guess," says Kupchak sheepishly, "you're supposed to wear socks when you meet the President."

Kupchak lives in a kind of happy never-never land, and though he is 27 now and a multimillionaire, he has obviously never gotten over what must have been a gloriously happy childhood. His three requirements for a home in Los Angeles were that it be near a 7-Eleven because he likes their frozen burritos; that it be in an area where he can get Atlantic Coast Conference basketball games on cable TV; and that it be close to an International House of Pancakes. He's decorating his two-bedroom Westwood apartment with drapes and furniture from Sears and J.C. Penney. "My mom told me that if anything goes wrong," he says, "they'll always take the stuff back." That a telephone-answering machine came with the apartment delighted Mitch; he'll refuse to pick up the receiver even when he is home. "This is the greatest gadget," he says. "Hey, it's the 1980s, you don't have to answer your own phone."

"He's a big lad who never grew up," says Kevin Grevey, the Bullet guard who was once Kupchak's roommate in Washington. Kupchak still signs his autographs "Mitchell," as if he were trying to sound grown-up, and though he's now a five-year NBA veteran, he addresses Westhead and his assistant, Pat Riley, as "Coach" instead of Paul or Pat because he feels any other way would be too familiar. And yet Kupchak insists that there have been signs of a new post-adolescent phase in his life recently. "I made a resolution a year and a half ago to wear socks, stop biting my nails and not let the '80s get me down," he says. So far he claims to have lived up to two of the three. "I still kill my nails."

Tall and stringy from a very early age, Kupchak was regularly encouraged to go out for the basketball team at Brentwood Junior High in Brentwood, N.Y., 35 miles out on Long Island from Manhattan, but he stubbornly resisted. "Baseball was my game," he says, "but my height was my downfall. When I was young I was a big slugger, but when I was older I was just a big strike zone. You could see the pitchers' eyes getting wide every time I came to the plate." Because he grew up on Long Island, Kupchak pulled for the Yankees, living and dying with each of Mickey Mantle's turns at bat. He is still an ardent Yankee fan, and this year's World Series setback against the Dodgers nearly killed him.

"I never played basketball until the eighth grade," he says, "and the only reason I made the team then was because of my height. I was awful. I think when I was growing up I was self-conscious about my height, and I felt as if playing basketball would be like admitting I was tall. For a long time, when people would ask me if I played basketball, I took real pleasure in saying no." A few weeks after he was coaxed into playing for his team, he broke his right wrist in three places when a trampoline collapsed on it. "That was the end of my eighth-grade career," he says, "and to be honest, I was really relieved."

Between ninth and 10th grades, Kupchak attended a basketball camp run by his high school coach, Stan Kellner. He also grew from 6'4" to 6'7" by the time he started as a sophomore.

By the time he was a senior at Brentwood High, averaging 30 points and 24 rebounds per game, Kupchak was being recruited by many of the country's basketball powers. The son of a construction equipment engineer—the name Kupchak is of Ukrainian origin, though the family also has Polish antecedents—Mitch grew up in tract housing, and there were always lots of kids around him. "We counted once and there were 70 kids in the 12 houses on our block," he says. So when the time came to choose a school, Kupchak picked North Carolina because he liked the Tar Heels' closely knit family of players, because he was impressed with Coach Dean Smith and because "I liked the V-neck uniforms." Kupchak had never even heard of the ACC until his last year of high school, but when he got to Chapel Hill he found a Carolina blue heaven. There was a slight language barrier at first, but he soon overcame that. "They mocked me for two years at Carolina because of the way I talked," says Kupchak, a trace of New Yawkese still evident in his voice. "I vowed that I wouldn't say y'all while I was there, and I never did. Now I say it all the time. It really makes more sense to say y'all than youse guys."

During the spring of his sophomore year Kupchak started experiencing pain in his back. He and a few friends piled into a car to watch some students who were streaking on the South Campus—remember those bygone days, y'all?—and when Kupchak hopped out of the car he felt the hamstring muscle in his right leg pop. The pain in his leg stemmed from a problem in his back, grew worse all summer, and though he was able to play his junior season, he was in constant pain. The following summer he underwent surgery for a herniated disc. In three months Kupchak was fully recovered, and in his senior season he started with Tommy LaGarde, Walter Davis, Phil Ford and John Kuester and was ACC Player of the Year. He started at center for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, and was taken on the first round of the NBA draft by the Bullets.

"Clinically, that first operation was a success," Kupchak says, "but it didn't help a whole lot. I knew somewhere along the line something was going to happen, so mentally I prepared myself for the worst." Toward the end of the 1978-79 season, Kupchak got pulled over backward while he was going after a rebound of a missed foul shot, reinjuring his back, and in June of '79 he was operated on again. This time his recovery was not so swift. "I thought I could do it again in three months," Kupchak says, "but my body just wouldn't do what I wanted it to. It took a year before I was able to do regular things, and I began to wonder if it would ever be the same. I don't get depressed easily, but that year I slowly got lulled into a deep state of depression. I didn't know what was happening to me." Kupchak began working out with the Bullets that November, but when he returned he played badly and his back still ached. A month before the end of the 1979-80 season—disconsolate over his performance, depressed by personal problems and suffering from hepatitis—Kupchak finally gave up and was placed on the injured list.

There's a poem inscribed on a small plaque propped up against the mirror in the bathroom of Kupchak's apartment in Los Angeles. He keeps it there so that he sees it when he looks at himself every morning. The last part of the poem reads, "So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit / It's when things seem worst that you mustn't quit." As soon as his most dismal season was behind him, Kupchak began working out with weights, determined to compensate for his weak back by overdeveloping the muscles surrounding the scar tissue. Last season he came back and played in all 82 games, averaging 12.5 points and slightly fewer than seven rebounds a game. He has felt no pain in his back in the past 16 months, and though another back injury could mean the end of his career, it hasn't made him more careful with his body than he has ever been. "Until I crash into a wall or something, I'll be 100 percent," he says.

Kupchak should provide the Lakers with a lift once his new teammates have grown accustomed to his pace. A career 52.8% shooter, he stumbled through a 2-for-10 night in L.A.'s opener against Houston, and then hit 19 of 27 shots in the two games on the Lakers' first road trip of the season. If he rebounds only as well as Chones did, his presence will still be a plus. "With Mitch out there, they have to double-team me with guards," says Abdul-Jabbar, "and that gives our guards open jump shots. Mitch makes it impossible for them to drop in on me without hurting themselves in other areas."

The real test of Kupchak's back this season will probably be how well he carries the burden he feels every time the Lakers lose a game. Though the Lakers are considered by many experts to have the finest starting five in the NBA this year, L.A. lost its first two games and later suffered a 128-102 embarrassment in San Antonio, but was finally beginning to show signs of recovery with a 6-4 record at the end of last week. "It really bothered me losing those first two games," he says. "I'm the only difference from last year, and suddenly we're losing all these games. I was beginning to take it personally." Kupchak smiles weakly. "Those are the times you've got to put your head down, swallow your own sweat, spit a little and kick up some dirt. I know we're not losing because of me, but I also know this—it's not enough for me to just play well. I have to play well and we have to win at least as many games as they won here last year." Through 10 games, he's averaging 15.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, and shooting 55.9 percent from the floor.

Regardless of how well the Lakers perform this season, Kupchak seems finally to have found his element on the West Coast. He bought a shirt, a tie, a belt and some dark socks before his first meeting with the L.A. media in September. "When I got to the press conference, I was the only person there with a tie on," he says. "That was the last time I got dressed up. Out here, the way I dress is considered very chic."

Please remember that, Robert Russianburger. Black Socks, maybe. Black tie, never.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAs a Bullet, Kupchak could not supplant the Big E, but as a Laker he can shoot over him. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe decor of Kupchak's new apartment in Westwood is by Sears and J.C. Penney. PHOTOPETER READ MILLEREven though he's in the chips, Kupchak still favors shopping for pistachios at a 7-Eleven. TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERBefore he can take on the likes of Moses Malone, Kupchak must stretch his back.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)