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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.