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.