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.