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Playing a Big Role : With Mitch Kupchak Able to Shoulder Load, Lakers Now Stand Tall

Times Staff Writer

Shoulder butting, which might be outlawed in some states if it ever catches on, lately has become one of Magic Johnson’s motivational devices for his Laker teammates. More unconventional than a routine high-five, it can either fire up a player or put him on the injured list.

Late in the second quarter of the Lakers’ 122-94 trouncing of the San Antonio Spurs Saturday afternoon, Johnson went shoulder-to-shoulder with reserve center Mitch Kupchak, who has built a career and bulky medical file on such contact with opposing players.

After Kupchak had taken the charge against the Spurs’ Wes Matthews, Johnson helped Kupchak to his feet and then gave him a couple of whacks in the left shoulder with his right shoulder. Kupchak, not the emotional type, stood there and took it, while most in the blase Forum crowd of 17,505 ignored it.

“If it hurt him,” a smiling Johnson told reporters afterward, “he probably feels better getting hurt by me than somebody else.”

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The last time Mitch Kupchak got hurt, it put his career in jeopardy. Again.

Kupchak, who had survived severe ligament and cartilage damage to his left knee in 1982, was flattened by Philadelphia’s Clemon Johnson on Feb. 23 and reinjured the same knee. Two weeks later, Kupchak underwent arthroscopic surgery to make minor repairs, and it was questionable whether he would be able to help the Lakers in the playoffs.

That question was answered early in the second quarter of Saturday’s game, when center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and backup Petur Gudmundsson both were saddled with three fouls. Laker Coach Pat Riley called on the 6-10 Kupchak, the only Laker big man available to contest San Antonio’s Artis Gilmore and Steve Johnson.

By halftime, the Lakers had erased the Spurs’ slim lead, and Kupchak had contributed four points, two rebounds and one steal in 10 minutes. More importantly, he didn’t let the 7-2 Gilmore and 6-10 Johnson dominate inside.

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Abdul-Jabbar and Gudmundsson stayed out of foul trouble in the second half, which meant that Kupchak mostly watched as the Lakers pulled away from the Spurs and buried them for the second straight game.

Although Kupchak’s contribution looks modest in the box score--four points, four rebounds, one steal and one assist in 17 minutes--Riley and the rest of the Lakers were giving Kupchak ample share of the credit.

Only Magic Johnson was willing to shoulder the responsibility for finding an unusual form of congratulation.

“He’s an emotional kind of guy,” said Kupchak of Johnson. “I guess that’s his form of a greeting. I like to see that from Magic, because it shows he has picked up his level of intensity for the playoffs.”

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Riley liked what he saw from Kupchak Saturday.

“When Mitch went out (of the lineup), we went from 7-2 to 6-9 on our front line,” Riley said. “If we were in that situation today, we wouldn’t have won the game. A month ago, I was worried about going with just Kareem and four 6-9 guys. But the addition of Petur and Mitch coming back has made us a tall and long team.”

The tall part is self-explanatory, but long? Maybe Riley meant long on depth. If most teams were to lose their two 7-footers to early foul trouble, they probably would be in big trouble. “There’s no doubt this really helps us,” said power forward Maurice Lucas, who now will hardly ever have to spell Abdul-Jabbar at center. “Mitch really is helping us with those 10 to 12 minutes. It helps us even more because he can play either center or power forward.”

Kupchak’s preference is power forward, but he’s not choosy. “I still don’t consider myself a center,” Kupchak said. “It’s a position I’ve played the last two years here out of need. It’s hard because I’m not as big as most centers.”

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The rehabilitation after his latest knee surgery, which kept Kupchak out of the lineup a month, was also hard. Even now that he’s return to active duty, Kupchak continues to lift weights and put himself through specialized exercises for his knee.

Both Riley and trainer Gary Vitti maintain that Kupchak appears more mobile after his most recent knee operation.

“Not only is Mitch all the way back, but I think he’s quicker,” Riley said. “Mitch is a very motivated guy and he’s worked really hard to get back. It doesn’t hurt that we have Petur here, too. It’s like dangling the carrot in front of those guys. I told them both I like the competition between them. I told them, whoever plays better will play.”

As long as Kupchak stays healthy, he believes Riley somehow will find playing time for him. The problem is, Kupchak has spent most of the season injured. As a result of direct hits from opponents, Kupchak has suffered a bruised larynx, a sprained right ankle, the knee injury and two bruised shoulders.

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Perhaps the next time Magic Johnson wants to congratulate Kupchak, a handshake might be safer.


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