The One-Year Mitch
Jerry West had been gone from the Lakers for a summer when Claire Kupchak told her husband, “You’re becoming Jerry West.”
Mitch Kupchak considered that.
On one hand, he was becoming Jerry West, only the best talent evaluator in the sport, only the man who helped build the Lakers of Showtime and then rebuilt them into the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe, and the man who over 14 years taught him how, and became a valued friend besides. Only Jerry West, is all.
On the other hand, didn’t The Job seize Jerry West? Didn’t he take long walks outside the Forum during critical games in the 1980s, a compulsion that became long drives on the Harbor Freeway outside Staples Center during the last NBA finals? That was Jerry West too, right? A man possessed by The Job.
Kupchak surveyed the West landscape, the lifetime of glory and its burden, and weighed again his wife’s statement that hung over it.
Then Mitch Kupchak, the quiet, contemplative type, did what he had to do.
“I took it as a compliment,” he said, breezily, smiling at his choice. “Who wouldn’t want to be compared to Jerry West?”
Seven months later, Kupchak sat behind a wooden desk, photos of Claire and their two young children behind him, the Lakers’ practice court behind and below them. Twenty-eight NBA rosters, including injured lists, were mounted on boards to his right. The Lakers’ was on a board that leaned against the wall beneath them.
“There’s no doubt my wife has been very supportive and understanding,” he said. “But I think if you talked to her--and I won’t let you--she would probably say that I may have been a little different this year. I can sense that. She may have been joking. She may not have been joking.”
He shrugs. He hates this, the interviews, the tape recorder on his desk, the little red light flickering at every word. His parents, Harry and Sonya Kupchak, his brothers, twins Bruce and Greg, and sister, Sandy, are off limits.
“I keep things separate,” he said.
This isn’t him. He’s not the face of the organization, not the way West was for four decades, or the logo of the NBA, which West still is.
“I am not the show,” he said.
The Job, though, has him. Not the way it owned West, exactly, but it has him. The days are long. The issues are not only big, but splashed across the front pages of newspapers and leading the evening news, prompting dozens of telephone calls from fellow general managers hoping to pry a 22-year-old superstar from the Laker roster, and if not him, then the big guy.
That, he dealt with. In a trying regular season that has since given way to a brilliant postseason, Kupchak merely would not be intimidated, and would not allow the trials of 12 men to overrun a franchise he knew had endured worse.
In his rookie year, Kupchak held a steady, confident hand to an organization that at times shook with controversy.
“He’s a calm guy,” West said. “He has a great idea of what he wants to see, what he envisions for the team. And he has a great love for the franchise.
“Inwardly, he was concerned, but he didn’t let on. I would probably have said something stupid.”
West has been retired for nearly a year. He occasionally attends games at Staples Center, even staying for all of the Lakers’ 39-point victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. Profoundly proud and protective of the Lakers and Kupchak, West left the organization when it became too stressful for him, and still holds the organization and his former lieutenant dearly. He insisted Kupchak was better suited for the job than he ever was.
“He’s a great guy,” West said, “and he’s not as crazy as I am.”
He didn’t laugh.
“You’re the only one going to be judged,” West said. “I inherited a great situation and hopefully helped maintain that. He will enhance that greater than I did. If I owned a team, I would hire him, period.”
Kupchak is 47 and, in an old ballplayer way, quite angular, at nearly 7 feet of mostly elbows and knees.
He walks as they all do, slow and easy, an athlete whose knees wouldn’t bear one more sudden turn. Those fragile knees, however, are partly responsible for his succeeding West.
“You have to look back at how this guy started,” said Lon Rosen, a former Laker executive who went on to become the agent for Magic Johnson and Kurt Rambis, among others, and now is an agent for Endeavor Talent Agency in Los Angeles.
In December 1981, his first season with the Lakers after being acquired by trade from the Washington Bullets, Kupchak ruptured a ligament in his left knee. The rehabilitation required 16 months, into which he threw himself with the blue-collar fight of his father, a career Manhattan construction worker.
Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina coach who recruited and signed Kupchak out of Brentwood High on Long Island, said Mitch’s work ethic resembled that of his father. Harry Kupchak is so conservative, Smith said, that on the long, slow drive on the Long Island Expressway each morning and evening, he picked one lane and almost never left it.
For that reason, Smith said, he was never surprised when Kupchak dove for loose balls when players a foot shorter would not.
“Imagine that,” Smith said, “a guy his size.”
His parents, and their lessons, didn’t merely follow him to the court. Kupchak had a reputation for frugality. When friends or teammates went to his home to watch a game, Kupchak, who lived alone then, often answered the door wearing a jacket. Locker-room legend had him carrying a space heater from room to room, rather than heat the entire house.
Kupchak’s contract with the Lakers included a position in their front office upon retirement, so Kupchak began working toward that, taking classes toward an MBA at UCLA between exhausting physical therapy sessions. He earned his degree in February 1987, four months after he retired after rehabilitating another severe knee injury.
At West’s side, Kupchak went about learning the business side of basketball.
“Jerry was great for him,” Smith said.
Soon, Kupchak was the organization’s salary cap specialist, and he gradually assumed greater responsibilities. By the time West retired for the last time--he had hinted at it often--Kupchak was so comfortable with the job that the transition was seamless. Late last summer, when the Lakers acquired Horace Grant in a four-team deal largely engineered by agent David Falk, Kupchak hadn’t spoken to West in weeks.
“There’s always a changing of the guard,” Laker owner Jerry Buss said. “Things come and go. There certainly will not be another Jerry West. No one could spot talent like Jerry West did. But, in 14 years, Mitch was very well schooled. I don’t know if anyone could perform the miracles Jerry did.
“I do feel Mitch has a great deal of that in him already though, having been a superb professional basketball player. But there is talent, and there is excessive talent.”
Buss said that if he had an ounce of trepidation, it was gone in the trade that brought Grant and jettisoned Glen Rice, along with Travis Knight. As it turned out, that would be the placid part of Kupchak’s initiation.
No Treat to Repeat
The Lakers were slow to embrace their post-championship season, many taking Coach Phil Jackson’s invitation to rest through the summer too literally. The team started slowly. J.R. Rider, a behavioral risk willingly taken by Kupchak, was a handful, but not a distraction compared to what was coming.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the superstars whose relationship appeared to strengthen in the previous season’s championship run, took their feud public. Then Jackson was quoted as being critical of Bryant, and Kupchak’s new firestorm was between his $6-million-a-year coach and, arguably, the league’s most talented player. The locker-room chemistry was fouled.
“It certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience,” Kupchak said, “but I didn’t expect my first year to be smooth and event free.”
In fact, Kupchak said, as the season progressed and the issues piled up, he began to recount his experiences as a player. His 1978 Bullets won the NBA title, and failed the next season in part because of the emotional and ego-driven fallout. The Lakers won a championship in 1985, and the following season lost to the Houston Rockets in the conference finals on Ralph Sampson’s freak turn-around jumper.
He had hoped for more, of course, but tried to understand the growing pains.
“It was a process, a rite of learning how to repeat,” Kupchak said. “It’s hard to do, and that’s what I kept on repeating to myself.”
He met often with Buss and Jackson, with whom he appears to have sound working relationships.
“He’s meditative in his approach to making decisions,” Jackson said. “He’s not spontaneous in that regard, so it’s easy for one to deal with, because there’s nothing that happens that’s unexpected. He’s got a pretty good vision of what we want as a team, and that’s been good.”
Through hours of conversations with Buss, he forged a new, close friendship with the owner, and began to believe Buss believed in his leadership, shared as it was with Jackson.
“In a way I knew Mitch well, but in another way I didn’t know him well,” Buss said. “The conversations became very fruitful to me. The most comforting thing to me is we seemed to be totally on the same page. He is captain of the ship. But I own the ship.”
So, Kupchak bailed water. So did Jackson. With a week left in the season, everybody had a bucket. Gradually, the season ceased to list. Those who screamed that the O’Neal-Bryant fuss would not have boiled over with West around found something else to scream about. Jackson found his calm. Kupchak exhaled.
“It’s my nature to be reserved anyway, I believe, and conservative,” he said. “It’s like everybody’s found their way.”
As a result, Kupchak is four wins from an NBA title, his first while in charge of personnel matters. He also happens to be one series from an off-season that holds many decisions. The Lakers have a list of personnel decisions ahead of them, few of them easy. This is where Laker Nation sees if Claire Kupchak was right all along.
“You don’t become Jerry West, the same way you don’t replace Magic Johnson and you don’t replace Michael Jordan,” Rosen said. “Jerry West was the top in his field. So, you just go on and try to win championships. Mitch Kupchak is doing things his way, and he’s succeeding.”
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