Mitch Kupchak Olympics Q & A
Today, Kobe Bryant and the 2008 version of Team USA advanced to the gold medal game with a 101-81 victory over Argentina. Now only Pau Gasol and Spanish team stand between the US and their goal of winning Olympic Gold. With one of these Lakers stars bringing home a gold medal from Beijing, Lakers.com took the opportunity to talk to a man that already has a gold medal.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak was a member of the 1976 Olympic basketball team that captured gold in Montreal. Kupchak was the teams third leading scorer at 12.5 ppg and second leading rebounder with 5.7 rpg. Click here for more information on the 1976 Olympic basketball team.
North Carolina Head Coach Dean Smith filled the same position with the Olympic team and North Carolina assistant Bill Guthridge was also on the staff. There were also three other Tar Heels on the team.
From my team there were four of us that made the team. From the ACC, the league North Carolina is in, there were seven players to make the team. Dean Smith took a lot of heat for the selection process. Obviously it looked as if he was favoring his players and his conference. So there was a lot of pressure there for him, I don't think we felt the pressure, our pressure was more related to the Russian defeat of the Americans in 1972, but he took the heat and the only way to get the heat off him was to win the gold medal, which we did.
The '76 team had a lot of guys that went on to prominence in the NBA, could you sense that at the time?
When you're that young you really don't know who's good and not good and you're influenced in different manners than how true adults view your play. At that stage you look around and say "Wow these are all great players and we're all going to be great players in the NBA" and some of those guys turned out to be great players in the NBA and some couldn't last more than a year or two. At the time we were young and we thought we were all talented and suited for the NBA, but the NBA's a different game. Some guys got injured, some guys prospered, and some guys the way they played in college wasn't suited for the NBA and didn't last for a very long time.
Scott May is a very successful business man in Bloomington, Indiana. His son (Sean May) played at North Carolina and ended up being drafted high by Charlotte and has had injuries as of late. Tate Armstrong is in real estate in DC. Phil Ford is in the NBA as an assistant coach in Charlotte. Walter Davis did some scouting in the NBA and does community relations work with Denver. Phil Hubbard is in the NBA as an assistant coach in Washington. So a bunch of us were able to stay involved in the game at the NBA level which is great.
And Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, and John Thompson all had long careers in the college game.
Right. John Thompson was a young coach in Washington DC at a high school, I believe it was St. Anthonys. He and Dean Smith struck up a relationship and Coach Smith recruited one of his players the year before I got to North Carolina--Donald Washington, who was a highly sought after high school recruit. That was the beginning of their relationship and of course Coach Thompson went on to Georgetown and he was young assistant on the Olympic team. That's how I got to know him.
He was very protective of his program in Washington and when I played for the Bullets he was so kind to me to let me in to the Georgetown campus and use the weight room and use their facilities. That had a lot to do with the relationship I had with him through Coach Smith and through the Olympic team. To this day I consider him a good friend, I would hope that he would think the same about me. We do have a very good relationship and I know that Coach Smith and Coach Thompson talk frequently.
How was the preparation process different in '76 with the team being made up exclusively of college players as opposed to today when the team is made up of all NBA players?
It was truly an amateur team. Back then you were not allowed, at least in our country, to have professionals on it. Some of us were seniors, but a lot of us were underclassmen which meant you were 20, 21 years old. Phil Hubbard was I think 19 years old. So we were a young team and we were coming off heightened college careers, some of which were going to continue, some of us were going to graduate and move on to the NBA.
So we really didn't know life in the NBA, we didn't know what it was like to be a professional athlete. We knew what it was like to be a pampered college player, but a pampered college player doesn't compare to being a pampered NBA player. Dean Smith had always insisted that players at North Carolina stay at the best hotels, eat the best food, experience cultural activities in different cities. He followed that philosophy to the Olympic team as well. So we stayed at good hotels, we traveled the best you could travel. We didn't have charters. The things that NBA players deal with today, the noteriety issue wasn't quite the same. The media available was nowhere near what is available today in terms of the internet and 500 channels of TV, etc. There was a dramatic difference, but for us we felt we were kings.
Now they have one and two week camps, was your training camp longer since you were all collegians?
Yes. But my understanding of what took place the last three years is that these guys had to commit to a three year window. We didn't have to do that. We committed to four weeks of camp in Chapel Hill in July. There was no air conditioning at Carmichael (the gym where North Carolina played their home games) and that was in July and we had two-a-day practices. We went on a week to ten day exhibition tour in the Northeast. Played some games against NBA players and then it was straight to Montreal. So our commitment was really probably little more than half a summer. The NBA players this last go around, I believe, with the exception of the guys that were inured a year ago, really made a longer commitment based on the fact that they're NBA players. We didn't have anything going on in our lives back then. These guys are so busy. I think the commitment in some regards is a tougher commitment now than it was 30 years ago.
You were an elite athlete in High School and College, but what was it like to be around other elite athletes from all over the world?
With the Olympics being played right now, my kids ask me a little bit about it, and the one thing that I remember as really a truly great experience was the cafeteria. Everybody dined together.
We stayed in the Olympic village, I don't think the NBA players do that, they stay at a hotel. We stayed in the village and it was like a college suite where there was a common living room and there were four rooms off the living room and everyone had a roommate. We were all in this suite that was transformed at a later date to a dormitory. You walk amongst the athletes in the village and you bump into people and you could talk a little bit, but the cafeteria really was a time when you would end up sitting next to an athlete from another country. The exposure just to the food in the cafeteria, because they had to try please athletes from all over the world, you talk about a diverse menu.
You'd end up spending hours in the cafeteria, it took you a while to find something you wanted to eat. Then you'd bump into somebody that was very interesting or you'd just sit there and watch Nadia Comaneci and the other athletes at that time that were playing in the Olympics.
Kobe got kind of mobbed during the Opening Ceremonies by athletes from other countries, was there anyone you looked forward to meeting at the games?
Most of those people didn't have the names then. We were aware after someone won a gold medal that 'hey guess who won it', but you might not see that person again. They made their name there, they weren't famous before they got there. Clearly when you write about somebody winning X number of gold medals and you say "Wow the person sitting next to me last night at dinner just won....", that kind of thing.
This year's team has been out at some of the events, did you get to go out and experience any of the other sports?
Not so much while we were competing, but Basketball ended about five or six days early and some of us stayed after and went to other events. Track and Field, stuff like that.
The '08 team has been dubbed the "Redeem Team" after USA Basketball's recent struggles on the international stage. Did the '76 team feel any of that kind of pressure after the controversial way the '72 games ended?
We felt the pressure. At the time the media really created this East vs. West showdown and we were very aware that we were expected to win the gold medal and the team we were going to play in the finals was the Soviet Union.
Everybody saw that '72 replay on TV, in fact my teammate at North Carolina--Bobby Jones-- was on that team, so I spoke to him about it over-and-over. I don't believe they ever accepted their medals, they're sitting in a vault somewhere. So that was our mindset. The coaches didn't talk about it, they didn't want us to think that way, but we knew what was expected. We were expected to play the Soviet Union in the finals and we were expected to beat them.
Was the pressure to win a gold medal in Basketball as great then or was it even bigger?
It's all relative. Today there's so much more exposure and publicity. If you lose... I was watching last night and two of the athletes got disqualified for touching the line and right after the race ended they grabbed the kid. As soon as he turned back he found out he was disqualified and within 30 seconds they interviewed him.
That never would have happened then because the coverage wasn't available then. I'm saying to myself, "What a terrible time, what a terrible position to put someone in." Maybe the athlete today is just so used to it, but we didn't have to deal with that then. There was a lot of media, but not that type of spontaneity where you can be put on the spot and within 30 seconds if you say the wrong thing the whole world is going to know about it.
This year's team hasn't really had a challenge so far, but the '76 team played a close call against Puerto Rico in their third game, winning 93-92.
I played against most of those guys in High School in New York. They may have been representing Puerto Rico, but they were New Yorkers. Butch Lee, Earl Brown, a bunch of those guys. That was a close call, it was our closest game, and Butch Lee had thirty something and his backcourt mate had thirty something. We came close to getting beat. I think a game like that is good if you can win a game like that. If you lose a game like that it might not be so good. You don't want to win every game by 40 because you get lulled into that false sense of security. Then when you find yourself in a tight game you might make the wrong decision. It's probably good to go through that experience as long as you win it.
Where does the Olympic experience rank between all the big games you played in college and the NBA? Where does winning a Gold Medal rank?
When you're on the podium and they're playing the national anthem and the arena is standing and cheering and the flags are waving. When they come over and ask you to bend over and put that gold medal on you and they're playing the national anthem, it doesn't get much better. It really doesn't. My mom and dad were there. My high school coach and his wife were there. Special Moment. Special Moment.
What did you do with your medal?
My mom had it for a lot of years. She kept it in the silverware drawer in a kerchief. She figured that would be the last place somebody would look to rob something from a house that had value. Not the silver drawer. Silverware, everyday forks and spoons and knifes, in a kerchief, just stuck in there. It could have been anything. It could have been a piece of garlic. Then about 15 years ago she decided that I should have it. She gave it to me and I have it in LA. It's in the safe deposit box.
Do you think back to that time and how special it was every four years when the Olympics come around?
Yes. The NBA championship comes around every year. I played on two teams that won championships, but for some reason you don't get reminded of the ones you played on. I think the fact that it happens every four years I think it does get you back to thinking about a different time and place.