More Than Just Luck
In the 1960's, Brentwood, New York was what you might expect any baby-booming suburban town to be like. But on one particular block, one with 12 houses and 73 children, lived the Kupchaks. Sports were a big part of Brentwood life, and with so many kids on one block, getting a game was never a problem. Stickball was the game of choice during the summer months and it wasn't uncommon to see young Mitch rounding first in his Yankees cap, just like his hero Micky Mantle.
Baseball was Mitch's first love, but he grew, grew some more, and just kept growing. "I was tall, thin and awkward." After moving to Long Island, he tried out basketball and played his first year of organized ball in the 9th grade. Being the tallest kid on the court, he was hard to miss. His high school coach, Stan Kellner, took notice of Mitch early on. "He guided me at that point for the next 10 years. He sent me off to camps, to summer leagues and rode me pretty hard. He drove me and kind of made me his project." The work paid off and Mitch no longer just played basketball, he excelled at it. "I started getting attention from people saying good game and you know, you get a little something in the newspaper. It was something to hang your hat on."
Mitch wasn't just catching the attention of the local papers. North Carolina's legendary Dean Smith was also taking notice. "At that time a lot of the college coaches would promise that you'd start and play, but he never made a promise to me. The only thing he ever promised me was that I'd graduate and that he'd make me a better basketball player." So Mitch went to North Carolina and sure enough, Dean Smith kept his promise. Mitch left North Carolina as an All-American, ACC Player of the Year and had his number 21 jersey raised to the rafters of the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
During his stay at North Carolina, Mitch grew to respect and admire Coach Smith. "Loyalty. Family. Discipline. Those are what come to mind when you hear the name Dean Smith. There's not a classier person that has coached this game than Dean Smith."
Before starting his NBA career, Mitch stepped onto the world stage as the starting center on the 1976 US Olympic team. While the Star Spangled Banner played, Mitch stood atop the podium in reflection as the gold medal hung around his neck. "It was a special moment having all those who had the greatest influence on me there watching."
In the 1976 NBA draft, the Washington Bullets selected Mitch Kupchak with the 13th overall pick. With that began a tremendously successful NBA career. Mitch captured NBA All-Rookie Team honors and continued his important role with the Bullets as he helped them to the 1978 NBA championship. "I was young, 24, and totally consumed with the excitement of winning a championship. It's something I enjoyed being a part of."
After the Lakers acquired Mitch in 1981, he became an instant starter, but severely injured his left knee only 26 games into the season and underwent 16 months of intense daily therapy. "At that time, being 27, you think the world is not going to change. When you're young, you think you'll be young forever. But when this happened and the doctors told me that in all likelihood my career was over, then it hit me."
While Mitch was out, he began pursuing his MBA at UCLA. "I had a guaranteed contract with the Lakers and I felt obligated to try and do something just in case I couldn't play so that I could bring something to the table for the Lakers in case they wanted to keep me around."
But Mitch came back and won a second NBA championship. "The second championship team I was on, the '85 Lakers, I was half the player I used to be. I don't sit around thinking about the great player I was or some great shot or dunk I made. My thoughts are more satisfying knowing I could come back from an injury and be a part of a team. It was a totally different degree of satisfaction."
Mitch joined the Lakers front office in 1986. Not long after in February of 1987, he left UCLA with a MBA degree in hand. It was in the Lakers front office that Mitch would meet the great Jerry West. "He is my mentor. He is a close dear friend. I miss being around him on a daily basis. He was so different than most people. If you talk to people here in the building, he'd bounce in and out of the offices and talk to people. He was just so unpredictable and he's just Jerry West." It was West who also taught Mitch an important life lesson. "The number one thing that can have an impact on conducting business or running a team or anything else in life is really to just follow your instincts and not be afraid to be wrong."
It's hard replacing a legend, yet entering the 2001 NBA playoffs, Kupchak has the Lakers positioned for a run at back-to-back championships. What drives him after all the success he's already enjoyed? "I enjoy the people I work with. I love the game. I like to win. And probably most importantly, it's winning a championship. I will do anything I can do to help the team, whatever resource that may be, to win a championship. My goal is to have the team in a position to win every year."
Away from the court, Mitch values the time with his wife and children. "Family is great. My wife is very understanding and I love going home to my children. They don't know if we won or lost. They don't know who played well and who didn't play well."
From stickball in the front yard to Olympic and NBA gold, it seems like a story destined for the "Showtime" Lakers franchise. "I love my family. I love the game. I love the Lakers. I consider this to be the job in professional basketball. I'm a lucky person, a fortunate and lucky person." Lakers fans are just as lucky and fortunate to have a General Manager the likes of Mitch Kupchak.