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HELD IN RESERVE : Kelly Tripucka Is Living a Nightmare on the Utah Bench

May 17, 1988|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Kelly Tripucka will never forget the day he was traded from the Detroit Pistons to the Utah Jazz.

"I was the last one to find out," Tripucka said of the Aug. 21, 1986 deal which sent him and Kent Benson to Utah in exchange for forward Adrian Dantley. "I'd just finished playing in a charity golf tournament and I was in the locker room and some guys next to me were talking about the trade because they'd heard it on TV.

"I still don't know why they traded me. Detroit was the perfect place for me. I didn't expect to get traded.

"It was a nightmare situation."

Tripucka, who asked the Jazz to trade him at the end of last season after he was benched in the playoffs, is still living out his nightmare in Salt Lake City.

Never did he imagine that he would go from being one of pro basketball's most productive swingmen to the one of the highest paid--$971,000 per season--bench warmers in the National Basketball Assn. He quipped that he's wearing his hair in a new closely cropped style so that nobody will recognize him on the bench.

"You hope it's not happening, but this is reality," said Tripucka, who played in two All-Star games during his five years in Detroit. "I wouldn't want anyone to go through it. This has been the most difficult two years of my life.

"I feel more embarrassed than anything else," said Tripucka, who has had to adjust to a reserve role for the first time since he began playing organized basketball. "You never adjust to it. I couldn't have written this script two years ago."

Tripucka, a former All-American at Notre Dame who was the 16th player picked in the 1984 draft, lost his starting spot to guard Bobby Hansen, a third-round pick in 1983.

And Tripucka was replaced in Utah's playoff rotation against the Lakers by rookie Bart Kofoed, a fifth-round draft pick who paid his own way to Salt Lake City to play in the Jazz minicamp.

Like Dantley, who was traded after he fell out of favor with Utah Coach Frank Layden, Tripucka has fallen out of favor with Layden.

Tripucka, however, won't publicly criticize Layden or team officials for the way they have handled him.

"I don't have any ill feelings," he said. "I just want to get on with my career. I've tried to be as diplomatic as possible. I'm a professional and I've tried to handle this the best way I can. I don't want to burn any bridges."

Said Layden: "He's a good kid who's ready for a fresh start. Frankly I don't want anyone on my team who doesn't want to be on it."

Tripucka, who averaged over 20 points in four of the five seasons he spent in Detroit, averaged a career-low 10.1 for the Jazz last season and shot 46.9% from the field, the second worst mark in his career.

Tripucka, however, is quick to point out that he played fewer minutes and took less shots with the Jazz than he did with the Pistons.

When training camp opened last fall, Tripucka sensed he was destined to spend this season on the bench.

Dave Checketts, Utah's president and general manager, said he tried to trade Tripucka up to the NBA deadline last February.

The market was nonexistent, however, for a 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward/guard with 3 years left on a high-paying contract.

The Jazz are determined to move Tripucka this year.

Said team President Dave Checketts: "I know he won't be in Utah next season. Kelly isn't going to be part of our future and he doesn't want to be part of it.

"We tried to accommodate him and that was part of the problem," Checketts said from his office in Salt Lake City. "Once he asked to be traded people were saying that his scoring average had dropped from 20 to 10 points a game."

Although he averaged just 7.5 points and played in a career-low 49 games this season due to an injury to his right calf and a bout with the flu, there were times when Tripucka looked like the Tripucka of old as he helped Utah pull out wins.

In an effort to showcase Tripucka for other teams, Layden gave him his first start this season in a Dec. 26 game against the Lakers and he scored 21 points, hitting 5 straight three-point shots.

He didn't play at all as the Jazz eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs, and he has seen limited time in just 2 of the 4 games against the Lakers.

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