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This is how he rolls

Kupchak sloughed off the punches from fans, media, even his star player, until one big trade revitalized Lakers and his image

April 28, 2008|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

The first time Mitch Kupchak was mentioned for one of the most glamorous jobs in sports, general manager of the Lakers, he was standing at a urinal.

An All-American at North Carolina who became a starting power forward for the Showtime-era Lakers, Kupchak's career was cut short after an injury in 1981 that shattered his left knee. After a limited comeback, Kupchak agreed to move over to the front office in 1986 to serve an apprenticeship under then-general manager Jerry West.

"About the second week I was there, I'm standing in the bathroom at the Forum . . . when the door flies open and Jerry walks in, face red, smoke shooting out of his ears, every other word a four-letter word," Kupchak recalled recently. "He's ranting and raving, talking to me, but not really talking to me even though there's nobody else in there. I'm petrified.

" 'You know, I've had enough. I'm telling Dr. [Jerry] Buss I'm quitting and I'm recommending you for the job.' And then he walked out," Kupchak recalled West saying. "I'm still . . . staring straight ahead at the wall, saying to myself, 'I don't know if I'm ready for this job.' "

Kupchak need not have worried. West wasn't going anywhere for 14 years, although he would periodically threaten to bolt as his job anxiety continued to rise.

When West finally stepped aside in 2000, Kupchak felt he was qualified to take the reins from the front-office legend. Others weren't so sure. There was a perception that West continued to pull the strings, first as a Lakers consultant, then from the golf course in retirement, and even, went the uninformed chatter, from Memphis after West went there in 2002 to revive the Grizzlies.

"That perception is so grossly unfair," said West, once again retired. "Mitch is his own man."

West left a smoothly running dynasty that initially required Kupchak to do little more than add a few role players as the team went on to complete a three-year title run.

Then came some heavy lifting. Karl Malone and Gary Payton came and went, Shaquille O'Neal was traded, and Kobe Bryant, apparently horrified at the prospect of wasting his prime years on a not-ready-for-prime-time team, began to question the front office, quietly at first and then very publicly.

There was the 2005 trade of Caron Butler to Washington. "My best friend gets shipped out without me knowing," Bryant said. It didn't help that Kwame Brown, who came west in exchange, was a bust.

There were questions about the drafting of Andrew Bynum and Jordan Farmar. There was the failure to consummate a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett and Kupchak's refusal to part with Bynum in a possible deal for Jason Kidd -- a decision Bryant ripped in a fan's notorious video.

"I was on Mitch's [butt]," Bryant conceded. "It was just rough for me . . . not having anything done. It was extremely frustrating. We had talks privately about trying to do something to be more aggressive and make changes and still nothing got done."

All the while, Kupchak had the support of Buss, the only man who really matters.

"I saw all the criticism of Mitch and I knew he didn't deserve it," Buss said. "People would ask me, 'What are you going to do about Mitch Kupchak?' And I would reply, 'Support him 100% just like I always have.' "

That support was rewarded with two key deals. In November, Kupchak obtained Trevor Ariza, a solid defender, from the Orlando Magic for Maurice Evans and Brian Cook.

Then came the move that turned around a season and Kupchak's image. On Feb. 1, he obtained forward/center Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies for Brown, Javaris Crittenton, two draft picks and other considerations.

"[Kupchak] had the patience to sit on the Kwame piece and pulled off the coup de grace," Bryant told reporters recently. "He goes from an F to an A-plus."

Once again, Mitch Kupchak had exceeded expectations.

Growing up on Long Island, Kupchak said his first love was baseball -- the New York Yankees his team, Mickey Mantle his favorite player.

"I'd sit in our kitchen on a Sunday afternoon listening to a doubleheader on the radio," Kupchak said. "My mom thought there was something wrong with me."

He envisioned himself as a third baseman, but his body had other ideas. Kupchak soon towered over his peers.

"My strike zone kept getting bigger," he said.

Stan Kellner, the basketball coach at nearby Brentwood High, spotted the 14-year-old Kupchak, then 6 feet 4, walking down the hallway in junior high.

"He grabbed me right there and became one of the most influential people in my life," Kupchak said.

Kupchak blossomed under Kellner, learning the intricacies of the game at a basketball camp, excelling in high school and winding up at North Carolina.

A first-round draft choice of the Washington Bullets in 1976, Kupchak, by then 6-9 and 230 pounds, spent five seasons there.

But his life changed because of a picnic held in a Palm Springs park. Buss had invited Magic Johnson to share a basket of food after the Lakers had been upset in the first round of the 1981 playoffs.

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