Of all the quality kids who have come through the Carolina Basketball program over the last half century, none was any more real than Mitch Kupchak, the Tar Heels’ star center and ACC Player of the Year in 1976.
Kupchak faked nothing. He came from a blue collar background in the middle of Long Island, where wealth abounded to the north, south and east. He admired Dean Smith and entrusted the to-be Hall of Fame coach with his future as an underdeveloped basketball player.
As a freshman in 1973, Kupchak was lost and admitted it. Things got better as a sophomore starter during a second straight season when despite winning 47 games over two years Carolina remained overshadowed by N.C. State’s national championship team. Then the worm turned for Kupchak and the Tar Heels.
In 1975, junior Kupchak, sophomore Walter Davis and freshman Phil Ford led the Tar Heels back to the ACC Championship, defeating David Thompson and State in a taut title game in Greensboro. Kupchak shed tears of joy that night and, two weeks later, tears of heartbreak when Carolina lost in the Sweet Sixteen to an inferior Syracuse team.
Kupchak faced career-threatening back surgery in the off-season and remembered lying in the operating room ready to take a massive needle in his spine when Smith walked in wearing a hospital gown and mask. Smith placed his hand on Kupchak’s shoulder until his star center fell asleep.
Recovered from the surgery, Kupchak went on to a stellar senior season, leading UNC to an 11-1 record and first place in the ACC. But after being named the league’s best player, Kupchak’s college career ended with more heartbreak in ACC and NCAA tournament upset losses to Virginia and Alabama, respectively.
Kupchak (and three other Tar Heels) did earn a Gold Medal under Smith and Bill Guthridge at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
His teammates, coaches and great friends Kupchak made in Chapel Hill were ecstatic when the Washington Bullets picked him 13th in the 1976 NBA draft. He signed a huge contract for those days and immediately got tagged with the nickname of “Rich Kupchak” by his buddies.
Two years later, Mitch and Wes Unseld led the Bullets to the 1978 NBA title. How could life have turned out any better for the thoughtful, hard-working kid from New York, who always seemed wise beyond his years and remained quiet and conservative even in his new-found fame and fortune?
But, in truth, life was just beginning for Mitch Kupchak.
His four solid seasons in Washington led to a (then) massive long-term offer from the Lakers, urged by Magic Johnson who told team owner Jerry Buss that Kupchak was the missing piece to an NBA championship. Twenty-six games into his first season, Kupchak blew out his knee and would not play again until 1983. By then, “Big Game” James Worthy had come from Carolina to join the Lakers’ front court.
But Kupchak had made contingency plans by including in his contract a job working in the Laker’s organization when he was done playing.
While rehabbing his mangled knee, Kupchak began apprenticing Lakers legendary General Manager Jerry West and was soon to become his protégé. He retired in 1986, a year after winning another NBA Championship, and became West’s assistant. He also finished his MBA at UCLA, helping his readiness to run a pro franchise.
While working with West, and then taking over as GM in 2000, the team has won seven more of the Lakers’ 17 NBA titles by first trading for the rights to 17-year-old Kobe Bryant (originally drafted by Charlotte, of all places) and then Shaquille O’Neal. Kupchak has also survived some tough stretches that included six seasons without a championship and Bryant’s trial for alleged rape in Colorado.
Dozens of NBA stars and journeymen moving in and out of the Lakers organization, plus the two championship tenures of Coach Phil Jackson, have kept Kupchak in the headlines more than he wanted. Having failed to win the last two NBA titles, he was looking for a major re-haul this off-season.
After signing free agent point guard Steve Nash, Kupchak pulled off what even he called a “grand slam home run” by trading for center Dwight Howard and giving away relatively little to sign Superman. With an aging Bryant, all-star forward Pau Gasol and a deep bench that includes former UNC star Antawn Jamison, Howard and Nash have created Showtime II in Los Angeles.
At 58, with wife Claire and two teenage children, Mitch Kupchak’s one-time simpler life remains full and fulfilled but far from finished. Learning from Dean Smith and Jerry West will keep you going strong for a long time.
Soccer Triumph and Tragedy
Congratulations to UNC’s Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath for helping the U.S. Women’s soccer team to the Gold Medal in London, avenging a loss to Japan in the World Cup two years ago. It marked the USA team’s third straight Gold Medal, the third for O’Reilly and the second for Heath.
And our deepest condolences to the family, teammates and friends of former UNC men’s soccer captain Kirk Urso, who led Carolina to its only NCAA championship in 2011. Urso died suddenly this week in Columbus, Ohio, where he was playing professional soccer.