Mitch Kupchak’s time with the Lakers — as a player and as an executive — has been marked by comebacks.
In December 1981, Kupchak suffered a knee injury so severe it was thought his career was over. But after two surgeries and after sitting out nearly two full seasons, he returned to during the 1983-84 season. The next season, he was a valuable reserve who helped the Lakers defeat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals for the first time.
"Well, Boston’s big," Kupchak said on national television after the clinching victory. "I might not be as quick as I once was or run the court as well, but I’m still 6-foot-10 and 240 [pounds]."
In the summer of 2007, Kupchak suffered another blow. But this one was to his reputation. As the Lakers’ general manager, he was being skewered by the team’s superstar player, Kobe Bryant. Unhappy with the direction of the team after a second consecutive first-round playoff exit, Bryant publicly blasted management and demanded a trade.
The Lakers didn’t trade Bryant and in February 2008, Kupchak pulled off a deal for Pau Gasol. The Lakers have been title contenders ever since.
"He goes from an F," Bryant said of Kupchak during the 2008 playoffs, "to an A-plus."
Kupchak’s path to the front office started soon after his major injury.
Acquired by the Lakers from Washington before the 1981-82 season, Kupchak excelled as the starting power forward, averaging 14.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. But in a game against the San Diego Clippers, Kupchak planted his left leg in while trying to avoid a charge against the Joe Bryant (Kobe’s father). His leg buckled, causing a fracture to his knee and damage to cartilage and a ligament.
During his rehabilitation, Kupchak pursued a master’s degree in business at UCLA.
"My career was in jeopardy after four months in Los Angeles," he said in an interview in 2008. "I felt I had to be able to provide something for the organization other than a political science and psychology degree. I rehabbed two hours a day, but what else was I going to do? Going back to school was good therapy."
Kupchak played through the 1985-86 season, then became an assistant to Jerry West, the Lakers’ general manager. When West stepped down after the Lakers’ championship in 2000, Kupchak was promoted.
The Lakers won titles in Kupchak’s first two seasons as general manager, before losing in the second round in 2003. Kupchak signed future Hall of Famer members Karl Malone and Gary Payton for the 2004 season, but the Lakers’ "super team" got crushed in the Finals by Detroit.
Turmoil followed as Phil Jackson was not retained as coach, Shaquille O’Neal demanded a trade and Bryant considered signing with the Clippers. With no assurances that Bryant would return to the Lakers, Kupchak sent O’Neal to Miami.
While Bryant did eventually to re-sign with the Lakers, the team fell from the elite of the league, missing the playoffs in 2005 and losing to Phoenix in the first round in 2006 and 2007.
Bryant’s frustration turned into harsh criticism of Kupchak. In an amateur video, Bryant profanely said he couldn’t believe the Lakers didn’t "ship out" Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd. The front office, Bryant later said, was a "mess."
But one man’s mess is another man’s bargaining chip. And when Kupchak got the Memphis Grizzlies to take underachieving Kwame Brown as part of the Gasol deal, the Lakers were back on their way to the top, winning championships in 2009 and 2010.
Not that Kupchak is impressed with himself. As he said in 2008 after getting the highest of marks from Bryant, "In six months, I could be back to an F."