"I don't even want to think of Mitch Kupchak as a starter. He's one of the league's most feared weapons right now. There's no better feeling than having him sitting next to me on the bench . . . lurking."
-Dick Motta, Bullet coach
If Mitch Kupchak were an actor, he would be one of those versatile, handsome Redford-reynolds-newman types who rollicks his way through adventure, romance and comedy, but always longs to play Hamlet.
To be or not to be a starter, that's always Kupchak's question. The biggest Bullet has splinters on his mind.
The 6-foot-11 Kupchak is a genuine raity in pro sports: a well-paid, well-loved star on a world championship team who is still mildly annoyed, mildly disappointed and perpetually worried whenever he thinks of the state of his career.
At present, the effervescent Kupchak ought to be delighted. He is the highest scoring nonstarter in the NBA. His 17 points and 7.5 rebounds in just 27 minutes a game make him arguably the NBA's reigning supersub, its heir to the sixth-man crown of Frank Ramsey, the young John Havlicek and vintage Bill Bradley.
Kupchak is the only player on an NBA champion who has ever split his playing time almost evenly between center and both forward positions. In that respect he is even more versatile than Havlicek, being able to strike an opponent at three positions, rather than two.
"People always talk about what I'll be someday," says Kupchak with a smile. "I guess I'm something right now."
Indeed, he is. On a production-perminute basis - which is a bench brigader's coin of the realm - his first three seasons are almost a duplicate of Havlicek's. Only "almost," because Kupchak's offensive statistics are better.
Projected over a full 48-minute game the emerging Havlicek of 1962 through 1965 would have averaged 28.36 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.25 assists. Kupchak's projected averages through 21/2 seasons are 28.86 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.13 assists.
Havlicek's oveall early career statistics are superior because he averaged 30 minutes a game to Kupchak's 23. Ah, there's the rub. To Kupchak, minutes are better than money.
For the rest of the Bullets, the last four days have been a familiar ordeal, a customary pain in the neck. The champions have traveled nearly 10,000 miles and played in three cities in less than 100 hours, winning one game and losing weekend games to Los Angeles (127-115) and Portland (114-109).
For Kupchak, however, these hard, drab midseason days have been an unexpected gift, just what he had asked Santa to stuff in his huge socks - a chance to start at center for in jured Wes Unseld, a chance to exhaust himself playing 40 minutes a game.
You see, as excellently as Kupchak and Motta get along, they have the most fundamental sort of tactical bone to pick between them.
"Mitch is at maximum effectiveness playing just the way he is now," says Motta, the benevolent dictator. "I don't want him ever to learn to pace himself. When he enters, it's always against a sub or tired starter, and I want him to feel he can just destroy them. We want an instant mismatch, instant offense.
"I can remember the rotten feeling I had coaching against havlicek when he'd bounce up off the bench. I would imagine I felt then about like other teams do now when they see Mitch."
Kupchak agrees, to a degree. "When ever I come in, Elvin (Hayes) or Wes or Bobby (Dandridge) has just gone out. And the guy says to himself, 'Boy, am I glad to see him go,'" says Kupchak, an evil grin growing.
"Then 'Surprise!' it' me," Kupchak said. "In that situation, I can control a game. On a good night I can make the whole game revolve around me. I believe that."
Motta, however, believes that Kupchak is an explosive most destructive when compressed. Kupchak would like to expand considerably. That's why his present term as center-for-a week is such a valuable form of torture to him.
"I'm so tired I can barely move." says Kupchak; whose 26 points and 12 rebounds were both game highs in the Bullets' loww to Portland here Saturday night. "I've never been so exhausted during any season. I'm sore all over. My body is gauged to 25 minutes a night, I guess. I'll be honest - I'm dying. It's like training camp all over.
"I've actually been too tired to sleep at night. I just lay in bed last night and thought . . ." said Kupchak. "And when I finally fell asleep, I dreamed about Kareem Adul-Jabbar skyhooking me. Two nights ago, the phone rang in the middle of the night and I didn't know where I was . . . what city.
"The voice said, 'Sir, this is your 5 a.m. wake-up call.'
"I said, 'Lady, have you made a big mistake.'"
Motta views this Kupchak fatigue from playing 32, 37 and 43 minutes in consecutive games as good evidence that a 6-foot-11 human cannot play with Kupchak's fury for more than half a game.
"He had 26 points in 43 minutes tonight," said Motta. "If we'd had Wes healthy, Mitch would have scored the same 26, but in only 26 minutes and we'd have been twice as well off."
Such talk makes Kupchak's frizzy hair stand on end, though he admits it may be ture.
"With the Bullets I do not see my future as a forward. At forward, where am I? On the bench for at least three more years behind Elvin and Bobby.
"The only spot I can break into the lineup is at center when Wes retires in a year or so . . .
"Jeez, it must be real nice to have just one position. Other guys study their man, get a book on all the people they play. I just watch the whole game. I could be guarding almost anybody at any minute. I'd have to have a book on two-thirds of the league."
Of course, Kupchak is right. "I'm not super at any skill," he says "but I can do some of everything well."
With his blend of size, quickness, full-court speed and shooting touch, he - at least theoretically - should have some weapon for every encounter.
Kupchak' biggest worry, however is not his glut of opponents, but his need, as he says cryptically, "to reprove myself every night, just to get some playing time."
Even Kupchak's model attitude conspires against him here. "I know is he has just one bad night, he'll come back breathing fire in the next game," says Motta. "A bad night for Mitch is like money in the bank for me. I can build the next game around him."
Kupchak may be the only player in the league who can treat 82 games like 82 North Carolina vs North Carolina State wars. And that is why he can be the game's only 25-minutes-a-night star. NBA games are not decided by the dull nightly grind of trading 100 baskets, but by short, decisvie slashes that suddenly produce double-figure leads. Kupchak is that bolt of lightning ready to crash.
"I constantly surprise myself," he says sheepishly. "I don't go looking for crazt things to do, but it's certain that if you never try anything unusual, nothing ever happens.
"The intermittent reinforcement when you hustle and get some weird break is about all it takes to keep me . . . uh . . . the way I am.
"I take it for a blatant fact that I have not reached my peak. For two years I've studied my good and bad games and I've proved to myself that no one player or team has my number. I can be great or absolutely terrible against all of 'em," he said.
"It seems that I dicate how well I play, not them.I have my own number you migh say," he says, then adds, "at least thaths a helpful way to look at it.
"To be compared to Havlicek is sort of an ultimate compliment to me," says the man who looks like a bigger Halicek. 'But to think of myself as a sixth man . . . I just refuse to believe it."