The Bullets love to tease Mitch Kupchak about his reckless playing style, but two major injuries in two seasons have reduced much of the laughter.
Kupchak, who hopes to be in the Bullet lineup for the first time in two weeks today against Golden State at Capital Centre, is not about to change his court habits. But he admits experience is beginning to teach him to pick his spots.
"You can't go around diving after everything," he said. "I remember against Chicago this year, I was going after a loose ball and I was in midair and the ref blew his whistle. I said 'Oh, No,' but I couldn't do anything but try to brace my landing."
He wound up severely brusing his right elbow on that play. But it's rare that he doesn't have an ugly bruise somewhere on his body.
Whether Kupchak will be able to avoid injury problems the rest of his career still is a major question. He is almost in a Catch 22: If he stops hustling to avoid ailments, he won't be as good a player. Yet, if he continues to use his body as a battering ram, injuries are almost sure to result.
This latest problem, an inflamed Achilles' tendon, probably started from a bump or bruise, although he can't pinpoint when it first began hurting.
"I really first noticed it hurting when I was doing my (pregame) exercises," he said. "It just got worse and worse the more I played.
"I thought it was something that you can live with for a while and get treatments and then it will go away. But it didn't. It got to a point where I couldn't run before San Antonio. That's when I knew I had to sit out."
Kupchak didn't play for 10 days, then tried to come back Feb. 11 against Philadelphia. He now says that was a mistake.
"I really wasn't ready but I wanted to play," he said. "All I did was hurt it again.
"It's difficult not to play, but I guess I'm learning with experience. You can't rush injuries. This is a long season and by sitting out an extra game or two, you can help yourself."
That's why Coach Dick Motta is not pressing Kupchak to return. He would just as soon see him sit out the 1:45 game against Golden State "than risk hurting himself again. I've told Mitch that we need him healthy going down the stretch and he should be patient."
General manager Bob Ferry won't take Kupchak off the injured reserve list until just before game time today in order to give him as much time as possible to make sure he wants to suit up.
"If there is any doubt in his mind," Ferry said, "he can put it off and wait until Wednesday (when the Bullets play Chicago). We have left this entirely up to him. I don't want him to feel pressured into playing."
Last year, when Kupchak damaged his thumb on a West Coast road trip, he chose to play the next night. As a result, he tore the thumb so severely it required surgery and he missed a month.
"I messed up this time," he said with a laugh. "Last year I could go to Florida. But this year, the Achilles' never was that bad so I stayed around here and ran into all this snow."
Considering Kupchak's value to the club, the Bullets have done remarkably well over the period which he has missed. They won six of 10 games, but eight of those contests were on the road.
In the process, they have taken a substantial lead over Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division race. The 76ers, who also have been hurt by injuries, would have to win at least 70 percent of their remaining games to catch a Washington team performing at a.500 clip.
Seattle also has fallen behind in pursuit of Washington for the league's best record. However, the Bullets now have to worry about another challenger, Kansas City.