It has been a frustrating season for Mitch Kupchak. He calls on his body, and sometimes it doesn't answer.
Kupchak is going through the agony of trying to play basketball after major back surgery. He has not been able to do what once came so naturally, and he has not been much help to the Bullets so far this season. That has been terribly frustrating.
Kupchak didn't play at all in last season's NBA championship series against the Seattle SuperSonics. He probably will be used only sparingly tonight when the Bullets play host to the Sonics at Capital Centre at 8:05 o'clock.
Kupchak's limited playing time and contributions are tearing him apart, but he has learned to live with the situation. He says he is thankful for the few minutes he gets each game and he keeps pushing himself, trying to regain his form.
A career 13.4 scorer, 6.5 rebounder and 54 percent shooter, Kupchak, in his fourth season with the Bullets, has appeared in only 23 of 41 games this year. He is averaging 5.9 points and 2.7 rebounds in 12 minutes a game and is shooting 43 percent after being activated Nov. 23.
Occasionally he shows flashes of his old reckless self. But there are times when he looks like a child playing a man's game.
"I'm just not in good shape, and it's tough," Kupchak said yesterday. "It's tougher than I expected. If I had played four weeks of training camp, I would have been as good as I was last year before I got hurt, but I didn't go to training camp and now it's tough to get in shape.
"The way the schedule is, the travel and everything, I don't get to work out a lot and this team doesn't practice all that hard anyway. I'm not playing much in the games either because I'm not helping much when I'm in there. I feel like I regress as much as progress sometimes.
"I fatigue and my back gets real tired. I'm still quite a ways away from where I need to be. It's a lot better than it was a month ago, though. But I can't get by on my natural talents alone. I have to be in peak condition to make it. I have to be at my physical limit and in real good shape.
"It's not a question of if I can do it," Kupchak said. "It's just that I'm not there yet. But I will get there. What's bothering me is that I really planned on helping more by now than I have. The difficult thing is not being able to produce like I want to for the team and for the fans."
Kupchak says he is still lacking quickness and timing, two vital necessities of his game. "There just hasn't been time for me to play myself into shape," he said.
Coach Dick Motta has decided to play Kupchak for one five or six-minute stretch in the first half and another similar stretch in the second half. That strategy seems to be working because both Motta and Kupchak say they can see progress almost daily.
"If I produce, I'll stay in the games longer," Kupchak said. "If not, I'll come out. I know it and I'm appreciative of whatever time I get.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm in a real daze out there," Kupchak added. "I don't know what to do next, but I don't think I can really hurt the team in five minutes."
Kupchak's back still gets stiff and he has to warm it up thoroughly before he can play. It is difficult for him to sit on the bench 15 minutes a game because his back stiffens.
"It's the same way with Wes' (Unseld) knees," Kupchak said. "But my back will get better. I don't think his knees will."
Kupchak said he is making the same moves he made last year and he feels like he's working just as hard on the boards. "But I don't seem to be able to come up with the ball," he said. "I get in the right position, but my explosion to the ball just isn't there."
Kupchak and the Bullets got a big scare Friday in Philadelphia when he was unintentionally undercut beneath the basket and crashed to the floor, landing on his back.
He lay there stunned for a moment, but after a 20-second injury timeout, stayed in the game.
Kupchak has now thrown out all of his recovery timetables except the long range plan. "This year I'll work as hard as I can, on my own, extra, or whatever I can," he said. "Next season I'll come to camp a different person. I'll be 120 percent of what I am now. This season it's just a case of doing whatever I can and being thankful for the chance."
Despite the frustration, Kupchak says he has never been depressed.
"I've gotten a big kick out of just coming back," he said. "My spirit has always been good. If that breaks, I'm in deep trouble, but I don't think there's any danger of that ever happening. That just isn't me."
Greg Ballard, who scored 84 points and had 37 rebounds in three games last week, was named NBA player of the week yesterday. Ballard is the first Bullet to win the honor. . . . Jim Cleamons, who sprained his wrist against Portland Sunday, practiced yesterday, but said his wrist is still sore. He said he will play tonight, however . . . Wes Unseld and Bob Dandridge didn't work out, but both are expected to play.Unseld has arthritic feet and Dandridge has chronic foot problems . . . The Bullets have won five of their last six, and can reach the .500 mark for the first time since Nov. 24 with a victory tonight . . . The Sonics have won 30 of their last 38 games.