It has been a long time since Mitch Kupchak appeared in highlight films. Last weekend, the team going nowhere, the 1980 U.S. Olympic basketball team, beat the team that already had been. And Kupchak was everywhere.

See Mitch shoot (13 points). See Mitch jump (10 rebounds). See Mitch dive after loose balls.

It was a Kupchak who had not been seen in Washington for some time.

"The game itself meant a lot to me," said Kupchak, who has been working out in Greensboro, N.C., for six weeks. "It was a reunion of all the pllayers from '76. But as far as my health is concerned, I've played five or 10 times better in the last two weeks here in the gym."

It wasn't just being back with the guys. Kupchak seemed back to his old self, back to his gold medal winning ways.

"I really didn't think I played that well, even though everyone else thought so. They said, 'Oh, there's the Mitch of old.' It's nice to hear but it bothers me, too. It meant, finally, that I wasn't very good last year, and that was very hard for me to accept."

Last year, Kupchak played in only 40 games for the Washington Bullets as he struggled to come back from his second operation (June 1979) for a herniated disk in his back. He averaged 11 minutes and 4.7 points a game. But numbers do not reflect the awkwardness he felt, much less the frustration at his inability to do things that once came naturally.

"I was never back last year," he said. "I just never made it back. I came back to early. The first time (his first operation was in 1975) I came back in three months. I figured, it's the same operation. I'll be back in three or four months. I was wrong."

On the court, he seemed tentative, ill at ease and out of synch. "A lot," he said.

Effort always has been a big part of Kupchak's game; the willingness to scrape his knees. Without it, he says, "I'm just an average Joe."

He was far from average Sunday. General Manager Bob Ferry, who watched Kupchak on the NBC telecast, said, "He looked very good. I saw some of the old bounce and agressiveness. He dove on the floor a couple of times. He played with some of that reckless abandon.

"The big thing about Mitch is that he has such an active, lively body for someone 6-11. I saw that Mitch Sunday.

"Last year, he lost weight and he lost confidence," Ferry added. "Sunday, he had confidence in himself. That was the big thing lacking last year."

Dean Smith, Kupchak's coach at North Carolina and at the 1976 Olympics, said, "You can't have confidence if you don't play. He knew he would have playing time with me."

Smith said he "has never seen a Mitch that wasn't back." But, he, too, was pleased with Kupchak's performance. "He was a dominant rebounder, and I love the way he was running. And he had no pain."

Last winter, with his aching back up against the wall, Kupchak called it quits for the season. The bullets were not winning, he was not playing, and "that as bad as you can get," he said.

He did not snap. He started to think about what he had to do to "get back into Bullet condition." He decided to return to Chapel Hill for the summer to "break away from Washington," the hassles and the pressures, and see what he could do.

He got himself a locker in the gym "back where the freshmen are," enrolled in a course on the New Testament and went to work. He has put on 28 pounds, working with weights. "Earned weight," he said.

He has been working on developing his lower body, his hips and waist. "I've always been strong enough to hold my own," he said. "But my lower body has to be overdeveloped to compensate for what I lost through my operations."

At first, he was just shooting around. Then he began to play half-court with some of the pros who summer in Greensboro knowing there always will be a game: Bob McAdon Tom LaGarde, Phil Ford.

"Jeff Wolf (former Carolina player) told me he was really dominating things," Smith said. "And CAdoo was impressed."

Then two weeks ago, Kupchak began to play. Really play. "It was a pickup game . . . I did things . . . I just felt I played dynamite. I missed some easy shots. But I just felt so strong. I felt that there was no one out there who can outjump me or get a rebound away from me.

"It's almost like a machine . . . I'm not in synch yet with my shooting, and my moves. But I did things I haven't done in a long time. Tearing the ball down. Standing still and jumping for a dunk without getting some running steps."

Later that night, he went out for dinner and a beer with a friend. "I overheard a guy say, 'He was playing again. Mitch is back.' I already knew I played well, and now someone was saying it. That's when it hit me."

And that's why, he says, "I walked out of the gym two weeks ago by myself at 7:30 one night much more satisfied than I did on Sunday."

He's not really sure how to feel about it. He wanted to "come back to Washington in October with a big bang. Now," he said, "everyone will be expecting a lot of me."

It was great to have people in the stands Sunday, and the media coverage, he said. "But in a way, it would have been nicer to have nothing at all. I'm out to prove something to myself. I'm not out to prove it to them."