Last season, in January, February and March, I had doubts that I'd ever be okay. Quitting basketball altogether did enter my mind, but it would have been harder to quit than to keep trying. I don't want to ever let an injury stop me from doing anything ." Bullet forward Mitch Kupchak.
Mitch Kupchak is playing basketball again. He is playing the way he used to play. Kupchakball is a reasonable way to describe this game. Go all out, every play; play as though every minute is the last minute.
He is running, jumping and throwing his body around with the joy of a little boy who has just learned a new game.
At practice, Kupchak goes up for a rebound and wrestles it away from Elvin Hayes and Greg Ballard. He flips an outlet pass to his guard and then, with head down, sprints downcourt to take a return pass and score on a layup. He keeps on sprinting and gets back to the other end of the floor ahead of everyone else.
"The only thing I haven't done yet is dive for the ball," Kupchak said. "I'm just waiting for the right opportunity. I want it to have the right effect on everybody."
Kupchak never tried to fool himself into thinking that he would be as good as new after back surgery in the summer of 1979 sidelined him most of last season.
He learned that he had to do things differently and that he had to overcompensate for his back, which will never be as strong as it was.
It has been a long, hard and often lonely haul back for Kupchak, but he has done it with a smile. No one will ever understand the pain, the doubt, the frustrations and the setbacks Kupchak has gone through to get back to where he is today. He isn't a complainer and he doesn't want sympathy or even applause for what he has done.
"I haven't really done anything yet," he said. "This training camp is very important for me. In a way, I'm fighting for my life. I don't think I'm threatened in terms of making the team, but I have come back and prove some things. I haven't played well publicly in two years."
Kupchak tried to return too soon after his sugery last season. He grew weaker instead of stronger, and was finally put on the injured list after playing in only 40 games and never being a factor in any.
Kupchak was a 54 percent career field goal shooter and had a 13.4 point-per-game career average before last season, in which he shot only 42 percent and averaged 4.7 points.
"I think that Mitch just needed a lot of playing time last year, but because of the problems we were having, like struggling just to get into the playoffs, we couldn't afford to play him and get him into shape," General Manager Bob Ferry said.
"He had a mysterious blood count and he lost a lot of weight and deteriorated physically."
Kupchak's normal playing weight is 230, but it fell to about 210. He set a goal this season of 250 and made it to 248.
He started his rehabilitation as soon as the Bullets put him on the injured list last March. He started working on Nautilus machines, in a force-resistance type of exercise program. He also worked with free weights and ran, and ran and ran.
"I know my back will never be as strong as it was so I have to overdevelop certain parts of my body to make up for it, like my hips, stomach, shoulders and chest. I could feel things gradually coming," Kupchak said.
Once his strength was back, Kupchak started playing in summer games and leagues. He played in the game between the gold medalists of the 1976 Olympics and the 1980 Olympic teaam, he played in the Maurice Stokes benefit game, he played one game in the Urban Coalition League and he played in the New York Pro League.
"I played all summer so I know I can play this season without hurting myself. Last year, after a week and a half of contact, I started playing in the NBA and you just can't do that."
The most noticeable thing about new Coach Gene Shue's training camp is that it is a physical one. Shue lets the players bang each other without blowing his whistle and Kupchak is in the middle of the rough stuff.
"I think that is great for Mitch that Gene is having a rough camp like this," Ferry said. "He looks great right now with his extra weight and strength, but he's going to get weaker as the season progresses because he isn't going to be able to do Nautilus once the season starts."
Kupchak said he will try to do some weight work during the season, however.
"I know that it isn't usually a good idea to lift weights or do Nautilus during the season, because it can affect your play, but if I start out slow and build up gradually I might be able to pull it off. I'll see.
Kupchak's role this season hasn't been decided.
The first unit in camp has consisted of Wes Unseld at center, Hayes at one forward and Bob Dandridge and Ballard alternating at the other and Kevin Porer and Kevin Grevey at guard. Kupchak, Dave Corzine and rookies Francois Wise, Daryl Strickland and Ken Dancy have been on the second unit. When the veteran Corzine cut his foot in a household accident two days ago, another rookie, Ricky Mahorn, moved up to the second unit.