Despite his homespun personality, Mitch Kupchak has fit rather easily into the fantasy world of outrageous salaries and unrestrainable egos that make up the Los Angeles Lakers.
This clone of Huckleberry Finn says he has had no problems blending in with the Lakers, who already have had one coach fired five games into a nine-game winning streak.
"I just kept my mouth shut, just like I did with the Bullets," Kupchak said of the early season mutiny against ousted Paul Westhead. "A few guys were really unhappy and the rest were indifferent. Now, some of them still are indifferent, but the other guys are happy.
"There was some friction between some of the players and the coach, but that's all disappeared now. Everyone seems happy. There's a lot more freedom on the court and that's the way these guys like to play."
The Lakers, who will play host to the Bullets tonight (10:30, WDCA-TV-20), are not the team that struggled through the first 11 games under Westhead's strict supervision. Since Pat Riley was elevated from assistant to coach, they have won eight of 10 games, six by margins of at least 13 points.
"Their starting five might be the best in basketball," said the Bullets' assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, who scouted Sunday night's 119-106 rout of Kansas City. "Mitch is really playing well. His movement makes their running game even better."
The Lakers' style of play, which has developed into 48 minutes of fast breaking, is perfectly suited to Kupchak, who is much more effective in a running game than a play-oriented offense. He is also a starter for the first time in his NBA career, and has responded well.
"Mitch is the kind of player every coach wants," said Riley. "First of all, you know he's going to give you 100 percent all the time. He's a real worker and those things rub off on the other players. He's done everything we've asked him so far."
Aside from adjusting to the offense, Kupchak has had to blend in with the many different personalities on this collection of high-strung millionaires with egos to match their salaries.
Anyone, except Westhead, of course, can get along with the effervescent Magic Johnson, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes are quiet introverts away from the arena, not ones to socialize or be one of the boys.
"Kareem invited me over to his house for dinner," Kupchak said. "I couldn't believe that place. The big gates out front, the furniture. You have to take your shoes off because of the rugs, but, anyway, the floors are heated.
"He's so great to play with," Kupchak said of the NBA's six-time most valuable player. "He's more enthusiastic than I thought he was. He really enjoys playing, especially when we're playing well."
With Kupchak screening off one side, Abdul-Jabbar has been able to average 10 rebounds a game despite a slight reduction in his playing time, as befits a man of 35.
"Mitch makes my job easier," said Abdul-Jabbar. "It's nice to have somebody else banging the boards. And he can run the court, too."
Kupchak is averaging 16 points and 8.4 rebounds a game and tops the regulars with a .583 shooting percentage. He has led the Lakers in rebounds the last two games and says he's determined to catch Johnson, now second behind Abdul-Jabbar with 198. Kupchak has 176.
"It really helps the running game when your point guard can get a rebound and just take off," Kupchak said. "Once he gets it, I just take off. I know if I can get open, he'll get me the ball. Then all I have to do is catch it."
Kupchak said the biggest adjustment he's had is getting used to Johnson's dazzling, often blind passes. He says the Lakers are a great passing team and that even Abdul-Jabbar seems to enjoy handing out assists.
"Mitch is fun to play with," said Johnson. "He likes to run and he enjoys the game. He's really helped us on the boards and you know you can't run if you don't rebound. We like to do a lot of things to express ourselves on the floor and Mitch fits right in."
Fitting into the laid-back California life style hasn't been a problem for Kupchak, either, except when he gets on these seemingly endless, maze-like freeways.
Although, by his own admission, his $1,100-a-month, two-bedroom apartment "is only 15 minutes from the Forum," Kupchak twice has been heavily fined for being late to games.
"These freeways are unbelievable," he said the other night while sipping a postgame beer. "I've never seen anything like it in my life and I'm from Long Island. When you hit rush hour, forget it. It took me an hour and a half to get to the game the other night. I was 15 minutes late to the meeting and it costs you $50 a minute."
Kupchak could laugh about it, of course, because Jerry Buss, the flamboyant owner of the Lakers, last summer provided him with financial security for the rest of his life, signing him to a contract calling for close to $8 million.
So far, the 27-year-old Kupchak hasn't changed his life style despite an annual income of $800,000. He shunned the trendy bachelor pads in Marina del Rey, passed up the condos near the water and settled into the apartment in Westwood, a college-type community that centers on UCLA.
"A Carolina man had it," the former North Carolina star explained. "He was moving out and offered it to me. He said whatever furniture I liked, I could have. None of these places come with refrigerators or washing machines out here, so this way I didn't have to go out shopping for all that stuff."
Asked what he had been doing offcourt, Kupchak said, "Whenever I'm not playing, I'm resting. I used to complain about not getting enough playing time with the Bullets. Well, now sometimes I'm playing 40 minutes a game."
Westhead's substitution pattern was to bring Kupchak out late in the first quarter, rest him a few minutes, then send him back in to relieve Abdul-Jabbar at center. Then, when Abdul-Jabbar returned, Kupchak would shift back to forward. Riley has been experimenting with different combinations, but the fact remains that the Lakers have only one center.
"We've been looking for a backup center, but so far nothing's happened," Kupchak said. "I don't mind playing there, but I think they'd like to find somebody else."
Riley said that as long as he has Kupchak, he's not too concerned about getting another pivotman because there's always the chance the newcomer won't fit in as well as Kupchak.
There is no doubt that Kupchak has blended in smoothly with one of the premier teams in basketball. So far, he's had more trouble figuring out the freeways than he has the Lakers' offense. If he can just learn to get to the games on time, his adjustment will be complete.