A little girl, 2 years old at most, strayed over to Mitch Kupchak while he was eating in a restaurant the other day.
"Hi," Kupchak said.
The little girl smiled and then fell down.
"That looks like me trying to play basketball," said Kupchak. "There's one difference, though. She didn't break anything."
Mitch Kupchak hasn't played basketball since last Dec. 19. That night, in uniform for the Los Angeles Lakers, he crashed to the Forum floor with a broken leg and torn cartilage and a severed ligament in his left knee. Almost a year later, he still hasn't bounced up and run away.
Despite two operations on the knee since the injury and extremely long odds against him ever playing again, Kupchak, 27, said he is not about to admit that his career is over.
"I still want to play basketball," he said. "I don't need it. I want it."
Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry, who drafted Kupchak in the first round for Washington in 1976, isn't sure Kupchak can make it back.
"I just don't know how good he'll be if he does make it back," said Ferry. "All of the injuries he's had have to take a heavy toll. We aren't talking about groin pulls or sprained ankles; we're talking about two major back operations and one of the most serious knee injuries a person can have.
"I think anybody other than Mitch, with the contract he has, wouldn't even try to come back. But with Mitch, it's like a personal duty. He has to try to rehabilitate himself."
Lakers Coach Pat Riley: "If there's anybody in the world who can come back, it's Mitch. I have tremendous faith in him. I look at him now and I wonder, though. But there is that something unique about him. I just feel that he'll be there next year."
Kupchak has always displayed that sort of determination. He was an all-America at North Carolina and an Olympic hero. He had two major back operations, one in college and one in the pros, but came back from both. Because of his hustling, dive-to-the-floor play, he was one of the most popular Bullets ever, even though he started only 15 games in five years with the team.
All those scrapes and floor burns paid off when he became a free agent after the 1980-81 season. The Lakers offered him a $5.6 million, seven-year guaranteed contract that provided lifetime financial security.
Still, because he felt a loyalty to the team that had drafted him, Kupchak offered to take more than $1 million less from the Bullets to stay in Washington. The Bullets declined, so Kupchak went west, with mixed emotions.
He fit right in with the Lakers as their starting power forward. Allan Hardy already had Kupchak's No. 25, so Kupchak chose No. 41. "I couldn't beat out Wes (Unseld), but I can take his number," said Kupchak, who was averaging 14.3 points and eight rebounds a game when he was hurt.
"I was out on a fast break, eight feet from the basket," Kupchak recalled. "I didn't step on anything and nobody hit me. It was just a combination of my size and weight, the angle of the knee and my body type. The ligament gave out first and it caused a tear in the cartilage and then my leg broke.
"I never felt so much pain," Kupchak said. "I had back spasms after surgery once and I couldn't move an inch without being in excruciating pain, but if I was perfectly still, the pain would stop. There was nothing I could do to make my knee stop hurting. I was just sitting there on the floor. I wouldn't let anybody touch me. I hit the trainer to keep him away. I was defensive.
"Then, five minutes later, the pain stopped. I was in a fog, but I didn't hurt anymore. I walked off the court, but I knew I was in trouble."
Kupchak was operated on two days later to remove the cartilage. That's when doctors discovered the broken bone behind the knee, just below the joint, and the torn ligament.
"They decided to leave the ligament alone and hope it would heal by itself or that I had the type of body that could compensate for it," said Kupchak.
It didn't happen.
"It never healed and I had an unstable knee. The swelling never went down and it never stopped bleeding. They kept draining it and draining it. If I tried to do anything on it, it buckled."
A second operation was the only answer. On June 9, Kupchak's doctors decided to take part of his patellar tendon, along with a piece of bone from each side of it, and transplant it to where the ligament was.
It was the start of another long and tedious rehabilitation process. And now, the one question Kupchak answers more than any other these days is, why? Why is he subjecting himself to the pain and the disappointments? What is he trying to prove?
"Nothing," said Kupchak. "I still have the desire. If it wasn't in the cards, if it weren't meant to be, then why would I have the desire? That would be cruel if God gave me the desire to overcome all of this for no reason. There has to be a reason I still want to play.
"Besides all of that, I owe it to my employer, too. I have to try. Say I lose half a step. I'll still be 6-11, 245 or 250. Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) will be 37, so I could play center. Even if I lose that half a step, I'll still be as quick as most centers and I'm big enough."
Lakers owner Jerry Buss said he has no regrets paying a man who has played in only 26 games in two years.
"I have no doubt he'll be able to play again," Buss said. " . . . I'd say 99 percent of the players in the world wouldn't play again, but we're talking about Mitch Kupchak. He's the most dedicated player I ever met. He'll will it.
"His contract calls for him to work for us in the front office when he's through playing, so we'll get our money's worth. He's worth as much to us for his head as his body, and if I see his coming back isn't working and that he might injure himself more or again, I'll tell him to hang it up. I don't want to see him walking around the rest of his life with a leg he can't use."
The only exercise Kupchak is permitted is lifting weights, swimming, doing situps and riding a stationary bicycle. But he does it all with a passion. "If you could cut off my left leg," he said, "you'd have a hell of a body left."
Kupchak still walks with a noticeable limp and can't straighten his leg, "because they made the ligament good and tight."
His days now are spent mostly at Centinella Hospital, 3 1/2 hours a day with his therapist, Clive Brewster, and in classes at UCLA.
Kupchak graduated from North Carolina with degrees in psychology and political science. "It's hard to apply that to anything, but it was interesting," he said. "I'm taking graduate courses in accounting and retail management. If for some reason things don't work out with basketball, I'll try for my master's in business administration."
At first, Kupchak didn't realize the significance of what he was saying.
"Wow," he said, "did I say 'if?' "