Since Mitch Kupchak left the Washington Bullets for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981, he has become conversant with a wide range of subjects not familiar to the average basketball fan. Things like laminectomies and knee braces.
He learned about laminectomies -- surgical procedures to remove portions of a vertebra -- when he had two done for a pinched nerve in his back. The knowledge of knee braces also came as a result of the surgeon's knife; after Kupchak was injured in 1981, he needed major reconstructive knee surgery and it was thought he would never play again.
Today, Kupchak, wearing a specially designed, 14-ounce graphite knee brace, not only is playing but contributing to the Lakers' attempt to unseat the Boston Celtics as NBA champs. Surely the performances of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson have been more important factors in Los Angeles' 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven series than Kupchak's total of 19 points and nine rebounds, but -- as has been the case throughout his career -- Kupchak's worth is not measured solely by statistics.
In this series, Kupchak has been more than willing to mix it up with the heretofore bruising Celtics. While Abdul-Jabbar was scoring just 12 points with three rebounds in Boston's 148-114 Game 1 victory, Kupchak, in six fewer minutes, had seven points and two rebounds.
Plus, he got the attention of Boston center Robert Parish with a little roughhousing, something that is cropping up repeatedly in this series.
"He's put my back out of whack, but other than that I don't think he's had too much of an impact in the series," said Boston forward Kevin McHale. "He's made his presence felt but they all have. That's been our problem, we haven't made our presence felt yet. We have as much weight and desire to throw it around as they do."
Still, even McHale admits it's doubtful that most players would have been able to return to action from the severe injury Kupchak suffered. Running down court on a fast break against the San Diego Clippers -- "On December 19, 1981, I'll never forget it," Kupchak said -- he fell, not only breaking a bone leading from the right knee but tearing ligaments and cartilage.
The injury came in the first season after Kupchak had signed a seven-year, $10-million contract to join the team after leaving Washington via free agency. Many thought that the money invested by Lakers owner Jerry Buss was long gone but the fact that the entire contract was guaranteed played a large factor in Kupchak's eventual rehabilitation.
"It wasn't as if I had it operated on and had to go right out and work to provide for my family," he said. "I had an opportunity that others didn't have because the money was guaranteed. To my way of thinking I had six years to rehabilitate myself."
But it was obvious he wasn't content to wait. Kupchak began his comeback while sitting out the 1982-83 season, one in which teammate James Worthy broke a leg shortly before the playoffs.
"I spent that next summer with him working out," Worthy remembers. "We'd go out and I'd spend my little two hours of work and go home but he'd be there another four or five."
Kupchak averaged nine minutes per game last season and only 12 this season. But just the fact that he was able to return to the court has been so impressive that when New York Knicks forward and NBA scoring leader Bernard King went down with a similar injury late this season, one of the people he called for advice was Kupchak.
"He called about a week after it happened," Kupchak said. "He wanted to know which type of surgery I had and who did it. I was flattered that he called but I can remember doing the same thing after I got hurt."
His performance in the championship series has represented a milestone for Kupchak, who said the biggest difference in his play from last season's title round is that "I've been able to answer a lot of questions, both from the media and my teammates. Now I know I have their confidence."
Kupchak's next goal is to increase his role with the Lakers. "If there was a need, I think that I could get 15 or so points and eight to 11 rebounds in a game," he said. "What I do now is play a role, which I can accept because we have a very set lineup and we win nearly all of the time.
"I'm still improving, but I don't really think about playing for a franchise other than here. Further on down the line, like 10 years or so, there's going to be further damage to the knee. I can't see going through that for a club that didn't show the faith in me when I was hurt, like the Lakers did. That, as well as perhaps losing constantly for the sake of some more minutes."
Besides, Kupchak knows that the chances are against him becoming the focal point on another NBA squad, a fact that has been brought home on his present team. The day after the opening-game defeat in Boston, Kupchak was invited to attend a movie a couple of blocks away from the Lakers' hotel.
He declined, saying that it wouldn't look good for team morale to have a player going out and having a good time after a loss. Yet, when the group got to the cinema, there were Johnson, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper.
"Wherever we go, those guys get together and go to a movie. It's sort of a ritual with them," Kupchak explained. "For them, that was like staying in a routine; for me to go would have been breaking one.
"Besides, I'm Mitch Kupchak and it's a lot easier to bench me for going to a movie than Magic Johnson."