It's difficult to follow in the footsteps of a legend. But Mitch Kupchak seems to be handling the pressure. In August, Kupchak officially took over responsibility for basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers when Jerry West retired after 40 years with the organization as all-star player, coach, general manager and finally vice president. Kupchak, who played for the Lakers during their Showtime glory years of the 1980s, was groomed by West to be his successor. After entering the NBA in 1976 with the Washington Bullets, he came to the Lakers as a free agent in 1981, but severely injured his knee 26 games into the season. After spending the rest of that season and all of the next in rehabilitation, Kupchak returned to the team and played a vital role off the bench as the Lakers won the 1985 championship. But he suffered another knee injury and retired in 1986. He quickly moved to the front office, helping West while completing his MBA at UCLA, a degree he began working on while in rehab. He was promoted to general manager in 1995 when West became executive vice president for basketball operations. While his title hasn't changed, his responsibilities have grown dramatically since West stepped down.
Question: What's it like replacing Jerry West?
Answer: I don't look at it that way. People ask that question all the time, and that's probably how I'll be judged. Jerry and I worked side by side for over 14 years, and the last five or six years I felt we were almost interchangeable, as far as being able to make a decision. At the end of the day though, when there were the big decisions, I'd walk into Jerry's office, and he'd ask my opinion and then I'd look at him. And he would make the decisions. (Now), although I get support from our owner and our coach and (assistant GM) Kurt Rambis, they're looking at me saying, "OK, Mitch, this is how I feel, this is what I think, what are you going to do?" So that's the difference. It's no longer me looking at Jerry.
Q: Do you feel more pressure now than you did four months ago?
A: There's no doubt. I don't feel that I'm in an unusual or unbearable situation. But during the summer, we had a lot of work that needed to be done. And although Jerry retired in early August, he really retired sometime in the early spring. He just stopped coming in. It wasn't like I just woke up and was named the person. So my mindset started to change, and it was gradual. But at some point during the summer, I looked around, and there was nobody here. Of course, I had the support of our coach, and Kurt. But the security blanket that the organization has always had was not here. And we had three or four things that kept on falling through, because of the complexity of making a multi-team trade. When there's two teams involved, you can make a trade, when there are three or four or five teams involved, it becomes incredibly complex. But that's the job, and that's no different from any other person in this position.
Q: You were trying to engineer a deal to fill some holes by getting a power forward, and/or back-up center, and trade free agent Glen Rice in order to get this done.
A: Yeah, but I never ever said, you know, I wish Jerry were here. I knew what I was doing, I felt comfortable, in my element. The (salary) cap wasn't new to me. The people I'm talking to, the GMs, I've known them all for 20 years. But the complexity: trying to move a player who's a free agent, who you don't have signed. Trying to get back a certain need. It wasn't like we had to get back just a player, we had to get back a power forward. And Glen had to be satisfied, basically he had to end up in New York. It's not two guys sitting across a desk saying, "Well, this guy's as good as this guy, let's make a trade." It doesn't work that way.
Q: Clearly the biggest decision you made in the off-season was signing Isaiah Rider, a talented player with a troubled past, at a bargain price. Was that a gut call?
A: It was basically just a feeling that I had. We're not talking about finding a player in the back country that no one's ever heard about. I think everybody knows what Isaiah Rider can do. I just found myself looking at our board, our depth chart, and seeing we needed help in the backcourt. We're talking about a one-year deal, the guy's 29, this is maybe his last stop. We've got a good group, a stable group, a good coach. It really quickly became a no-brainer.
Q: Talk about your transition from player to management. Did this move just sort of happen, or did you decide at some point in your playing career to move to the front office?
A: I had been injured quite a bit in my career but had always been able to come back and resume the career. And then I came to Los Angeles and signed a long-term contract at a fairly high price at the time, although today it's barely above minimum salary. I was 27 years old and didn't know what the future would bring. And less than four months into my first year I went down with an injury, and the doctors were saying that's it's over you can't come back and you can't play. I started going to UCLA's business school, taking classes through the extension program. One year led to the next year, and I applied to the business school and got in, and then I returned to the Lakers as a player. During the ('85-86) season, in January or February, I tweaked my knee again and had another surgery. And Jerry West, who had always been beat up in his career, would say to me, "You know, you don't have to do this. I can use help in the front office. Just let me know." I told the Lakers I'd like to retire because of the injury, and Jerry said, "Great, man, I need the help. Come on in."
Q: Clearly, running a basketball team is much more complex than it was just five or 10 years ago. What is the salary cap now? Isn't it around $64 million?
A: No, it's very misleading. The salary cap now is $35.5 million.
Q: I thought it was twice that.
A: What you hear is what teams pay. And that's confusing in itself. There's probably not a single team that's under the salary cap. The $35.5 million, that's the amount that your team payroll can equal. But it's a soft cap; we don't have a hard cap. We have these things called exceptions, and these exceptions allow you to exceed the cap. Injury exceptions, the ability to sign back your own free agents. So you can be at $35 million, and Shaquille's a free agent. And you sign him to 10 or 15 or 20 million (dollars), and you're allowed to do that. So now you're at $50 million. Kobe Bryant's a free agent; he's your own player. You sign him back at let's say $10 million, $15 million, now you're at $65 million. Most teams in the NBA are over the cap, because of the exceptions. Although the cap is at $35 million, we are so far over the cap it's a joke.
Q: But don't these sky-high payrolls hurt the league overall? Jerry Buss is a wealthy man, but he's not as wealthy as Portland Trailblazers' owner Paul Allen. Can Jerry Buss continue to afford to compete?
A: He can do that, and if it results in winning championships, he'll be happy. But my guess is, if he's not as successful on the court as he'd like to be, irrespective of how much money he makes, he'll look at the business and say, "Why am I losing so much money in this small business and we're not doing as well as I want to do? I can afford to do it, but I don't want to do it." And my guess is, at some point that'll happen with a lot of owners who do that. I think a lot of the owners, they've done so well outside of basketball that they can afford to lose money. But I don't think that's the way to run businesses. I think that's our challenge, and all these mechanisms that are in place, the caps, the taxes, etc., are to encourage the owners to take a step back and run the business efficiently.
Q: Having won the championship last season, do you think the Lakers can have the kind of sustained success that they did in the 1980s?
A: Well, there are more teams now. I do think we have two of the most dominant players, which is similar to what we had in the '80s, with Kareem and Magic and James Worthy. So certainly, we can. But statistically, with more teams, it is more difficult. And we had players that never got hurt in the '80s. Kareem and Magic almost never got hurt. So if that happens to us, then we can have a good run. This is a family-owned and run business, which has great efficiencies built in, as opposed to a big corporation. When we want to get something done, I call Dr. Buss directly. It's a great way to do business. I'm spoiled to a great degree.
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