On Top of the World
By Paul Feinberg
In a Venn diagram whose circles are labeled "UCLA Anderson alumnus," "Olympic Gold medalist" and "general manager of a world champion sports franchise", Mitch Kupchak ('87) sits alone where the circles overlap.
Kupchak currently serves as general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, a position he's held since 2000, although he's been with the franchise since 1981. First as a player (he signed with the Lakers after a stint with the Washington Bullets [now Wizards] the team that drafted him out of North Carolina and where he earned a title as a player), then as assistant GM under Jerry West, and finally becoming general manager when West left the organization.
When West moved on in 2000, the Lakers were peaking. West had brought players Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to Los Angeles and he'd recruited Phil Jackson to coach the team. Though Kupchak was the titular general manager during the Shaq/Kobe/Phil championship run (2000 - 2002), it was West who got much of the credit, in absentia.
The Lakers post-Shaq slide, however, earned Kupchak blame, particularly among the Lakers fan base, many of whom consider any season without a championship a failure. By 1987, a 24-second video of Bryant criticizing Kupchak (for not swapping Lakers center Andrew Bynum to New Jersey for Jason Kidd) became public, and the star guard demanded a trade.
Through it all, Kupchak remained steady. While acknowledging that as GM he's the convenient target of everyone and anyone's dissatisfaction at times, he distinguishes between the impatience of fans (and even players) and the patience of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Kupchak describes the leadership of the Lakers as a triumvirate in which he Buss and Jackson collaborate on the key decisions the franchise faces.
After losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 2003 NBA playoffs, Kupchak attempted to rebuild on the fly by adding aging starts like Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the Lakers roster. The 2003-04 team returned to the NBA Finals, only to lose to the Detroit Pistons in five games.
But while other teams are given more leeway to rebuild, the Lakers and their fans have higher expectations. "(All the teams) have the same rules to play by, we all of the same salary cap," Kupchak said. "And the biggest challenge we had was getting our fan base and our players to exercise patience. Where you have rabid fans, patience doesn't go a long way." Kupchak recounts how after the '04 season Payton left, Malone retired, along with veterans Rick Fox and Horace Grant, and Derek Fisher left (he's since returned) and O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat.
The first Shaq-less team ('04-'05) missed the playoffs and the second ('05-'06) and third ('00-'07) lost in the first round. But the 2008 team - buoyed in part by Kupchak's trade for 7-0 Spanish center Pau Gasol - returned to the NBA Finals where they lost to the Boston Celtics.
Last season, only three seasons removed from missing the playoffs and only one season removed from Bryant's trade demands, the Lakers won the World Championship. The return to the top was in some sense meteoric, as it's not uncommon for teams in transition to take a decade or decades before ascending again to the league's elite.
Kupchak was groomed for his current position by West and he actually enrolled in management school while still under a player's contract when a severe knee injury had already effectively ended his time on the court. West, he said, actually took a keen interest in what Kupchak was learning in the classroom. "Jerry always asked me what I was learning," Kupchak recalled. "I remember the PC had just been introduced and we were using word processors and data bases and that interested him."
Evolving technology continues to play a role in Kupchak's world. If it was the introduction of the personal computer at the beginning of his front office career, it's now the proliferation of sports information and the use of social media (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace) and its impact on Lakers players.
"The environment certainly has changed. There is much more competition (in the media). There's talk radio multimedia, Internet, television and blogs," Kupchak said. "(When dealing with all of it, we) find that it really helps us to have a strategy. The introduction of the cell phone, that was the first step, dealing with cell phones in the locker room."
"Now, you say something at 10 o'clock and it's all over the world by 10:05." Kupchak recounted a story from this past summer when the team resigned forward Lamar Odom. After coming to an agreement with Odom's representatives, he asked for an hour before making the announcement public, in order to prepare internally for the announcement. Five minutes after being granted an hour, he got a call from a reporter, after ESPN announced that the Lakers and Odom had reached an agreement. To meet the challenges of new technology, which has evolved from players talking on the phone at halftime to players "tweeting" from the locker room, Kupchak and the Lakers revise their player's handbook every off season.
Kupchak does not often apply classroom lessons as other alumni might - he doesn't use derivatives or financial models on a daily basis. But his UCLA Anderson experience informs his work in other ways. "I draw upon the confidence I have just as a result of completing a program like the one at UCLA," he said. "I'm still amazed I got in and finished."