The report checks out: He really is Kelly Tripucka again. After his two-year exile to the Utah Jazz bench, Tripucka is looking awfully sharp in Charlotte's designer uniforms, scoring points and doing everything the Hornets want and more.
"When times get tough, he carries us," says Coach Dick Harter."The reason we've won five games already is Kelly," says teammate Rickey Green.
Even in a 115-104 loss to Indiana Tuesday night when the expansion Hornets faded in the fourth quarter, Tripucka was playing a complete game - 26 points, seven rebounds, three steals and solid defense.
No doubt, that guy needs an introduction in Utah: "I like this Kelly better," Tripucka says.
What's not to like? He's already scored more points this season than last, and the big news is he's doing everything else - passing, rebounding and, imagine this, defending opposing small forwards respectably. "I never thought he'd be playing this well," says his brother, Chris.
After those two long seasons, Tripucka wondered about himself. "I didn't know if I could score, even with an expansion team," he said. Only Bob Woolf, his attorney, never doubted Tripucka would be himself again. "Not for a second," claims Woolf, who also correctly forecast Darrell Griffith's comeback.
**** Tripucka started the week 16th in scoring (22.4), second in free-throw shooting (.931) and second in three-point shooting (.600) in the NBA. "A lot of people look at Kelly's numbers," noted Jazz general manager David Checketts, "and they say, `Good grief, what did you do?"'
Checketts did what he had to do, making a mistake only by keeping K.T. the second season. Answer this: Tripucka can play . . . so why not in Utah? "Partly his fault, partly the Jazz's fault," says one former teammate.
Consider this Theory Of Tripucka: Kelly plays best when he's The Guy and the offense is built around him and plays are called for him, as in Detroit for five years and Charlotte this season. "Kelly was an interesting person - everything had to be a certain way," notes Mark Eaton, his closest friend with the Jazz.
"Kelly's a player who needs a lot of attention, to go out and play," says Karl Malone.
Tripucka claims otherwise, saying, "I don't think I would have trouble fitting into different situations, as long as I was playing and doing what I do best."
That happened infrequently with the Jazz, who last December were toying with Tripucka, showcasing him off and on for a trade during an eastern trip. Tripucka stayed on the bench for the whole game in Boston - and by the end of the trip, he was rescuing the Jazz's only win, at Cleveland.
That earned him a start against the Lakers the day after Christmas, when he made five three-pointers and almost delivered a victory. For a six-week stretch, he moved ahead of Bobby Hansen and Griffith and was genuinely the Jazz's best off-guard. No one could question the results, though, when Tripucka (calf) and Griffith (knee) were injured and the Jazz went 20-9 in March and April with Hansen, backed up by Bart Kofoed.
Having played a career-low 49 games in the regular season, Tripucka was available for the playoffs - but Coach Frank Layden wanted no part of him. Tripucka, generally good-natured, was even wearing on his friends. "I tried to get his mind off the constant bickering with Frank, but it was just so hard to do because of where he had been and how far down he had come. You want to be there as a sounding board, but then it reaches a certain point . . . " said Marc Iavaroni. Added Eaton, "I think there were mixed feelings about him."
**** Anxious to rid the Jazz of dissension before the playoffs, Layden says he invited Tripucka, Green and Mel Turpin to leave the team - and the Jazz would fabricate injuries to cover them. "I begged them, but they decided not to," Layden said this summer. Green says Layden's offer came in a team meeting, and the coach didn't name any players specifically.
By the end of the playoffs, though, Tripucka and Green were clearly not coming back to Jazzland. Checketts' - and Tripucka's - break came when Harter, a former Detroit assistant, became Charlotte's coach. Promising to pay about half of Tripucka's million-dollar salary for three years, the Jazz received forward Mike Brown, taken by Charlotte from Chicago in the expansion draft. The Hornets drafted Green off the Jazz roster.
"I would have traded Adrian Dantley for Mike Brown; we actually ended up with pretty good value," says Checketts. "That situation was never going to be resolved in a good way."
When Tripucka visited Charlotte on the day after the trade in June, he publicly thanked Hornets officials for coming up with his bail for the release from Utah. And here he is, wearing the No. 7 of the Detroit days, only on a high-fashion uniform - pinstriped, V-neck jersey and pleated shorts.
He's playing 35 minutes a night as the Hornets regularly attract crowds of 23,000 in the Charlotte Coliseum. When they lost by 40 to Cleveland on Opening Night - their worst loss since then is 12 points - the fans stayed until the end to give them a standing ovation. "It's like being one of the munchkins in Oz - it's a fantasy," says Tripucka.
He had some good days in Utah, too, but mostly spent two years stewing about himself, his game, his career. All that's changed now. He's playing, scoring and even smiling and the Hornets are in almost every game and winning their share. Even when they lose, Kelly Tripucka is having more fun than ever in basketball.
Thinking of the last two seasons, Tripucka says, "I appreciate the game more." He can thank the Jazz for that.