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Steve Aschbruner

Gary Vitti checks out a hurting Kobe Bryant in a 2006 game.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Gary Vitti, Lakers' trainer, on injuries, Magic and Jack

Posted Dec 15 2009 10:28AM

As the longtime trainer of the Los Angeles Lakers, Gary Vitti -- who has held the job for 26 years -- gets more notoriety than the franchise players of many NBA teams. He has a look -- shaved head, goatee -- that pops and has been a sideline staple at the Staples Center (and the Forum before that) since the team's Showtime era. He is a trainer of celebrity and a "celebrity trainer" all in one.

I spoke with Vitti by phone recently during a break in his day at the Lakers' El Segundo practice facility: In your bio in the Lakers' media guy, it says this: "On weekends, Vitti enjoys riding his Harley-Davidson through the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains.'' That's the sort of hobby that would get a player in trouble. Is this a case of "Do as I say, not as I do?''

Gary Vitti: I guess. They don't need me the way they need players. If I fell off my bike, the game would go on. But my wife and I were just talking about it the other day. She said, 'You ought to sell this thing because you never use it anymore.' I think I put about 300 miles on it last year. Because we played till June, and we're seven-days-a-week here. I mean, every day is Monday for us. And when the season ends, the day after our last game -- and that can include the championship game for us -- we're open for business. We go from seven days a week to five days a week in the offseason. So really, the only time I get to ride is Saturday or Sunday in the offseason. You count 'em up, that's not very many days. That doesn't leave much time for the house you own in Settefratti, Italy. (It's in the mountains about 60 miles southeast of Rome.) Sounds like a nice offseason retreat -- if you actually get over there.

GV: Same situation. I get about three weeks vacation. I leave around mid-August -- I have to be in Italy by Aug. 17 because there's this big feast in my village that starts on the 18th. That morning, they take this Madonna out of the church and parade her up this mountain to a Roman temple that is now another church, and she visits another Madonna up there. Then I come back on Labor Day. My wife and kids love it. It's two different apartments, 400 years old, it's in the 'new' part of town: The village is over 2,000 years old. This feast I'm talking about is almost 800 years old. That place really centers me. I need those three weeks over there. Get back to my roots -- my parents were born over there. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, but my kids grew up in southern California, so it's important for them to know they're Italian. Do you ever bust on Phil Jackson, touting the virtues of Italy over his Montana retreats?

GV: All the time. No other NBA trainer has held his current job longer. How do you feel about being one of the league's elder statesmen in what you do?

GV: I consider myself one of the last of 'the old new guys.' There have been trainers around since the gladiators. But the modern days of athletic training probably began in the late '70s, OK? When there were only a few schools that had a degree in sports medicine. So when I broke in [in 1979-80 at the University of Utah], it was the modern science of training but there were still a lot of the old-timers around. It was a good combination for me, because there's no replacement for experience. I learned a lot from the old guys, but then I had a more modern education. That's your official job. Do you have any unofficial roles with the Lakers?

GV: I'm also guy who kind of connects our upstairs and downstairs here. Downstairs is the players, the equipment guys, all of our therapists, our performance coaches. Upstairs is our management team, whether it's Mitch Kupchak, Ronnie Lester, Jim Buss and in many ways all the coaches, who have their offices up there. They come down for practice but then they go back up there.

I'm the eyes and ears down here all the time. That doesn't mean I tell [mamangement] everything. Sometimes I go up there and say something, and Phil or Mitch will ask, 'Who?' And I'll go, 'I'm not telling you that. I'm just telling you blah-blah-blah.' And then sometimes I'll tell them who, what, when and where. And sometimes I won't say anything if I think things will just work themselves out. It's my tenure and experience, and that management has to trust me that I'll tell them what they need to know and nothing more than that.

I also have these conversations with the players. I say, 'Look, I'm telling you right now that there are times I go up there and tell 'em stuff. So do the right thing.' They know there are times that I protect them. So everybody sort of has to trust me. One of the things I tell them is, I'll never lie to you. But I'll also never lie for you. How has your job changed through the years?

GV: I have a lot more help. I used to do everything -- all the training, as well as the travel, the equipment, the strength training. Now I've got more people around me. I have a full-time assistant athletic trainer [Marco Nunez] who bounces between the strength and conditioning aspects and the physical therapy aspect. I have a guy who was training as a physical therapist [Alex McKechnie] but he's licensed in Canada and can't practice here, so he's our athletic performance coordinator. He's got a great pair of hands and really helps me. Then there's Chip Schaefer who is our strength and conditioning coach, who was my student trainer 30 years ago at the University of Utah. I got him the Bulls job in '90-91 and he was with Phil all those years. When Phil came here, he brought Chip with him. So I have some experts in all these areas, and they actually do a lot of the work. I'm sort of the director here. Anything else?

GV: The diagnostics have come so far in our ability to scan injuries that we couldn't do in the past. Which has been both good and bad. Sometimes the scan gets in the way of progress. Meaning, if you have an injury but functionally you're still good, before we had a scan we would say, 'OK, you're functional. You have good strength, good range of motion and your pain level is at a point where you can play.' Now, if the guy doesn't want to play, he can ask for a scan and say, 'I have an abnormal scan. Until the scan is normal, I'm not playing.'

So it gets in the way and the agents get in the way. I talk to agents all the time now. Twenty-five years ago, I didn't know who they were. So there are injuries you can play with vs. injuries you cannot?

GV: Let's put it this way: If I scan all these guys, their feet or their backs, I'm going to get abnormal scans on them. Some of them are completely asymptomatic, but they have an abnormal scan and if they want to use that information, they can. It can be very helpful, but it can hurt you [as a team] sometimes. Where does your job end and the team physicians' jobs begin?

GV: I'm very symbiotic with my doctors. We've been together for so long, and we have a mutual trust. I'm a triage guy. I run, like, a wellness clinic here for these guys so it doesn't matter what they have. They could have an orthopedic thing, they could have an internal problem, they could have an STD -- they're gonna come to me. Then I decide whether it's something myself and my staff can handle or whether I have to triage it out to a specialist. Do most players 'get it' now when it comes to nutrition, in terms of healthy eating vs. a sack of McDonald's every day?

GV: I think players are much more educated in 2009. But we really are a microcosm of society. We can disseminate all this information to our players, and what you're going to have is some players who incorporate it into their lives and are focused about it. Some guys will take all this information in and, for the most part, they're going to do the right thing. Then you have guys who, no matter what you tell 'em, they're going to eat at In 'N' Out Burger. And that's life. But you don't have players sneaking popcorn at the end of the bench or smuggling junk food into the locker room, do you?

GV: You might go in the bathroom and there's someone in a stall wolfing down a hot dog. They won't do it where I might see them and jump them, so they're hiding in there. You have one of those jobs that many people think they would love to have. But what about those willing to do the work and put in the time who have a sincere interest in landing a job like yours? What do you tell them?

GV: I tell them it's probably not a good goal. The goal should be, 'I want to be the best athletic trainer on the face of the Earth.' If you don't try to be, you'll never have a chance to be. Then you've got to go through a well-respected program. Then you start narrowing your situation down. It's almost like an education genealogical tree, OK? You get on one of these branches and then, along with your ability to be good, there's a network of people. If you're not good, then no one is going to stake their reputation on you. Or you could be great but if you don't know anybody, then you're just this great unknown athletic trainer. So it's a combination, so that when a job opens up and they start looking around for somebody, why do they call you instead of the other guy? We're coming up on 20 years of the league's 'blood rule,' which was instituted after Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. What do you think of the rule now? There was one famous instance where, after Johnson came back, you treated one of his wounds without using latex gloves.

GV: At the time, I had the gloves in my pocket and he had an open wound -- but there was no blood. You'd had Karl Malone and some others say they didn't want to play with him and were asking a lot of questions, but what people didn't realize was that his teammates were saying, 'He might have to play against Magic six times a year but I've got to practice against him every day. What is the risk here?'

We were more concerned with the risk of Magic getting something because at the time, we were saying 'He's got a compromised immune system. He can't be exposed to colds or flus, because he can't fight 'em off like other people can.' So I'm telling the players they can't get it that way and then that [open wound] happens, and if I put the gloves on, everybody's looking at me, isn't that sending a mixed message to the players? So I chose not to do that at the time. So the rule works?

GV: I think there needs to be some trust in the professionalism of the athletic trainers that we can handle some of these things without even touching the player. For instance, if a player has a bloody wound and I pull a gauze pad ... I can hand it to the player and tell him to put pressure on the wound. I haven't put gloves on, but by the [OSHA] rules, it's an open wound and you need to wear gloves.

By the rules, we have 30 seconds to control the bleeding and if you can't get it done, then you either have to call a timeout or sub for the player. The only time I saw it as an issue was with Steve Nash [in the 2007 playoffs] when he got the big gash to his nose. All of a sudden, the rules went out the window -- officials were allowing him to play with blood streaming down his face. I'm not saying it was right or wrong, I'm saying it's not the way the rule was written. So it's a good rule, it's working, but I think a minute instead of 30 seconds would be better. Lots of people remember where they were when Magic Johnson made his announcement and considered it a 'death sentence.' Yet he's still going strong. Any thoughts on those events?

GV: Obviously, we know a lot more today than we did. There are different strains of this virus, some are stronger than others. He has one that he is able to control with his immune system and his 'cocktail,' the drugs he can afford.

Then maybe the big factor is, we're talking about Earvin (Magic) Johnson. During that time, in the first weeks out of the chute, I was really struggling with the whole thing. I saw him and said, 'How are you doing? Because I'm not doing well at all with this.' And he said to me, 'When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person. I am going to beat this, I am going to do something good with it and I'm going to help other people.' That is a hell of an attitude -- even now I get choked up when I repeat those words. It was bold talk at the time and, maybe, a tribute to positive thinking.

GV: It might seem like bold talk from my mouth to your ears, repeating it. But when he said it to me, the look in his eye ... the way he was so emphatic about it, I was like, 'This guy is really serious. He thinks he's going to beat this stuff.' I didn't walk away thinking, 'Boy, is he naïve.' That is who that man is. He's one of the best people I've ever met in my life. Who is the fittest Laker you ever worked with?

GV: Maybe Michael Cooper. I'm sorry to hear that. Cooper had, like, zero percent body fat, so those of us at the 50 percent level have no chance. Who was the most durable Laker?

GV: A.C. Green was an iron man. Anyone with an unusual training regimen?

GV: We've had lots of guys who have done weird stuff, but the guy who probably trains the hardest has been Kobe Bryant. Say whatever you want about Kobe, but to me there are four things about him: He's extremely talented. He's really competitive. He works harder than anybody else, and he's tough as nails. You can't take those four things away from him. He trains, and he trains hard. You didn't have George Mikan and you didn't have Wilt Chamberlain, but you worked with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal. How do they compare in their fitness and training?

GV: They're two completely different body types. Kareem was a finesse player, he was like a deer. In his younger days, he could run the floor, he was a great athlete. Shaq, there's a reason they called him Shaq Diesel. He was extremely agile for that size, over 300 pounds, but let's face it, Kareem is the all-time leading scorer for a reason. I saw some criticism from a couple of years ago on an Internet message board, where a Lakers fan blamed you for a series of players' injuries. How much heat do you take from the public?

GV: To my knowledge, that's the only shot that I've ever taken like that. I don't Google myself. What I get mostly, when guys are hurt, are 50 phone calls a day from gurus out there who have a magic potion or people who think they can do a better job than we can as a staff. I don't get blamed very much. But someone did send that to me and it hurts. I have a great staff -- if anybody does get well around here, it's because of my staff -- but someone who doesn't know anything about what we do says something, and it's hurtful. But I get more praise than I should, too. Given your position, front and center along VIP row, you must have celebrity status. Can you trade on that in L.A.?

GV: If I go to a restaurant, maybe the chef sends something out, you know what I mean? It's never translated into making money outside of my paycheck. In some ways, it puts you more under a microscope. I think you'd rather be rich than famous in life, I tell people that. I'm really neither but I'm more famous than I am rich, and it comes with scrutiny. Any occasions to treat some of the stars, non-basketball variety, at your games?

GV: Back in the Forum days, we used to have this 'suture room' that we shared with hockey, and there was a dental chair in there. So Jack [Nicholson] needed something, so I told the security guy 'Put him in the suture room. It's open, I'll get in there as soon as I can.' When I come in, he's got the chair facing backwards, so all I see coming in is the back of the chair and this plume of smoke coming up. And he's got the control in his hand and he presses the button and it's -- eeeeeeeeeeeerh! the chair is rotating -- and there he is, with a cigarette and this tiny, little round ashtray with a lid on it.

He looks at me and says, 'Don't worry, V. I've brought my own ashtray.' He puts the cigarette in the ashtray and puts the ashtray in his coat pocket. Then he looks at me and smiles like in that 'Heeeeere's Johnny!' scene [in The Shining]. I'm not going to tell you why he asked to come in there.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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