How good is Lakers head physical therapist Dr. Judy Seto at her job? Suffice to say Kobe Bryant doesn't much like to talk about it, for fear of revealing what's little known in the public but accepted as fact in the medical community.
Bryant and his teammates want Dr. Seto all to themselves. Indeed, at one point of the 2011-12 season when Bryant was battling myriad injuries, I asked him how much of a difference Dr. Seto made.
"Enormous," he said, keeping it short, sweet and guarded. "It's really huge."
Seto recalled the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when Bryant had Seto by his side throughout Team USA's gold medal run. When Pau Gasol found out she was there, he wondered why Bryant hadn't shared that information with him so that he could get some Dr. Seto time. "Because you play for Spain," said Bryant.
Dr. Seto is currently at the London Olympics with Bryant ... we'll see if Kobe tells Gasol this time.
Dr. Seto has been working with the Lakers on some level for roughly 20 years, rehabilitating injuries of various players initially at the internationally renowned Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic and most recently at Select Physical Therapy in Los Angeles. In the past several years she's expanded her role to traveling with the team throughout the playoffs. Dr. Seto first started working with Bryant when he hurt his ankle in the early 2000's.
Bryant, more particular about his body than anyone, values Dr. Seto's ability to understand and work through his entire kinetic chain. He -- along with head athletic trainer Gary Vitti -- wound up playing a key role in convincing her to come on full time for a 2011-12 season the Lakers completed without a single injury heading into the summer.
Dr. Seto's resume isn't short: Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology & Psychology at UCLA; Masters in PT at Stanford; Doctorate in PT at Temple University; Board Certified Sports Clinical Specialist (SCS); Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist (OCS); MBA; and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
"It's not the initials that makes someone more knowledgeable," said Dr. Seto. "It doesn't make you smarter ... but trying to improve your knowledge base is always crucial."
We joined Dr. Seto inside her training room office to delve deeply into her specific relationship with Kobe Bryant, with whom she's worked closely for roughly 12 years:
MT: Kobe has been remarkable healthy, all told, in his career. Is it a combination of luck and him dutifully doing everything possible to strengthen and rehabilitate his body the right way?
Dr. Seto: Absolutely. There's a certain amount of luck with how injuries happen. For example, it was bad luck that he got hit on the nose at the All-Star game. It had nothing to do with him working hard or not. But for many of his injuries, because he's in such good health and how much he works on his body, his recovery is indeed faster. He doesn't take those things for granted. He understand how his physical health impacts his game. He's working on that all the time, both physically and mentally. So he's asking himself: 'What am I going to do, how am I going to prepare, how does this affect that'.
MT: What's different about Kobe from other athletes?
Dr. Seto: He's really intelligent about understanding how the body works. He really wants to know the information about what's going on with his body. Over the years he's developed a keen understanding of his body, so when we discuss injuries he picks things up very quickly. He's very sharp. And some of these things we talk about are not easily understood. He knows the relationships of how a certain injury impacts another body part. Without giving away Kobe's secrets, he gets the relationship between the core and one's lower body strength. That entire area impacts the knee, for example. The most common thing to look at for a knee problem is knee strength, focusing on what's locally bothering someoe in the quadriceps area. But Kobe knows how the body is a system and other areas can affect where the body is indirectly.
MT: Pro athletes have a finite time to earn at their highest level; does that affect a player's stress level or attitude when getting hurt, as in, "Oh no I just lost xxx time of my career"?
Dr. Seto: It might. But we try to focus on what we specifically can control. I can't control a player's wondering if he lost his chances of signing another contract with an injury. The best way I can help them is to get them back on the court as soon as possible.
MT: By the way ... I detailed your excessive degrees and initials after your name in the intro. Too bad you couldn't get a law degree, huh?
Dr. Seto: Kobe gives me a hard time about finishing various degrees and certifications. 'So what's next?' he'll ask. 'You're always studying for something, what's up?' I say, 'Look who's talking. You're always looking to improve yourself, every summer, adding something to your game,' and he nods. That's part of why we get along so well.
MT: There weren't any major injuries this season, but you had a few interested cases, like Kobe' shin…
Dr. Seto: One big thing I talked to Gary about missing from the clinic were complex cases. I once asked neurologist Dr. (Vernon) Williams, a doctor who gives me lots of complicated cases that also worked with Kobe after the concussion, why he'd give them to me, and he said, "Because you can make them better." So having more challenges has made me a better physical therapist. The whole thing with Kobe's shin … that was an interesting one. We figured out a treatment plan, and Kobe said he could see the wheels turning in my head. 'You figured it out, didn't you?' he asked. 'I said, 'yes, I figured it out.' He's known me for a long time, so sometimes when we're working together, we don't need to verbally talk to know how to progress in certain elements of rehabilitation or strength building that we do.
MT: Full-time positions on NBA training staffs come along ever so rarely, and you've mentioned that while you were about as close to the team as you could have been without jumping in with two feet, I know you felt like you didn't want to pass up the opportunity when the team made some staffing changes. Did you enjoy the change enough to come back next season?
Seto: Yes, I'm staying.
MT: Kobe just exhaled.
Seto: Certainly my relationship with Kobe over the years made my decision a lot easier, but I've worked with a lot of the Lakers players, and if I didn't like working with this organization, things would be different. It's become almost a second family for me because of all the people I've gotten to know over the years, and how much I enjoy working with Gary Vitti.
MT: How would you describe him from your years of knowing him so well?
Dr. Seto: He's the consummate professional. He wants to do whatever it takes to get better. He doesn't want to be a guinea pig, but wants treatments that are rooted in science. He'll sometimes call or text me out of the blue to ask me what I know about a particular treatment approach. A good example was when he wanted more information about PRP versus Orthokine treatments, which led to his treatment in Germany. He also has the highest pain tolerance of anybody I've ever met. It's not that he doesn't feel pain, but that he does not let it take over his mind set. He can block out a lot of things to not allow the pain to interfere or limit him. It's one thing not to be able to do something it because you physically can't, and another because it hurts. He's not going to cause himself more risk of injury; he won't put himself in jeopardy by ignoring pain and making unwise decisions. But because he understands his own body well, he can live with pain and still play at a very high level. Sometimes he plays his best games when he's sick, because he's so focused and concentrating so well that he's zoning in even more because he's not going to allow him not feeling well to be an excuse. Finally, since he knows his body better than anyone I've ever treated, if he tells me he's ready to play, I trust him.
MT: While Kobe must be a trainer's dream in terms of always doing every little detail you ask of him, how do you deal with those that don't have the same approach?
Dr. Seto: Clearly you wish all players were as devoted as Kobe … he's just so dedicated to his craft. I don't know many players that are willing to be in at 7 a.m. But you can't change who each individual is, you have to understand how to make all the different personalities blend just like the coaching staff does. How we engage and motivate each person about their injuries is very different. Some don't want to understand their injury … they'll just ask us to fix it. One of my favorite analogies is:I don't drive the car, I just fix it.
MT: What's Kobe's favorite Dr. Judy Seto metaphor?
Dr. Seto: The metaphors I use for him work for him but not everyone. It's tailored to something he'll understand. We do like to talk about "Harry Potter." And when we're talking about injuries and solving problems, he actually calls me Hermione, who is basically a book worm in the series. She reads everything and figures all these things out and solves puzzles, solves the mysteries.
MT: That's funny - you'd think it'd be more like something from "Gladiator" or "Braveheart?"
Dr. Seto: We talk about those types of movies too, but we're both into "Harry Potter," so it comes up more often.
MT: I guess I lied about no more Kobe questions, but thanks so much for the time.
Dr. Seto: No problem, and my pleasure.