For the past 27 years, there’s been a constant presence in the Lakers training room, occupying the seat next to the head coach during games while holding the clipboard: head athletic trainer Gary Vitti.
Vitti joined us on Thursday to discuss a motley crew of topics including Kobe Bryant’s health, why he once had to (lightly) head butt Bryant, Derek Fisher’s Iron Man streak, having six guys play all 82 games in 2010-11, how it “broke his heart” to see Phil Jackson struggle with physical ailments, his favorite part of being Phil’s trainer, why L.A.’s fatigue leading to this past season’s Round 2 loss was simply “normal” in the NBA and more.
MT: Kobe Bryant said in his exit interview that he wasn’t able to reach his physical peak this past season since he came into the season off knee surgery, couldn’t strength train how he would have like to, and had to build up strength despite not really practicing. How did that affect his season?
Vitti: Just logically it’s going to affect anyone that doesn’t participate in training camp. It all starts there. Coming into camp, we’re still doing rehab, so Kobe was behind all the time and could never really catch up, which has something to do with the surgery, something to do with the sheer miles of wear and tear and the attrition the game has on him. So when we do look at an entire season, we look at how what what we’re doing in October and how that will affect the player in February, March, April and so on. There’s no exact science to it, but it’s about having a feel for an NBA season and that player … and I’ve had Kobe since he was 17. He and I operate on another plane together where there’s trust, and he knows his body quite well, so through that we decided we had to hold him back from practices to look at the longer term. We didn’t want to leave what he had on the practice floor, so we could have it for games. And of course that was not ideal.
MT: Bryant said there’s “another level” he can reach physically, the one we’re so accustomed to seeing where he creates separation from defenders and so on. So the question is, how does his having a chance to come in healthier balance out with the attrition you mentioned?
Vitti: We have to do some things so that he feels more comfortable and explosive with that right knee that he’s had repetitive surgeries on. Once we get to that place, then we’d like to see him practice more, but we don’t want the time that he spends on the court being spent on frivolous things. You gotta get him out there when he needs to be out there, and get him off the floor when he doesn’t. It’s more about quality time than quantity time.
MT: Can he be stronger if those things are followed the right way?
Vitti: Yes, I do think he has more progression there, but structurally there are some issues that cannot be reversed, but can be dealt with. There are a couple of cards we have up our sleeve that we plan on playing, and he and I have been in daily communication about that.
MT: What more can you tell us about the specifics of knee injuries for players with so many miles on the court as it might apply to Bryant?
Vitti: What happens with older players -- and this isn’t Kobe’s situation – is that tendinitis turns into tendinosis, and the tendon doesn’t have the same properties that it used to have. As a result it slows them down, and once you become a step slow in this league, it’s very, very difficult to compete. That’s not Kobe’s problem, however. His is an articulating cartilage problem. The way I describe that to people is that if you look at the end of chicken bone where it’s nice and white, well, that’s not bone, it’s cartilage. Sort of like a Teflon surface that when two bones come together, that cartilage is there so that bones don’t rub on each other. Now, the fact that it’s nice and white tells you it doesn’t have a good blood flow to it, and that means it cannot heal or regenerate. So, over time, as that cartilage wears away, you end up with osteoarthritis. Kobe doesn’t have an arthritic knee, but he has a knee that has some joint degeneration to it. His issues and his age are such that it eliminates some procedures, like microfracture and that type of things. But he is a candidate for certain other things, and we know all the procedures all around the world that are available to him, and the appropriate decisions will be made, he’ll have the best care.
MT: There was a New York Post report out in January in which Peter Vescey quotes Kobe as saying his right knee was “almost bone on bone.” Is that going too far?
Vitti: He does have cartilage left, so it was an inappropriate line (in the report). It’s just a question of preserving what is still there.
MT: As a training staff, what are the first signs you get of how well a player is able to deal with injuries, and how does that impact respective treatment plans?
Vitti: You get a pretty good feel for a player when you know that there’s something bothering him but he’s not in (the training room) asking for help with it. Some guys work through their aches and pains, some guys come in with really, really minor aches and pains, and are in the training room all the time. Other guys that are really, really injured that have to come in here, but they get through it better than other players. It’s a feel. Pain threshold is a very interesting thing. We usually have a pain scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst, and there are guys that are an eight, but are out there fighting, and other guys that are a 1-2 that say they can’t practice. That tells you something. Sometimes with younger guys, you can’t really teach toughness, but you can give them the confidence to play through certain injuries. Some guys just want to know, “I’m OK, right? I just need to know that I’m not going to jeopardize my career with this.”
MT: OK then, circling back to Kobe … it seems obvious, but how tough is he?
Vitti: Kobe is the toughest player that I’ve ever worked with in any sport. It’s a fact. Kobe, no matter what happens to him, tries to figure out a way to play with it. Maybe his greatest asset is when he steps on the floor, he focuses on the task of playing basketball, instead of focusing on the injury. For instance, somebody tweaks or rolls their ankle and is still on the court trying to play, but they keep looking down at their ankle. Well, looking down at it isn’t going to make it feel any better. You can look at it all you want, it’s not going to change. But obviously, the fact that they’re looking down at it means they’re focusing on it. Kobe seems to be able to block that pain out. The ankle still hurts, but he doesn’t focus on it. He focuses on catching and shooting, the tasks of the game.
MT: He had a few bad looking injuries this season, first in Dallas back in March, ankle literally touching the ground, and then in Round 1 against New Orleans. How do those conversations go when you head out onto the court?
Vitti: It’s interesting … initially, our conversation is just “OK, what do you have?” He has to tell me how he feels, if there was a pop, that kind of thing. After that, the more I talk, the more he just tells me, ‘Just give me a second.’ After I know what we’re dealing with, he goes into this, sort of, mental state where the more you talk to him, the more you’re distracting him from getting to a place where he can go out and do what he has to do. He’s in his mode, he’ll look at me, and we’ll know whether he can go or not.
MT: I’d imagine that he has considerably more leeway than anyone else?
Vitti: That’s right. You have to trust him, for the most part, and that’s just not the same trust level you have with everybody else. I don’t know how to tell you that I know, but I know. I just know. He looks at me, I look at him. We’ve only had maybe one or two episodes where we’ve (butted heads). I can’t remember where we were, but he sprained his thumb. It looked pretty bad, and he came to the bench and said, “Tape my thumb.” I go, “Let me take a look at it.” He says, “Just tape it!” We kinda went back and forth, because I didn’t want to put him out there with an unstable thumb, because if he really hurt it, it could be a serious issue. So he kinda yelled at me, and I yelled back at him, and I kinda just looked at him, and said, “Hey, I’m your guy,” and gave him a little head butt, which kinda snapped him into reality that I needed to look at it. I looked at it, and he was right, he was OK.
MT: Wait … you head butted him?
Vitti: Yeah, just a little tap. It wasn’t like, bam!* Just a, “Wake up for a second and listen to me!” Then he did, he let me look at it, and he was right. Maybe I should have trusted him, but I felt like this one I needed to know for myself. I have a responsibility to protect him from himself. But in that case, I taped him, he went out and played and was great.*Vitti acted out the head butt, though thankfully not on me.
MT: Who were some of the other more notable tough guys you’ve had in your 27 years as the team’s trainer?
Vitti: Derek Fisher. Michael Cooper. A.C. Green. All Iron Men. These guys were tough, man, they played no matter what. And there were a lot of guys, so you hate to single guys out. But I’ll tell you who was a tough kid: Chris Mihm. As bad as his situation was, that kid went out and tried.
MT: The Lakers had six players play in all 82 games this season. What does that mean to you and your training staff, who literally don’t take an off day from the start of the preseason to the final loss?
Vitti: We work seven days a week during the season, and when you hear that you had six guys that played 82, and it makes you feel really good inside … but you don’t want to get to full of yourself about it, because there’s luck that’s involved with that. As soon as you start patting yourself on the back, that’s a dead sure jinx that the next season that you’re going to have guys that don’t play 82. The way my father raised me, he didn’t look at the six guys who played the 82, he looked at the guys who didn’t play 82. So it depends how you look at it. Yeah, I’m proud that six guys played 82, but I want to know about the guys that didn’t play 82. I think that’s the appropriate way to look at it. And more importantly, you really have to give the credit to the player, because he’s the guy who went out there and played the 82. Some nights they just didn’t want to, but they did. They had the intestinal and physical fortitude to get out there and do what they are paid to do.
MT: The current king of this category, Derek Fisher, has now started 495 straight games after another 82 this season, dating all the way back to April 15, 2005. Your thoughts?
Vitti: It just is what it is from an impressive standpoint. Most players don’t play that many games in their careers, let alone consecutively. There are a couple of things about Derek: number one is that no one, no one takes care of their body better than him. Period. People ask me all the time about training programs, nutrition and things like that, and my general answer is that the NBA is a microcosm of society. Some guys take everything you say, 100 percent, and apply it to their lives. Other guys take some of it, but can’t seem to modify their behavior 100 percent and some guys don’t do anything right. Derek Fisher is one of those guys that does every single thing right. The way that science tells you to do it, he does it to a T. And on top of that, he’s tough as nails, so when you combine those things together, he becomes the Iron Man.
MT: You were Phil Jackson’s trainer from 1999 to this past season; what stands out to you as you reflect on all that time spent with him?
Vitti: The relationship between the head trainer and the head coach is very special. The only way to understand it is to have been a head trainer or a head coach. There is a lot of trust both ways that has to go with those two positions. The head coach has to trust me that I’m telling him what he needs to know, and not telling him what he doesn’t need to know. Phil and I had a great relationship that way, and he never put me in a difficult position. If he asked me something that I wasn’t comfortable with, I’d just tell him that, and he was fine*. On another level, Phil was a good person to be around because he’s very, very well read and very bright, and you could talk about things that had nothing to do with basketball. It could be history, current events, politics, travel … he’s a very, very interesting guy to be around, and I was not only surprised about his intellect, but he actually taught me a lot, things that I’d never heard of. I’m Italian, I’m emotional, and Phil’s not. He’s able to keep it together all the time, and I think he was very helpful to me as I’m getting older and wiser … watching him in extreme situations, not yelling and screaming and losing his mind, that was valuable to see. Even though it was not my position to yell and scream, I may have been doing that internally, and he was the same person whether we were losing by 30 or winning by 30.
*Vitti explained this comment as him being privy to everything that happens and is said in the training room when Jackson isn’t necessarily there, some of which should or can be kept between the players and training staff only, for example. It’s his job to be discerning.
MT: Especially considering what you know about the human body, it must have been difficult for you to see Phil going through the various physical ailments, from his back to his knees and hips, throughout the past several years.
Vitti: It broke my heart. When the team was on the road, I’d look at a bus, and some are lower and some are higher, and I’d see that first step … was it a big one? Then I’d think, “Oh boy.” Phil was always the first one off the bus, and I right behind him, and for many years I’d carry his bag so he could use the rails to pull himself up and down with his arms. Then the (team security staff) started helping out with that, and I think that Phil felt badly, he thought that he was a burden to us, so he just stopped carrying a bag. He started carrying a little tiny bag with a big shoulder strap, and get up the stairs that way. He stopped carrying a briefcase. I felt bad about that, because I was happy to do it for him. It wasn’t a burden at all. I would have done anything to make his life easier. Most of the time, I personally brought his bags to his room with the bellman, and put them on his bed for him.
MT: Final thing here. Aside from your training room duties, you handle all the planning for the Lakers when the team goes on the road. Could you describe what that entails, specifically?
Vitti: The way it works here is that the schedule comes out, and on the very first day, I go through the entire thing in terms of when we go, when we stay in a particular city, how we’re going to go through it. It’s not as cut and dry as you might think. You figure out what nights you want to stay in a city, and what night you want to leave from the arena. If it’s a back-to-back, it’s a no-brainer. You have to go. So I work that out on an excel sheet, pick all the hotels, and (the head coach) and I will have conversations about possibilities in cities we’re not sure about. I put it all on paper, give that to the head coach, and he modifies it however he wants, then gives it back to me. Once I get it back, I give it to (basketball operations assistants) Kristen (Luken) and Tania (Jolly), and they make all the actual arrangements. Kristen calls the hotels, Tania calls the bus companies, and Tania schedules all the practices at home and on the road. I give them dates, times and places, and they do all the footwork, which is a lot of work … those women work hard. For example, on the road, just because we want to practice at 2 p.m. doesn’t mean the other team is going to let us use the facility at that time. Once all that is set, it comes back to me again, so that I have the contact for each hotel, bus and so on. Then I become the main contact between the airline/bus/hotel/practice site and the team.