Few people around the NBA know Magic Johnson better than long-time head athletic trainer of the Lakers Gary Vitti, who joined us to detail his relationship with Earvin, share stories about locker room and airport pranks among Magic and the Showtime Lakers, explain why he’d take Johnson over Michael Jordan if he were starting a team and more.
MT: Can you take us back to when you first met Magic Johnson?
Vitti: I met him in 1984 sometime prior to training camp, just a ‘Hi, how you doing’ kind of interaction. Our first day of training camp was at the College of the Desert in Palm Springs, and we stayed at a hotel owned by Dr. Buss. I treated Magic just like I treated everybody else, and I don’t think my full personality came out right at the beginning. But early that season, I remember being in the locker room at the Forum and saying something to which Magic responded with a really snotty answer. I just looked at him, shook my head and walked away. He ran after me with a big smile on his face, grabbed me, picked me up and gave me a hug. ‘I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding!’ he said. That stood out, because it was a very serious atmosphere in those days under Pat Riley. When you went to work, it was work. It was serious. Not a lot of playing around. But we instantly bonded with that moment, and after that, it was a lot of joking around and doing the kinds of locker room/training room talk that you have. I’ve always felt very close to him ever since that time; even if we don’t see each other for a while, it’s still like it was yesterday. Magic has a way about him that if he walks into the room, an energy that he gives off that just makes you feel better. It’s a god-given talent that he has. When he walks into the room, it brightens up. That’s the way we are together, and even if I haven’t seen him for a while, it’s a special place my heart goes to.
MT: We know that Magic lead the Lakers to the Finals in a ridiculous nine of his 12 seasons (75 percent), just a nod above Phil Jackson’s 65 percent mark as a coach. What do you recall about your first season, eventually resulting in L.A.’s first ever Finals victory over Boston?
Vitti: All year, that team was on a mission to get the Finals, and they didn’t want to play anybody else but Boston. Of course, we had the Memorial Day Massacre, which for me was frightening. We had this great season, and here we are seemingly ready to play the Celtics, win the championship and get rid of the skeletons in the closet, and on Memorial Day they blow us out. I hadn’t been around long enough to understand the character that it took to get out from under that game and come back and win four of the next five. They were saying that Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) was old and things like that – the Celtics talked a lot of trash – and so on. You could hear a pin drop on that bus ride back. Pat Riley responded by giving his talk about how when he was a kid, he had older brothers, and how his dad made his brothers bring him to the park to play basketball. He was little, and Pat would get beat up at the park every day. He’d come home crying, and his older brothers asked his father, ‘Why do you make us take our little brother down there to get beat up every day?’ His father said, ‘There comes a time in every man’s life when you have to plant your feet, stand strong and kick some (butt).’ That’s what Riley told his players: ‘Now’s the time. The Celtics have owned us. Today’s the day.’ Furthermore, Kareem’s father came on the bus, and just the sight of him was (inspirational). He was a transit cop in New York City, a tough guy. He went into the subway system to chase a guy down a tunnel all by himself, and the guy had a gun, so everyone knew that Kareem’s father was such a stoic, tough man. It just set the mood, and we went in there and got the job done, beat Boston the next four out of five games to take the title. Of all the championships, the combination of that being my first, it being the first time we beat the Celtics, made it the most special.
MT: How do you remember Magic specifically in that setting, bouncing back off what had been a difficult previous season to garner that fulfillment, and what did it say about him in general?
Vitti: He was on a mission, because if you go back that far, you realize that he took all the heat for losing the year before. Instead of Magic, they called him “Tragic,” and he never pointed the finger at anybody, he took full responsibility even though others tried to take some. He came back with only one goal in mind, to win a championship. That was the only thing that was going to make him feel better. The thing is, Magic had a way of knowing what to say to you and how to say it. He just has a talent where he’s able to, as soon as he meets you, figure out what makes you tick and treat you accordingly. He just really has a way with people, and he deferred leadership to Kareem – the Finals MVP that year – but really Magic was the guy that got everyone to do what they needed to do. That’s very often stuff you don’t want to do, but that’s what is needed to be done to win at that level.
MT: We spend a great deal of time asking who the best is, and today, the majority of people will say Michael Jordan. What’s your case for Magic?
Vitti: If I had the first pick in an all-time draft in the history of basketball, I’ll take Magic Johnson. He could play all five positions and dominate. He could have scored 30 points a game if he’d wanted to, but he saw what he had on the floor, and the first option was always Kareem, and the second either James Worthy or Magic. The fourth option was Byron Scott, and the fifth whoever the power forward was, like Kurt Rambis, A.C. Green or Maurice Lucas. Magic orchestrated all that, and for Riley and later for Mike Dunleavy, it was like having a coach on the floor. Now, if Michael Jordan and Magic played 1-on-1, Michael would win every single time. But I’d take Magic as the first pick for my team.
MT: Magic hit the junior, junior sky hook in 1987 to beat Boston in Game 4, but hitting the last shot wasn’t really his thing. Who’s your best historical late game option?
Vitti: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. No. 1, he’s going to get the shot off; nobody’s blocking it. No. 2, it’s going to be a pretty good shot around the basket. The only thing is getting the ball in his hands, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s the guy you want taking the last shot.
MT: OK, let’s open the floor for you to share a few of your favorite Magic stories. I’m just going to listen:
Vitti: The thing with Magic is that he was always orchestrating everything. What they used to do was try and get Bob McAdoo wound up, all the time. It’d always start with Magic, and he was really close with Coop (Michael Cooper). Magic would lean over to Coop, and say, ‘Watch this,’ and then he’d say something (derogatory) about North Carolina or something, or he’d start to tell McAdoo that Coop could beat him in a 100-yard dash, or that Byron Scott would beat him. McAdoo, a very proud guy, would say: ‘I can beat him in a 40-yard dash, a 100-yard dash, I could beat you in tennis, I could beat you in billiards,’ and so on, until it came down to bowling. McAdoo said, ‘I don’t bowl.’ Magic responds, ‘Doo don’t bowl?’ So McAdoo looked at him straight in the eye, was 100 percent dead serious, said, ‘Give me two weeks, I’ll bowl a 300.’ And he really believed it. But that was Magic getting McAdoo going, and it happened all the time.
MT: Another, please?
Vitti: The players used to play what they called the ‘Paper Game,’ because we used to be in the airports waiting for flights before we had charter planes. Guys would be reading the newspaper, spread out, and teammates would walk by and ‘Pow’ (makes chopping motion), karate chop the paper, sometimes tearing it in half or just knocking it out of their hands. It got to the point where guys were folding up their newspapers and reading them while protecting it with their bodies. And everybody did it, so if you forgot about it, you’d get the paper knocked out of your hands. Now Kareem, a very serious guy who was always reading a book, was never really part of that. Meanwhile, the rest of the guys are acting like a bunch of children, fooling around. So we’re in the locker room at the Forum one time, and Coop leans over to Magic, and says he’ll give Magic $100 if he went over and slapped the paper out of Kareem’s hands. No one messed with Kareem, but Magic looked at Coop and said, ‘One-hundred dollars?’ He walked right across the locker room, and pow, knocked it right out of his hands. Kareem just looks up, and says, ‘I heard that, Coop.’ Even though Magic did it, Kareem blamed Coop, and Kareem didn’t do anything right away. But Kareem wasn’t laughing, and while he didn’t retaliate on the spot even on the basketball court, he eventually got you back. He was very calculating. So we got on an airplane later, and Coop used to sit next to Magic – everybody had a flying partner, mine was Chick Hearn – and he’d always put a blanket over his head and go to sleep. Kareem waited until Coop fell asleep, lifted the blanket off his head and took a bottle of Nair, took a drop and put it right on Coop’s head. Just a big glob of Nair. You know what Nair is, right?
MT: Hair removal, yes? Please tell me that some of Coop’s hair was burned off?
Vitti: (laughing) Yes, five or six minutes later, Coop wakes up, and his head is on fire. He had a spot the size of a nickel on his head where he didn’t have any hair. OK? But, that was just all coming out of Magic. He was the guy that controlled everything. He knew he could smack that paper out of Kareem’s hands, but he didn’t pay the price for it. Coop did.
MT: Love it. Moving on, you get a better idea than anybody about a guy’s level of toughness being in the training room; how was Magic from that standpoint?
Vitti: Magic was a tough guy. Matter of fact, when we played Detroit in the 1988 Finals, he and Isiah (Thomas) were really close friends, but the Pistons started knocking people around, and all of a sudden Magic laid out Isiah, and Isiah, lying on the ground, kicked him. Magic said, ‘I’m not the only one out here who’s going to take a butt-whooping, if you play like this, I’ll play like this.’ Now, Magic wanted to play a clean game, but if you were going to go down that road, he was going to compete at that level.
MT: How about dealing with injuries on a daily basis:
Vitti: Magic was relatively healthy. Before I got there, I think he had an MCL and a meniscus surgery, but he didn’t have any surgeries while I had him. He practiced all the time and never really got hurt, other than a hamstring injury in the 1989 Finals. His knee would swell up once in a while, but he played through a lot of stuff and overall was very healthy. He used the training room more for socialization than treatment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Vitti went on to describe, in great detail, the events and emotions leading up to and surrounding Magic’s Nov. 7, 1991 announcement that he had the HIV virus. We’ll come back with that sometime next week on Lakers.com.