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VICE Sports Q&A: Legendary Lakers Trainer Gary Vitti Reflects on his Career

Gary Vitti, who has been the Lakers' head athletic trainer for 32 years, opens up about Showtime, Kobe, Magic, and a long career in Los Angeles.

by Larry Burnett
Apr 8 2016, 3:45pm

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.

Gary Vitti, the Los Angeles Lakers' head athletic trainer, is retiring at the end of the season. His Lakers career began in 1984. Vitti will stay on as a consultant for two years, but when the buzzer sounds on April 13, his full-time job will come to an end after more than three decades. VICE Sports caught up with Vitti to discuss the Showtime Lakers, the evolution of sports medicine, Kobe Bryant's retirement and how random people ask for free injury diagnoses:

VICE Sports: It's been a long run.

Gary Vitti: Yep. 32 years. It's been more than half of my life that I have been the head athletic trainer here. (Phone rings in background)

And the phone never stops ringing, does it?

It doesn't. Now, with the new technology, it isn't just the telephone. It is text messages. It is e-mails. It is constant. It never ends.

What made you decide that this was the right time for you to make your exit?

There were several reasons. My age, for sure. I am 62. It is a retirement age. I can start my NBA pension at 62. I have spent more than half of my life on a schedule that I can't create and I missed a lot with my family.

Going forward, I would like to spend maybe the next 30 years (if I live that long) on my daughters' and my wife's schedule, doing whatever they want to do. Whenever they want to do it. They have been operating on my schedule and it's time.

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When you look back at all those years. How many birthdays and holidays did you have to delay, postpone, or reschedule because you had a game that day, or you had practice, or you had a Lakers' player who needed your attention?

It was almost every day. Our training room operates about 320 days a year, so we are a seven days a week operation. If you are the head athletic trainer, it is a 24-hour a day job. You are always on call. So, it has been a long haul, but it's been great, but it is time to kind of slow down a little bit.

You signed on with the Lakers in 1984, so you got to Los Angeles just in time to see the Lakers get over that Celtics' hump and win the NBA championship. Were you aware, when you took the job, how big that Lakers-Celtics rivalry really was?

I was. I actually think, in part, that it had something to do with me getting hired. Pat Riley was looking to change things around and I was a young, upcoming, educated athletic trainer using real science and evidence-based practices. Pat was looking for that kind of advantage. Nutrition really wasn't talked about much in the NBA, back then, and strength training was actually looked down upon. Those were some of the things that I brought to the table.

It is almost hard to believe that there was a time when people thought that if a basketball player lifted weights, it could actually hurt his performance on the basketball court.

Yeah. I actually took a lot of criticism for creating a strength training program, back then, but hindsight is 20–20 and everybody is doing it now.

Gary Vitti has seen the good times and the bad in Lakerland. Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports.

You were in some good company with Pat Riley and Jerry West and Dr. Jerry Buss. What comes to mind when you think about all those " Showtime" years at the Fabulous Forum?

Character! I believe the whole Lakers' dynasty/legacy was created with head coach, Bill Sharman. So, it actually took a Celtic to show the Lakers how to win. The things he brought here were absorbed by Pat and Jerry and then they gave it to Magic and Kareem and James Worthy and Jamaal Wilkes and I was a part of that. It trickled down to me. Of course our owner, the late great Dr. Jerry Buss, was a champion in his own right. Those are the things that I think about from those days.

We all know the influence that Dr. Buss had on "Showtime" and the basketball side of the Lakers. What was he like behind the scenes, in your training area? He must have had an impact there as well.

He was a wonderful owner. Number one. He was loyal. If he hired you and trusted you, then he would keep you on and he allowed you to do your job. Now, he might come around every once in a while and ask some questions, but if things were going well, he really wouldn't poke his nose into your business. There might be two or three times a year that he would say, "Gary. Let's talk." We would talk about the team, of course, but he would also talk about the books that he had been reading. He was a voracious reader. He read all the classics and he was always interested in what I was reading. So, part of our relationship was basketball, but a part of it was also personal. I really enjoyed that. He was a brilliant man.

In the years that you have been on the job with the Lakers, you have obviously seen technology change radically. It might be hard to put a fine point on this, but what do you see as the biggest improvements that have changed what you do?

From the time that I came in, the things that drastically changed sports medicine have been: Number one: the diagnostics are much better today. When I started, there was no such thing as an MRI. That really helped.

The second thing was arthroscopic surgery. In my early days here, surgeons were completely opening up the joints and there was a lot of trauma that went along with a surgery like that. Now, they poke a few holes and put a scope in there and it is much less traumatic to the patient. So, for sure, that changed the way we do things. We can get people back to work a lot quicker, too.

More recently, we've been using much more evidence-based technology. There is an "eye in the sky" in every arena. It recognizes every one of our players and it photographs them at about 25 frames per second. From that, we can tell how many accelerations and decelerations every player makes on the floor and the trajectory of those motions. From that, we can find the average speed that a player ran during a game. We can also calculate the distance that he ran and use those figures to determine if we can keep pushing that player, have to monitor his condition, or if he might be breaking down and predisposed to being injured. That really gets our attention and we have to examine what we are doing and how we are playing that individual.

So, there are things like the "eye in the sky" for every game. For practices and training, there is more technology. We can apply sensors, now, that are getting smaller and smaller. Just like technology does, it gets cheaper, smaller, and faster. We are looking at some sensors now, that would be about the size of a quarter and those will give us the same kinds of information that we are getting from the "eye in the sky".

We are also looking at 2-D and 3-D body scanning. We are looking at the actual distances between different body parts. Is someone's pelvis rotated and, if so, how much? How can we correct it? We are also looking at a chip that will fit in a player's shoe. It has an algorithm attached to it that will give us force plate technology.

What is the craziest thing that you remember happening in a Gary Vitti training room?

Wow! There are a lot of crazy things that happen. It probably had something to do with Shaq and it is probably something that I couldn't share with the public anyway. (Laughs)

You have seen a ton of injuries in your thirty-two years. Which are the ones that have impacted you the most?

The first was not an injury. It was Magic testing positive for HIV back in 1991. That was very traumatic, emotionally.

The second wasn't the worst injury, but it was troubling because of the circumstances when Julius Randle broke his leg in his rookie year, 14 minutes into the first game of his NBA career. There have been worse injuries and I have seen worse, but there was something about that 19-year-old rookie who had worked so hard to get to the NBA. He had worked so hard through training camp. He's in his first NBA game and he breaks his leg in a fluke accident. Those are two things that weighed heavy on my heart.

Your retirement coincides with Kobe's retirement and that seems almost fitting since Kobe has played his entire career with the Lakers and you have been with the Lakers for Kobe's entire career. Did his retirement factor into your decision? Do you think it would have been difficult to come back next year to this job without Kobe Bryant on the roster?

That really didn't factor in. It's the right time for him and it's the right time for me. It is just coincidental that it is the same year, but I'm glad that it has worked out this way and I think that he is too.

We constantly talk about retirement because we are both looking at it. We discussed a few weeks ago that I am the only person on the planet that has seen every game that he has played. Every minute that he has played, so that is kind of fitting that we are going out together.

This business is cyclic. You have a team that wins for a period of time and then it is hard to keep that up. Then they are on the downturn of the cycle and then they build it back up again. That has happened with me. I came in at the top and it went down to the bottom. It went back to the top. Back to the bottom. Back to the top and now the Lakers are back at the bottom again. For me, to run that whole cycle again, it would be difficult.

When you've been around the organization much longer than your boss. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

People always talk about how Kobe plays through pain and performs even when he is injured. I think you've even called him a warrior. What is it about Kobe Bryant that sets him apart from other athletes that you have dealt with?

GV- No matter what you think of Kobe Bryant, there are five things that you simply cannot take away from him.

1. Talent. Truth be told. He is not the most talented player of all-time. He is talented, though, so we will give him that.

2. Work ethic. Kobe works harder than anyone that I have ever worked with.

3. Competitiveness! He will do anything to win. Anything! He will rip your heart out to win a game of tiddlywinks. That is just the way he is programmed.

4. Toughness. Kobe is the toughest individual that I have ever been around.

5. Intelligence. He is intellectually brilliant.

When you put those five things together, you end up with a Kobe Bryant.

The keys are talent, brains, and toughness. Some people have one of those things. Some have two. If you have two of those things, you can get in the NBA. If you have three of those things, you are superstar.

I find it interesting that there has been a big farewell tour for Kobe, but not a lot of hoopla for Gary Vitti's retirement. I am campaigning right now for a mini farewell tour for you, Gary. I figure we could, at least, get you a lifetime supply of adhesive tape and tongue depressors. What are your thoughts as you get ready to head out?

I am getting plenty of attention because of the retirement. Everybody seems to want to grab me as I'm walking out the door and asked me, "What was it like?"

I won't miss the road at all. That is probably the number one reason to retire. To get off the road. I will miss the home games because they are fun. That's not a job. That's a blessing. I will mostly miss the camaraderie. Just being around the guys in the training room and the locker room. There are a lot of laughs in there. It's fun.

You have developed an identity over the years. I mean, you have been the Lakers' head athletic trainer for more than three decades. People associate you with the Lakers. Are you afraid that you will lose some of that identity when you leave this job?

I'm not really worried about it. Being the head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Lakers is a fabulous job and it is what I do, but it is not who I am. People can treat you differently when you are in a position like this, but I don't feel like I was ever grossly affected by the position.

My final question to you is this. How many times, over the years, have people, friends, strangers, or Lakers' fans come up to you and said, "Hey Gary. I got this pain in my shoulder. I got this ache in my knee. What should I do about it?"

It happens daily. I get it all the time. I'm a big hit at cocktail parties.