Lakers trainer Gary Vitti recalls the highpoints and the heartbreaks of caring for the physical and psychological health of eight NBA championship teams
by Paul Teetor
Gary Vitti took one glance at Tarik Black’s lipstick-red short-shorts and rendered an instant fashion judgment.
“That’s not a good look for you,” the 5-foot-9 Lakers trainer said to the 6-foot-9 power forward whose ice-covered knees and even – gasp! — his thighs were clearly visible as he strolled through the training room at the team’s El Segundo training facility.
It took a moment for Black to get the thrust of Vitti’s towel-snapping humor, but when Vitti smirked at him it finally registered: in the modern era of baggy-is-better, there was something kind of, well ….effeminate… about Black’s old-school basketball shorts.
“Hey, man, I’m secure in my manhood,” Black replied, trying to contain his laughter.
Black, an important part of the Lakers uncertain future after a promising rookie season, continued through the training room as Vitti delivered his final verdict: “I still say that’s not a good look for you.”
Vitti turned his attention to an important part of the Lakers championship past: 88-year-old Bill Bertka, who had a cut on his arm and needed it bandaged. “This happens all the time. At my age the skin gets easily cut,” the former assistant coach and current special consultant explained. “Gary always fixes me up.”
After Vitti finished his repair job, Bertka asked to speak with him privately about a personal matter. The two men went off by themselves to the nearby practice court where only a few players like Xavier Henry and Roy Hibbert were still working on their games. The headliners, like prize rookie D’Angelo Russell and second-year flashes Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, had already headed over to the Clippers practice facility in Playa Vista for full court runs with their Staples Center co-tenants.
When Vitti returned to the training room after 10 minutes huddling with Bertka, he started work on an important part of the Lakers present: the 7-foot-2 center Hibbert. A former two-time All-Star who regressed last season, Hibbert was traded here by the Indiana Pacers for practically nothing — a 2019 second round draft pick — after team president Larry Bird said Hibbert would no longer be a starter despite his $15.5 million salary. Hibbert, who needed some calluses shaved off his feet, stretched out his long, lean frame on a training table. Then he laid down a towel where the shaved skin would soon be dropping.
“There were some guys on my old team who would cut their nails and just leave them on the floor for someone else to pick up,” he confided. “I was taught at Georgetown to always lay down a towel.”
Vitti, 61, has a map-of-Italy face that used to be framed by a shaggy head of curly hair and a bushy, totally 80s-mustache. Now he rocks a shaved head and gray goatee that makes him look like a mashup of Bruce Willis and Billy Joel, with a New-York-meets-SoCal accent and a tender/tough guy personality to match.
Vitti has been a part of eight NBA championship teams and 12 NBA finalists, more than any trainer in NBA history. As he used a callus cutter, a scalpel and then a rasp on Hibbert’s size-17 left foot, his right hand sported one of his eight championship rings: 1987, when the Lakers beat their arch rivals the Boston Celtics. “That’s the year my daughter Rachel was born,” he said. “I wear it in her honor.”
Hibbert responded: “I got her beat – I was born in 1986.”
Hibbert’s off-hand comment on this September morning underscored Vitti’s incredible longevity and his new reality: after 31 years tending to the physical pains and psychic problems of everyone from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the long-time Manhattan Beach resident is starting his 32nd and last season as the Laker’s full-time head trainer.
Moments later Hibbert thanked him for the repair job and ambled off to the showers.
“Some players need to be pushed, and some players need a lot of stroking,” Vitti confided. “Roy needs a lot of stroking. He can do great things if we can build his confidence back up.”
One more job for his to-do list.
Whatever needs to be done
There will never be a statue of Vitti outside Staples Center to go alongside the statues of Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Even former Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, who invented much of the vocabulary that defines modern basketball — “Slam Dunk!” “Air Ball” “No harm, no foul” — has a statue.
But in his own behind-the-scenes way Vitti was just as much a part of the overwhelming success of the ‘80s Showtime dynasty, the Shaq-Kobe three-peat teams of 2000-2002, and the Kobe-Pau-Lamar championship teams of 2009-2010. Anyone who thinks all a trainer does is tape ankles before the game, rush out to the court when a player goes down and pick up the used towels after the game doesn’t understand that Vitti is always on call even when he’s home, works seven days a week during the season and five days a week during the off-season.
A pro basketball team is like a big, boisterous family and the eight month season is like an endless cross-country journey in the family SUV. In such a claustrophobic environment personal chemistry – or personal conflict — can help a team excel or break a team apart. Think of the coaches as the stern, demanding parents and the trainer as the good-guy uncle along for the ride. His unofficial job description includes court jester, fashion judge, psychiatrist, confidant, father confessor, peacemaker, diplomat, dietician, strength trainer, traveling secretary, plumber, electrician and even car mechanic.
“Basically, my job is whatever needs to be done at a given moment,” Vitti said. “A couple of years ago we had an assistant coach from another country who came to practice with license plates for his car. So I went out to the parking lot and put the plates on his car.”
For this season, and for at least two more years when he will serve as a special consultant while the team moves into a new El Segundo training center around the corner from its current one, Vitti is one of the team’s few remaining links to its championship past.
“The Lakers will never be the same without him,” said Joyce Sharman, widow of Bill Sharman, the former Lakers coach and general manager. “Through all those different coaches and players he was the glue that held it all together.”
It’s been a long, strange trip for the son of two Italian immigrants. By the time he was 30, his destiny appeared set. He would be a college professor in a laid-back, small-city atmosphere. But instead, thanks to an out-of-the-blue phone call, he ended up as a trainer to the biggest stars of the most important sports franchise in America’s most glam city.
“Just think of all the different personalities he’s had to deal with,” said Guy Gabriele, owner of Love & Salt Restaurant in Manhattan Beach and one of Vitti’s best friends. “Players, coaches, even management — there were some very entitled people that he was able to deal with because he could find a balance between their different personalities and move forward. He’s a sensitive guy, a healer, but he can also be blunt without hurting people. He’s a perfectionist and a problem solver.”
Vitti just shook his head when asked about his longevity.
“I can’t believe it’s been 31 years,” he said. “When I started in 1984 it was coach Pat Riley, assistant coach Bertka and me. Pat used to have a saying: 12 plus 2 plus 1 – 12 players, two coaches and me. Fifteen people in the trenches against all the peripheral distractions. Now there are 15 players, nine coaches, and I have five assistants on my own staff.”
20 magic words
It was a job Vitti didn’t seek out but a job he couldn’t turn down.
In the summer of 1984 Vitti was on track to become a tenured professor at the University of Portland after spending two years setting up its sports medicine program. Then one August day he got a call from Lakers coach Pat Riley asking if he would like to interview for the job of Lakers trainer.
A New York Knicks fan from his early days growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, Vitti couldn’t help but be intrigued. He had spent 1981 and 1982 as an assistant trainer with the Utah Jazz, so he had some idea of the relentless grind – constant travel, personality conflicts and the media always critiquing your job performance — of the traveling circus that is NBA life. He also knew that the Lakers were an NBA flagship franchise.
With a master’s degree in sports medicine from the University of Utah tucked in his back pocket, Vitti was on the leading edge of the medical, nutritional and fitness revolutions gaining momentum in the early 1980s. The NBA is a word-of-mouth league, with a lot of cross-pollination as players, coaches and executives move from team to team each off-season. So when Riley started asking around about young up-and-comers who might be a good replacement for retiring trainer Jack Curran, Bertka suggested Vitti. Next thing Vitti knew he was flying to LA for an interview.
When he arrived at LAX, the legend and the logo – general manager Jerry West — was there to drive him to the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, where he met for six hours with West and Riley. They discussed everything from the need for better nutrition to how to get players to start weight training – most players resisted it, believing it would hurt their shooting touch – to their overall life philosophies.
Despite agreement on many topics, Vitti was still leaning towards staying as a college professor in charge of his own sports medicine program until Riley spoke twenty magic words: “You can do everything you want to do and you can do it with the greatest athletes in the world.”
Beat the heat
Vitti arrived in LA at a pivotal point in Lakers history. A year after being swept by Philadelphia in the 1983 NBA Finals, they had lost a grueling, seven-game finals to Larry Bird and the Celtics. It was the eighth time they had lost to the Celtics in the finals without a single victory. Despite having three future Hall of Famers in Magic, Kareem and James Worthy, as well as a stellar supporting cast featuring current Lakers coach Byron Scott and Manhattan Beach’s own Kurt Rambis, the Lakers couldn’t seem to get over the Celtics hurdle.
“There was a real feeling around the team that if they didn’t win it all the next season, the team would be broken up,” Vitti recalled.
But the Lakers did break through in the 1985 finals, beating Boston in a rugged six-game series that shattered the Celtics curse and served as Vitti’s first real introduction to Lakers fans as a can-do problem solver who was more than a traditional tape-‘em-up-and-rub-‘em-down trainer.
The Celtics, led by their arrogant, cigar-chomping coach-turned-general-manager Red Auerbach, were notorious for creating uncomfortable conditions in the visitor’s locker room at the old Boston Garden: too cold during the winter and too hot during the playoffs of May and June. An embittered Riley felt the Celtic’s locker room tricks had contributed to the 1984 Finals loss, when their locker room felt like a steam bath. So Vitti proposed a solution for the 1985 Finals: the Lakers would bring their own air conditioners into the locker room and create the temperature they wanted. It worked, and Riley was quick to publicly give Vitti credit.
“It was an idea I got from watching the New York Giants football team the year before when I saw them using these big cooling units on the sidelines,” Vitti recalled. “I put it in the back of my mind. When we got to the finals again, I called the company and they showed up at the Boston Garden with these giant coolers that we set up in the locker room.”
And there was a bonus: the first time Vitti plugged them in, it blew out half the Garden’s electrical system. “They complained that we were using too much power. I told them to go to hell.”
The Lakers beat the Celtics again in the 1987 finals and beat the Detroit Pistons in the 1988 finals. So three of Vitti’s first four seasons were capped off by Lakers championships. At that point, although his LA profile was growing, he was still relatively anonymous nationally.
That was soon to change.
The hardest job
The hardest job Vitti ever performed for the Lakers was telling the team that Magic Johnson had been infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. That soul-sapping ordeal set the stage for him to be a central player in an iconic medical moment, part of America’s gradual, growing understanding of the facts and fallacies of the emerging AIDS epidemic.
It started during the pre-season 1991 exhibition schedule, four months after the Lakers had lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. West called Vitti and told him to have Magic return to LA, but didn’t offer any explanation. Vitti was troubled by the request and asked Magic if he knew what was going on. Magic had no idea. While Magic, whom Vitti calls Earv, short for his first name, Earvin, was flying back to LA, Vitti says it suddenly hit him.
“I was turning it over and over in my mind, and finally the lightbulb went on,” he recalled. “I knew Earv was sexually promiscuous, and I knew he was being given a physical exam by the insurance company. We didn’t test for HIV, but they did.”
Vitti confirmed his hunch in a phone call from Lakers team Doctor Michael Mellman, who called him at Magic’s request. For the next two weeks only seven people knew about Johnson’s diagnosis: Magic, his wife Cookie, his agent Lon Rosen, West, Dr. Mellman, team owner Jerry Buss, and Vitti.
For two weeks they wrestled with how to handle the devastating news. “I’m still doing my job, but I’m walking around in a daze. I was thinking of it as a death sentence for Earv,” Vitti recalled, his voice cracking. “In our first conversation I told him I was having a tough time with it. But he said that when God gave him this disease he gave it to the right person. He said he was going to beat it, and was going to do something great with it.”
The first problem: how to inform all the women Magic had had contact with. He didn’t know half their names or where they lived. Many of them were NBA groupies who threw themselves at him when the Lakers passed through their cities. Others were walking, talking LA stereotypes: aspiring actresses, models or whatevers. He didn’t have established relationships with most of them and it was the pre cell-phone era so there was no digital trail to follow.
Finally, their only ethical course of action became clear: they would have to tell the world and, by extension, all those women who needed to know.
First, at an emotional team gathering in the Forum Vitti informed the other players. Then Magic came in, addressed the team as a group and walked around the room to say goodbye to each player individually.
“He gave each of them a big hug and whispered something in their ear,” Vitti recalled. “Magic had a way of saying whatever you needed to hear to make you feel better. He could read people really well.”
Assistant Coach Bertka was known as the most stoic of the Lakers coaches and players. But when Johnson approached Bertka his knees buckled and Magic had to hold him up to prevent him from falling to the floor.
“When I saw Bertka start to collapse that made me emotional too,” Vitti recalled. Vitti, who had already had his first post-HIV conversation with Magic several days prior, was the last man that Magic approached. “I said ‘It’s Ok, brother, we’ve already done this,’” he recalled. “He said ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t make it any easier.’”
Then Magic went upstairs and held a press conference that was beamed around the world.
Believing in Magic
Magic and the team had decided it would be best for him to retire and focus on his medical treatment. But with the disease under control a year later he attempted a comeback for the 1992-93 season. That’s when shock and sympathy morphed into fear and ignorance.
Several players, most prominently Karl Malone of the Jazz, publicly questioned Magic’s decision to return. Malone worried aloud that he could become infected if Magic spilled blood on the court or even sprayed him with his sweat.
During one of the first exhibition games, Magic suffered a small cut on his forearm, little more than a fingernail scratch. What would normally have been a non-event suddenly turned into highlight material for Sports Center: Magic came out of the game and when Vitti saw how small the scratch was he took out a cotton swab and left his medical gloves in his pocket. By then Vitti had researched the HIV virus and knew a lot more than he had a year earlier.
“I made a decision that I didn’t need the gloves,” Vitti recalled. “I thought that if I put the gloves on I was sending a mixed message.”
“Gary instinctively did the right thing,” said another of his closest friends, Petros Benekos, owner of Petros restaurant in Manhattan Beach. “He didn’t have to consult with anybody.”
In that single, silent act Vitti communicated to the world what we now know: the virus can’t be transmitted by surface cuts or scratches and that other players were not endangered by playing with or against Magic. The budding player revolt against Magic’s return soon died down and was buried in that year’s All Star game, when he was named MVP after scoring 25 points with 9 assists and 5 rebounds.
Vitti has worked with dozens of champions and plenty of Hall-of Famers, each with their own unique blend of talent, work ethic and personality traits. But to this day he considers Johnson the most special human being he has ever been around.
“He said he would do something great with it, and he has,” Vitti said. “Not only is he a big success with his business interests, but he’s shown people you can live a productive life with the virus and he’s helped educate people about it.”
Stuck in the middle
The Lakers training room walls are adorned with framed photos of players, including Kobe and Shaq, winning and celebrating many of the Lakers 16 NBA championships. But there are also reminders of the short cuts some athletes take for the sake of sports glory: two prominently posted lists of supplements banned by the NBA. One list is put out by the NBA Commissioner’s office and the other by the NBA Players Association.
Each lists dozens of performance enhancing drugs and recreational drugs. But there’s one intoxicant not listed that can be equally as dangerous: success. Especially the kind of repeated success the Lakers have consistently enjoyed until recently, when they bottomed out last season with the worst record – 21-61 — in franchise history. The finger pointing and blame gaming that can affect losing teams is nothing compared to the credit mongering and ego one-upmanship that can erupt on winning teams.
“Defeat is an orphan,” Vitti said, “but winning has many fathers.”
Shaq and Kobe both joined the Lakers in the summer of 1996, Shaq as a $120 million free agent from Orlando and Kobe as a 17-year-old phenom straight out of high school. Over the next four seasons the Lakers didn’t come close to a championship and there were few reports of discord and dissension between the two superstars. But Vitti says it was simmering just beneath the surface, as Kobe resisted Shaq’s efforts to take him under his wing.
“If Michael Jordan was there instead of Shaq, I think Kobe would have gone under his wing willingly, but he didn’t have the respect for Shaq that he had for Jordan,” Vitti said.
The media reports of growing friction started as soon as the Lakers began winning titles again in 2000. By the time the Lakers lost the NBA finals to the Detroit Pistons in 2004, the well-documented Kobe-Shaq feud had gotten so toxic that the role players were forced to choose one side or the other, according to recent statements by former Laker shooting guard Kareem Rush.
Even Kobe and Shaq, in a podcast last month, said they now regret having been unable to get along. Management had to trade Shaq in the summer of 2004 to prevent Kobe from leaving as a free agent.
In his book The Last Season, a diary of the 2003-04 season, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson wrote that the feud had gotten so intense that Shaq refused to let Vitti tape his ankles because he perceived Vitti to be on Kobe’s side.
Vitti insists that Jackson was exaggerating Shaq’s no-taping edict, which didn’t last long. “It was a love-hate relationship with Shaq and me,” he said. “The conflict was real, but it was also playful. That’s how Shaq was.”
Vitti readily admits that he clashed repeatedly with Shaq over his spotty work ethic, best exemplified by the incident when Shaq put off toe surgery during the summer of 2002. He told the press that he was injured on company time and would have his surgery and subsequent recovery on company time. As a result the Lakers got off to an 11-19 start without Shaq and never fully recovered, failing in their attempt at a four-peat.
“Shaq and I feuded because I held his feet to the fire and told him he needed to work harder,” Vitti said. “Shaq could have been the most dominant basketball player ever. But it was more important to me than it was to him. He even told me that he didn’t care about being the most dominant. He’d rather have fun.”
Standing in the training room, he recounted how some days he could hear Shaq’s giant footsteps coming around the corner before he even saw him, and how he could tell by the intensity of the footsteps if it was going to be a rough day with the big fella.
“He’d come in and say go tell Phil I’m not practicing today,” he recalled. “I would say, I’m not doing that. You tell him. If you can’t practice because you’re hurt, then you should have been in here an hour ago for treatment and then it’s my job to tell Phil. But if you don’t want to practice because you just don’t feel like it, then you tell him.”
One time it got so bad that Shaq said he wasn’t going to talk to Vitti for two weeks – and followed through on it. Instead he wrote out three broad responses on a white board – none of which can be repeated in a family newspaper. When Vitti spoke to him he would hold up one, two or three fingers to indicate the appropriate response.
Benekos said he was not surprised that Vitti clashed with Shaq.
“You may not like it, but Gary will always tell you the truth and give it to you straight,” Benekos said. “I really admire that about him.”
But even as Vitti recounts these Shaq anecdotes, he can’t help but laugh and remember the sheer fun of being around Shaq the giant clown and X-rated prankster.
“Shaq had this thing about being part of law enforcement. He actually went to a police academy and got a badge,” Vitti said. “Every day he would come in, he’d throw me up against the wall and frisk me. It was hilarious.”
Other players on other teams were awestruck by Shaq’s size, he said.
“They’d come up to me before the game and say, ‘Come on, man, how much does he really weigh?’ One guy says, ‘I know he’s 400 pounds, you guys just don’t want to put it out there,’” Vitti said. “But I don’t think he was ever more than 358.”
Eleven years after Shaq left the Lakers for Miami, Vitti insists he loves the big lug like a little brother and that they have long since reconciled and hugged it out. He even keeps a pair of Shaq’s size 22 sneakers and a picture of he and Shaq clowning around in his house’s memorabilia room.
Any friction, he says, was caused by his frustration that Shaq didn’t work hard enough to maximize his potential.
It was business, not personal.
Just doing his job.
On the other hand, Kobe was so maniacal about working out and trying to maximize his potential that Vitti often had to rein him in.
“There’s one guy I’m trying to hold back, and one guy I’m trying to push harder,” he said. “And I’m stuck in the middle.”
Memories not for sale
There are many reasons Vitti loves living in Manhattan Beach and has been here his entire 31 years as Lakers trainer. One is the small-town atmosphere. Recognizable as he is from 31 years of Laker telecasts, he can walk downtown for lunch or jog on the Strand without being bothered by the locals.
Another reason he loves living here is the 10-minute commute to his office in El Segundo. He usually takes his 1982 Alfa Romeo Spider and once in awhile his Harley Davidson fat boy.
The beach house he lives in blends in nicely with the other houses in his upscale American Martyrs neighborhood. Over the years he has added some personal touches. He built a beautiful terrace with spectacular views of the ocean, less than a quarter mile away. Inside, in the main family room on the second floor, are photos of his wife Marta (his first wife, Christine, mother of his two children, died last year), photos of his parents Mario and Sylvia, both 94, and photos of his two daughters Rachel, 28, and Emilia, 24. The photos are complemented by artwork from all over Italy, where he visits family every summer.
Many people keep scrapbooks of the highlights of their personal and professional lives. Vitti’s life and career have been so full of highlights that his scrapbook takes up the entire third floor of the house. You walk up a spiral staircase to a breathtaking room full of sports memorabilia that would bring quite a haul at an auction house. But these memories are not for sale.
It starts with the signed Lakers game jerseys from all the greats he has worked with, each one inscribed with heartfelt thanks for Vitti’s physical care and faithful friendship. Typical is the one from Kobe: “To my man Gary. From 17 to 27 your guidance helped mold me as a pro. Couldn’t have done it without you. Love you Bro.”
There are shoes from Larry Bird, a clipboard from Pat Riley and a white board used by San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich at an all Star game. But it’s not just basketball that dominates this room: there are pictures of Vitti with Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali and Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. He has made a careful study of what makes champions of all kinds tick.
As he guides a visitor around the room, a pensive Vitti admits that while the championships and the glory moments – Magic’s junior, junior sky hook to beat the Celtics, Derek Fisher’s .04 shot to beat the Spurs, Robert Horry’s pick-up-a-loose-ball-and drain a three-pointer to beat the Kings – will all stay with him forever, what he will really miss are the relationships and the camaraderie, the silly locker room moments like the exchange with Tarik Black about his girly short shorts, the crazy, X-rated sign language Shaq invented to communicate with a deaf intern and the time a decade or so ago when he jokingly threatened to write a book about his years with the Lakers.
“I told the players if I ever get fired, I’m going to write a book and you’re all going to be in it. It will cost you $100,000 each to stay out of it,” he recalled. “Robert Horry looked at me for several seconds before he laughed and said, ‘Shit, I could have you killed for $5,000.”
He admits he is a bit scared and nervous about finding something new to do that could possibly replace the thrill – and the 24/7 stress – of tending to the wants and needs, the problems and the pain of so many players, coaches and staff.
“Both my parents are 94 and in pretty good shape,” he said. “So based on their life span I figure I still have a third of my life left to live. That means I have 30 years to figure out what I’m going to do next.”
One more job for his to-do list.
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