Professional Sports

Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti, almost literally the glue that held Lakers together


Professional Sports

Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti, almost literally the glue that held Lakers together

The table in the Lakers‘ locker room is filled with two dozen glazed offerings from an iconic nearby doughnut shop.

Gary Vitti knows the rookies have been sent by the veterans to buy them, a battle he can’t win, so he puts up an adjacent sign that says “cardiac risk,” an almost daily reminder that doughnuts probably aren’t the healthiest things.

It is 1984, Vitti’s first year as the Lakers’ athletic trainer. Times are a little different back then.

Thirty-two years later, he’s ready to retire. He’ll be honored during Sunday’s game against Boston, an apropos opponent if ever there was one.

Vitti, 61, came to fame as the mustachioed man near the front of the bench in the Lakers’ “Showtime” era. He still wears his 1987 championship ring (it came against the Celtics) and talks reverently of the 1985 title (also against the Celtics).

He was part of eight NBA championships and 12 NBA Finals, quite a run for any employee of any team.

A devout student of ancient history, he says simply, “It’s the right time” to retire, cognizant of the franchise’s rough three-year run.

“If you look at the Lakers as the Roman Empire, that’s what we were,” he said in an interview. “After the fall of the Roman Empire were the Dark Ages. That’s where we’ve been.”

After that came the Renaissance, Vitti continued, followed by the Age of Enlightenment.

“That’s where we’re going,” he said. “I got us through the Dark Ages but now somebody’s got to take over. There will be a rebirth. This franchise will come back.”

When Vitti joined the Lakers, there were 12 players, two coaches and one trainer. Now there are 15 players, nine coaches and six training-staff members.

Nutrition has advanced beyond the two cases of soda and case of beer available after every game.

“And I used to put them there,” Vitti said with his typical humorous touch.

The Lakers are now apt to consume digestion-aiding probiotic drinks with a slightly different type of fermentation compared to the old days.

Grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and humanely raised pork are encouraged. Potato chips are available only if prepared in avocado oil.

When Vitti started, the Lakers played at the Forum and practiced at a number of spots, usually Loyola Marymount. There was a set time the team could use the gym, and there was no going past it if LMU’s volleyball or basketball teams were scheduled to practice after the Lakers.

“It was just that simple. We had to be out,” Vitti said.

There were times the team couldn’t get the gym, which meant practicing at the Inglewood YMCA, Inglewood High or L.A. Southwest College before the Lakers’ current El Segundo training facility opened in 2000.

“We literally were vagabonds,” said Vitti, a one-man training staff at the time. “When I took the job, [general manager] Jerry West asked me if I had a truck or a van. I said no. He said, ‘Well, you’re going to need one.'”

Vitti bought a discounted vehicle from the team automotive sponsor and lugged around large bags of training equipment and a bulky TV in a custom-built trunk so the team could watch game video.

Vitti’s staff gradually grew to include an equipment manager, strength and conditioning coach, assistant trainer, massage therapist and physical therapist.

Over the years, fewer players have been closer to him then Kobe Bryant.

As Bryant came of age in the 2000 playoffs, he sustained an ankle injury and missed Game 3 of the NBA Finals against Indiana. The Lakers’ lead was cut to 2-1.

Bryant, who also will retire after the season, recently reflected on the day before Game 4.

“I could barely walk and [Vitti] is molding my ankle and all of a sudden you just heard this loud pop,” he said. “We just looked at each other and said ‘OK, this is either really good or really bad.’

“I started walking around and I said, ‘Damn, you fixed it!’ I was able to finish the series,” with the Lakers winning in six games.

Vitti won’t miss road games that take him away from his wife, Martha, and adult daughters Rachel and Emilia. He’ll be a Lakers consultant the next two years but spend much more time at his Manhattan Beach home.

He has no regrets, though he’ll miss the home games, especially the “mini-relationships” he’s made.

He mentions locker-room attendants, Staples Center security guards, popcorn hawkers, media members and the parking valet among others.

“They become part of the fabric of the arena,” he said. “There’s all these multitudes of relationships that you don’t even know you have until you start realizing, ‘Hey, I’m not going to see these people anymore.’ I’m going to miss that.”