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Professional Sports

Lakers’ Marco Nuñez adapting to role as team’s head athletic trainer

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Article reposted from San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Author: Mark Medina

As Marco Nuñez plopped into a booth in a Miami restaurant, it marked his first spare moment after grabbing 3-1/2 hours of sleep.

The previous night in Charlotte, Nuñez, in his first season as the Lakers head athletic trainer, treated Larry Nance Jr. after the reserve forward injured his left knee. Soon after, Nuñez scheduled Nance’s MRI for the next day before joining the team for the flight to Miami. Nuñez arrived late to the airport (1:30 a.m.), the hotel (3:30 a.m.) and his bed (4:30 a.m.).

Nuñez then woke up at 8 a.m. to finalize Nance’s MRI visit, secure a bus for practice and treat other players. Nuñez stayed busy after practice, taking Nance to his MRI appointment, awaiting the results and consulting with doctors. Nuñez then informed Nance, his agent and the Lakers about the bone bruise in Nance’s left knee that would sideline him for four weeks. Around 9 p.m., Nuñez finally ate dinner.

This schedule during a trip in late December captured Nuñez’s typical workload in that entails both treating injured players and handling logistics with the team’s travel. As the Lakers near the end of the 2016-17 season, Nuñez has grown accustomed to juggling various responsibilities during his first season as the Lakers’ head athletic trainer.

There have been a lot of days like this for Nuñez, in his first season in this role.

“I don’t know if I’ve had time to sit down and say what I like or don’t like,” Nuñez said. “I have hit the ground running. I’m just glad to keep going.”

Nuñez, who joked that he would have preferred sleeping in before practice then enjoying the beach, has refused to relax, though. To prepare for his “dream job,” Nuñez shortened his August vacation from two weeks to three days.

“About 30 years from now, I might regret doing that,” Nuñez said. “But at the moment, it felt like it was the right thing to do.”

When he joined the Lakers’ training staff for the 2008-09 season, Nunez wanted to prove himself worthy of being the future successor to Gary Vitti, the Lakers’ longtime head athletic trainer. Nuñez also declined opportunities to go elsewhere, including when the Lakers laid off part of their training staff to save money during the 2011 lockout. After Nuñez received an offer from another NBA team, the Lakers retained him.

“I wanted to come back here,” Nuñez said. “This was my goal.”

So, Nuñez became what Vitti called his “right-hand guy.” Vitti groomed and recommended him to become his successor once he retired last season, capping a 32-year stint during which Vitti kept the Lakers’ multi-million dollar players healthy enough to win eight NBA championships in 12 Finals appearances while also handling all of the team’s travel arrangements.

The nature of that relationship has since changed.

Vitti has remained under contract as an athletic training consultant. But since the Lakers fired longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive Jim Buss on Feb. 21, Vitti has not been at any practices or home games. Vitti declined to comment about his lack of attendance and referred questions to the Lakers.

Team spokesperson Alison Bogli said Vitti remains welcome at games and at the facility. Bogli added that Lakers GM Rob Pelinka is evaluating Vitti’s role in various technology projects. Those have included talking with software engineers and analytics firms, meeting with vendors about wearable sensors and sneaker microchips, examining SportVU data and exploring trends in sports medicine and nutrition.

“I worked more than half of my life with the Lakers and look in the mirror and feel good about what I have given them,” Vitti said. “I gave them everything I had every single day. I will forever be grateful to (the late Lakers owner) Dr. (Jerry) Buss, a man I believe exemplified the most important human values in honesty, kindness and loyalty. It’s Jeanie (Buss’) team. It’s not my team. There’s nothing I can do. She’ll do what is best for the team.”

As for Nuñez, Vitti said, “He hasn’t had a shortage of stuff to deal with. He’s had a lot for a first-year guy. He’s gotten slammed. I don’t think he’s come up for air yet.”

EARNING TRUST

Vitti’s retirement party at Petros in Manhattan Beach last April showed Nuñez something as valuable as when he watched Vitti heal players.

Lakers luminaries expressed their affection for Vitti. Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Derek Fisher, A.C. Green and Mitch Kupchak were all in attendance, and that had more to do with the bond Vitti forged than it did with healing their wounds.

“That’s when it hit me,” Nuñez said. “I can be a great trainer. I can rehab a guy. I can treat a guy. I can tape a guy. But if I don’t have that trust or relationship with these players, this whole thing doesn’t really work.”

That played out in different ways for Vitti as a “contemporary” during the Showtime Era and a “father figure” in later decades.

Vitti and Johnson bonded over their charming personalities. Vitti then became one of Johnson’s confidants when he tested positive for HIV. Vitti and former Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal used to “fight all the time” over his work habits. The tension diminished when O’Neal showed his playfuness. While marveling at Kobe Bryant’s determination to play through pain, Vitti often tried to protect Bryant from himself.

Through those circumstances, Vitti followed two rules. He told players, “I will never lie to you, but I will never lie for you.” He told the Lakers’ front office, “You’ll know what you need to know. But if you don’t need to know it, you’re not going to know it.”

“If you have a superstar on your team and he is the best person, it makes life a lot easier. But if your superstar makes life difficult, that’s tough,” Vitti said. “(Marco) hasn’t had that test yet. But when it comes his way, as uncomfortable as it is, you have to stand up for what you believe.”

Still, Vitti observed Nuñez already has cultivated “good, solid relationships with all the players.” First-year Lakers coach Luke Walton added Nuñez has done “a phenomenal job” in managing a roster that has dealt with its share of injuries.

“Everything about him is really professional,” said second-year guard D’Angelo Russell, who has dealt with injuries to both knees this season. “He takes his time and pays attention to everything. Everything was hands on. He didn’t need to pass me to an assistant.”

Nuñez has fulfilled that job description with a blend of sympathy and humor.

When the Lakers initially suspected veteran guard Nick Young strained his right Achilles tendon against New Orleans in late November, Nuñez comforted Young. Once an MRI revealed a strained calf that would sideline Young for a far shorter window (six games), Nuñez jokingly teased Young for exaggerating the pain.

“Gary likes to talk. He’s a big-time storyteller. Marco likes to crack jokes more,” Young said. “It’s been great. He knows the balance between keeping guys healthy and being funny.”

While helping Nance heal his left knee amid a minutes restriction, Nuñez also accommodated Nance’s request to keep after him about cold tub recovery when he returned to the court.

“There’s a few times I hate the cold tub. So I know if it’s up to me, I won’t do it,” Nance said. “I trust him to do that for me. He’s done a good job with it.”

When the Lakers spent three days in Charlotte in December, he encouraged Julius Randle to fly home to Los Angeles to support his fiancée, Kendra Shaw, who was expecting their first child, Kyden. Nuñez also arranged a flight for Randle later that week from Miami to Los Angeles to witness his son’s birth.

“He cares about us,” Randle said of Nuñez. “He did an amazing job taking care of me, my fiancée and my whole situation with my baby. He made sure everything was OK when I was on the road.”

A LONG JOURNEY

During his sophomore year at Cal Poly Pomona, Nuñez heard former head athletic trainer Ky Kugler deliver a keynote speech that emphasized what he called the “four P’s,” in preparation, poise, patience and perseverance. Once the speech ended, Nuñez introduced himself to Kugler and shared how that speech fueled his ambitions to become a head athletic trainer. Nuñez then changed majors from civil engineering to kinesiology.

“It sounds like (those qualities) defined Marco’s career. That was evident since I’ve known him,” Kugler said. “I thought he was always going to be successful.”

Nuñez carried out Kugler’s vision with a sports athletic training internship at Mount San Antonio Community College and Pasadena City College. He then had a short stint with the Long Beach Ice Dogs (1998), before taking on an assistant trainer role with the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena Football League (1999-2002).

During that time, Nuñez saw several aspects of an industry where job security can be tenuous. After an Avengers player scolded him for taping his ankles poorly, Nuñez gathered friends as test subjects so he could perfect that job. Nuñez improved in his craft quickly enough that former Avengers head athletic trainer Brian Nguyen often deferred his workload to Nuñez.

As Nuñez’s responsibilities grew, he developed a more light-hearted relationship with players. He played pranks by pouring a bucket of ice water on players on their birthdays, and players nicknamed him “Blinkie” in reference to his constant eye twitching.

“It says something that is very endearing when people know your mannerisms like that,” Nguyen said, laughing. “Marco truly cares as an athletic trainer both with his job and working with people.”

That’s why Nguyen recruited Nuñez in 2003 for another project. After producers of the movie, “The Longest Yard,” hired Nguyen to treat actor Adam Sandler on set, Nguyen hired Nuñez to handle the rest of the cast, including the likes of former professional wrestler Steve Austin, rapper Nelly and former NFL player Michael Irvin.

While filming in Santa Fe, N.M., Nuñez’s most memorable experiences involved his time handling Irvin – an early test of his ability to handle star players nursing injuries.

After he tweaked his hamstring during a game of pickup basketball, Irvin asked Nuñez a pointed question.

“If I go out there, can I make it worse?” Irvin asked.

“Yeah, you could aggravate it,” Nuñez answered.

Irvin lightly slapped Nuñez s face. Irvin then repeated his question.

“If I go out there, can I make it worse?” Irvin asked.

“No,” Nuñez said. “You’ll be fine.”

After Nuñez treated Irvin’s hamstring, the Hall of Famer finished the scene without making his injury worse. In between laughs, Nunez said that anecdote isn’t about him caving to a demanding athlete.

“He knows his body,” Nuñez said of Irvin. “They know the risk.”

Soon after, the uncertainty of the industry cost Nuñez his job with the Avengers because Health South, his employer, experienced financial issues. Nunez landed another AFL job a short time later, but his time with the Carolina Cobras ended a year later for the same reasons.

“That was two years in a row where I felt I got screwed,” Nuñez said. “I got to a point where I thought there’s too much politics and too much BS. I think I’m done.”

Actually, Nuñez was just getting started.

In 2004, Clive. E Brewster, a former regional manager with the Kerlan Jobe Orthopedic Clinic, recommended the WNBA’s Sparks interview Nuñez for their vacant head athletic training position.

“All of a sudden, he was left out in the cold. But if you’re good at what you do, something will fall,” Brewster said. “When you’re good people, things like that don’t affect you.”

Nuñez took the Sparks job for the 2005-2006 season, then joined the D-Fenders, the Lakers’ Development league affiliate, afterward. It wasn’t long before Nuñez remarked to Nguyen he hoped to become the Lakers’ head athletic trainer someday.

“When I was in college, my goal was to get to this level,” Nuñez said. “But now that I’m here, I may as well keep going.”

MAKING AN IMPRESSION

Vitti initially cringed upon hearing about Nuñez’s longtime aspirations.

“If your goal is to be the head athletic trainer of the Lakers and you never get there, does that mean you’ll be unhappy where you are the rest of your life?” Vitti said. “You have to be very careful of making that such a priority.”

Nonetheless, Nuñez quickly proved he wasn’t about ego. With the rest of the Lakers’ training staff treating other players, Walton asked Nuñez to tape his ankles before a practice at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Once Nuñez finished, Walton uttered a few memorable words to Nuñez.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Walton said. “You’re a great fit into our system.”

Those words made Nuñez feel “reassured that I do belong here.”

“Luke is a guy that you want to go that extra mile for and you want to make sure he succeeds,” Nuñez said. “He just has that personality that makes you feel like you are part of the team.”

Walton laughed about the anecdote before acknowledging a foggy memory. Nonetheless, Walton called Nuñez a “good ankle taper.”

“He was great, easy to talk to and knows his stuff,” Walton said. “That’s when you build trust with a trainer. It’s not if he’s funny, but if he knows his stuff and knows how to fix you. He’s very knowledgeable, works hard and is a good communicator.”

Building on those qualities, Nuñez’s role grew.

He continued to observe Vitti closely in the training room, most notably how he handled Bryant and the star’s ability to play through injuries.

When Bryant fractured the right index finger of his right hand during the 2009-10 season, Nuñez admired how Bryant never missed a game and abstained from surgery. Shortly after the injury happened, Nuñez watched Bryant’s shooting routine while wearing a new splint. After missing a few shots, Bryant tinkered with the splint and his form before finding his stroke again.

“He already had gotten to the point where he figured out how to adjust and adapt to his new injury,” Nuñez said of Bryant. “That’s Kobe. That’s what great athletes do. They figure it out.”

Nuñez has since tried to figure out his niche with the Lakers.

Vitti estimated in the past three or four years he had delegated more of the treatment responsibilities to Nuñez, so he could spend more time entering information in the Electronic Medical Record (EMR). Nuñez took on inventory and purchasing of most of the medical supplies to ease Vitti’s workload.

Meanwhile, Vitti instructed Nuñez to keep both a backup battery and portable charger on his phone since he spends nearly 70 percent of his day on it coordinating with the front office, players and doctors. Vitti also advised Nuñez on how to help the Lakers’ coaching staffs manage their timeouts.

As the season winds to a close, Nuñez has done his part to keep the Lakers’ roster healthy while navigating the potential pitfalls of their demanding travel schedule. Nuñez says his dream job has all been worth it, even if the responsibilities have left him little time to sleep.

Professional Sports

Kobe’s Thank You to Gary Vitti

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Fittingly, two of the Lakers’ most legendary figures, Kobe Bryant and Gary Vitti, are heading out at the same time.

In his 20-year career — which ends with Wednesday’s game against Utah — Bryant’s health has always been under the watch of Vitti, who is also retiring after a 32-year career that included eight championships.

Whether it was food poisoning in Sacramento or an ankle injury in Indiana, Vitti has mended Bryant over and over for the past two decades. At the end of both men’s tenure, Bryant showed his thanks for Vitti by autographing a photo of the two of them walking through Oakland County International Airport after a road game against Detroit on Dec. 2, 2014.

Bryant also left a message for his trainer: “To Gary, You are the best! Thank you for always having my back and showing me how to act like a pro! I love you and appreciate you more than you will ever know.”

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Professional Sports

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

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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.”

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Professional Sports

Gary Vitti is another longtime Laker who’s retiring

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Gary Vitti isn’t the face of the Lakers franchise. He’s the one fixing it up if an errant elbow gets thrown.

He’s also retiring after this season, though not as many people know it. Take Kobe Bryant‘s 20-year NBA career, add 12 and you get Vitti’s years of service as the Lakers’ athletic trainer.

The road has become familiar, if not a little wearisome, for Vitti, who has experienced 12 NBA Finals and eight championships since joining the Lakers in 1984.

This season has been tough for everybody on the team. Vitti is not immune, despite the almost impeccable physical health of the team through one-fourth of the season, Bryant’s sapped legs notwithstanding.

The Lakers (3-18) are off to their worst start ever through 21 games.

“I’ve always heard players say, ‘I just want to win one and then I can retire.’ I’ve always thought the opposite. Winning makes you want to stick around and stay longer in the NBA. It’s the losing that wears you out,” Vitti said.

Like most people, Vitti talks about the Lakers in two distinct segments — the young players and Bryant. Even though D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle were just dropped to reserve status, Vitti likes what he sees of them, along with Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and little-known Anthony Brown.

“As bad as our win-loss record is, I really like these kids,” he said. “It’s the first time in my career I’ve had all these rookies. They do work hard. They want to be good. Our record is not from lack of effort.”

He reserved some biting humor for Bryant. Two decades of knowing each other allows plenty of leeway.

Vitti chuckled at Bryant’s apparent surprise when the retiring All-Star said, “I thought everybody hated me,” after bathing in the warmth of adoring road crowds.

“They do hate him,” Vitti said. “He shouldn’t confuse respect with love. I think they really respect what he does on the basketball court and they’re showing that respect back.

“I think it was the same thing with Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. He was never very loved but on his final tour he got a standing ovation in every city we went to. He was respected as a true champion and I think that’s the same thing with Kobe.”

Vitti, 61, will remain with the team as a consultant for two years after this season but will soon be done traveling as a full-timer.

He tries to remember the franchise’s strong points, when seasons came down to successful Game 7s, not lottery draws. He embraces the parallel of leaving at the same time as Bryant.

“He’s like me. We started here. We’ll finish here,” Vitti said. “I don’t want to go out like this either. It’s just the way it ended up. We talk more about all the great stuff that happened than what’s happening right now.”

Of all the aches and pains Bryant overcame, one stood out in Vitti’s mind — when Bryant was sick in Sacramento for a playoff game against the Kings in 2002. The culprit might have been a bacon cheeseburger or cheesecake ordered for room service. Or maybe it was simply a viral illness, Vitti said.

Vitti remembered the effort even though the Lakers lost and Bryant made nine of 21 shots.

“He was curled up like a cooked shrimp,” Vitti said. “You know when your stomach is cramping so bad, you can’t even straighten out? That was him.”

As the Lakers near the end of an eight-game trip, their longest since 2008, it’s easy for Vitti to remember how the team used to travel.

Long before charter flights, the Lakers piled into commercial planes. Jerry Buss, the late owner of the team, tried to fly everybody in first class but some players had to go in coach class because of lack of seats.

There was a pecking order — veterans in first class, rookies in the cheaper seats — but that’s not what Vitti remembered about the players in coach class.

“Dr. Buss was so generous that he would buy three seats for two guys so they could sit in the aisle and window with nobody in the middle,” Vitti said. “People were angry sometimes, would say they were empty seats. Well, they really weren’t empty. We bought them. Paid full price for them.”

Vitti will soon tape his last ankle. His days of sitting in the first seat on the Lakers’ bench are almost over.

Like Bryant, he’s at peace with his decision.

“Thirty-two years is a good run, you know?” he said.

Follow Mike Bresnahan on Facebook and Twitter @Mike_Bresnahan

ORIGINAL ARTICLE:
http://www.latimes.com/sports/lakers/la-sp-lakers-vitti-kobe-20151209-story.html

Professional Sports

Gary Vitti, who’s cared for Lakers legends, nears end of watch

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Vitti has one more year to worry about bumps, bruises and otherwise the rest. Then they become someone else's headache.

The Mercedes-Benz had a navy blue exterior and tan exterior, Gary Vitti reminded himself as he walked out of an LAX terminal and toward a job he wasn’t even sure he wanted.

He was happy being the head athletic trainer at the University of Portland, not to mention an adjunct professor, and had already tasted a bit of the NBA via two years as an assistant trainer with the Utah Jazz.

When he saw the Mercedes, Vitti jumped into it and was immediately negative, complaining about the traffic in Los Angeles.

The driver was Lakers General Manager Jerry West, who took Vitti a few miles east for a three-hour interview at the Forum. Then Vitti met Coach Pat Riley, who was direct, even a little intimidating, when he said, “You’re not ‘scarred’ yet. I can mold you into being the best.”

e Mercedes-Benz had a navy blue exterior and tan exterior, Gary Vitti reminded himself as he walked out of an LAX terminal and toward a job he wasn’t even sure he wanted.

He was happy being the head athletic trainer at the University of Portland, not to mention an adjunct professor, and had already tasted a bit of the NBA via two years as an assistant trainer with the Utah Jazz.

When he saw the Mercedes, Vitti jumped into it and was immediately negative, complaining about the traffic in Los Angeles.

The driver was Lakers General Manager Jerry West, who took Vitti a few miles east for a three-hour interview at the Forum. Then Vitti met Coach Pat Riley, who was direct, even a little intimidating, when he said, “You’re not ‘scarred’ yet. I can mold you into being the best.”

Vitti was 30 at the time and immediately drawn to West and Riley. It wasn’t long before he became the Lakers’ trainer, a job he will leave after next season, his 32nd with the team.

He’s been part of 12 trips to the NBA Finals, eight of them successful, and the players he took care of were as legendary as the franchise itself: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant among the many.

When Vitti started with the Lakers in 1984, he was only slightly older than most players. “Now I’m old enough to be their fathers and some, I guess, even their grandfathers,” he said.

Vitti, 61, remembered the good times and bad in an interview with The Times. He will remain with the team as a special consultant two more years after next season, but his traveling days will end, along with the team’s round-the-clock reliance on the NBA’s longest-tenured trainer.
He talks easily of the most memorable championships of his career, as well as Kobe Bryant’s future and another player’s injury last season that drove Vitti that much closer to retirement.

Many of Vitti’s anecdotes could serve as salves for Lakers fans at a time the franchise has struggled mightily, missing playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1970s and bottoming out with a 21-61 record last season.

“From a basketball standpoint, the greatest championship would be 1985, the first time we beat Boston,” Vitti said as he slowly consumed an open-faced gyro at an upscale Manhattan Beach restaurant near his home. “We lost to the Celtics the year before and should have beat them. A lot of my interview with Riley was him talking about that. He said to me, ‘We need to win.’

“The first day of training camp in 1984, they started talking about beating the Celtics in the Finals in June 1985. Riley was our GPS. He knew where we were. He knew where we needed to go.

“We went on to beat Boston in six games. On their floor. It broke the curse of the Celtics.”

The only championship ring Vitti wears is the one from 1987, another victory against Boston, though his ring selection doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. It was the year his first daughter, Rachel, was born.

His second daughter, Emilia, was born in 1991 but the Lakers lost to Chicago in the NBA Finals that year.

Vitti’s ring choice actually riled a former Lakers player.

“Shaq gave me a lot of heat. He wanted me to wear one of the ones once in a while that I won with him,” Vitti said, alluding to championship runs in 2000, 2001 and 2002. “I probably should have but I never did. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what those teams did and what they were. It was just a different mentality. It wasn’t who I was. I was forged as a Laker in the ’80s, not in the millennium.”

So much has happened the last few years, so little of it positive. Vitti even called it “a nightmare.” Few would disagree, the Lakers continually losing Bryant and Steve Nash to injury, along with a slew of games.

“When somebody gets hurt, I blame myself. That’s the Laker way — you’ve got a problem, you go in the bathroom, you look in the mirror, you start with that person,” Vitti said. “The one that really affected me and maybe even affected this decision [to retire] was Julius Randle. All of his doctors and his surgeon are saying that nothing was missed, but the guy goes out there and breaks his leg the first game [last season]. That one really bothered me.”

Vitti is often an emissary between players and management. He recently met up with Bryant, with whom he shares a longtime bond.

“He was asking about our young kids, and I said, ‘You cannot believe how quick and athletic Jordan Clarkson is. He looks fantastic,'” Vitti said. “I said I personally thought D’Angelo Russell is going to be a star. He makes hard things look easy when he has the ball in his hands.

“Then Kobe said to me, ‘Well, then who’s going to play [small forward]?’ I looked at him and I said, ‘You.’ And with absolute, 100% confidence, he said, ‘I can do that.'”

Can Bryant, soon to turn 37, really do it? His last three seasons were cut short by injury and he became a part-time player last season, sitting out eight of his last 16 games for “rest” before sustaining a torn rotator cuff in January. He is under contract for one more season at $25 million.

When Nash retired, that didn’t mean he couldn’t play in an NBA game. The problem was how much time did he need to get ready for the next game.” Vitti said. “He had lots of issues that prevented him from playing an NBA schedule.

“That’s going to be the big question with Kobe, and we’re just going to have to feel it out. It’s been a while since he’s played. We just need to see.”

Vitti has one more year to worry about bumps, bruises and otherwise the rest. Then they become someone else’s headache.

He will spend more time with his wife, Martha, and two daughters, no longer logging 320 days a year of work.

“It’s not like we’re in the salt mine, making big rocks into little rocks, but we have to be there mentally and emotionally in my position. You can’t check out at the end of the day,” Vitti said. “You go home, your phone’s on, you talk to players, you talk to management, coaches, agents, you talk to all of their families because if somebody’s kid gets sick, they don’t call the pediatrician, they call me.

“I don’t know why, but they do. I’ve had athletes bring people over to my house unannounced — they got hurt playing volleyball on the beach or basketball at [nearby] Live Oak Park.

Then he smiles.

“This job,” he says, “really was all-encompassing.”

ORIGINAL ARTICLE:

http://www.latimes.com/sports/lakers/la-sp-lakers-vitti-kobe-20150727-story.html