No one worries about the Los Angeles Lakers’ injuries more than Gary Vitti. It’s his job – and has been for almost three decades.
“Father” Vitti, as Dwight Howard began to call him, was the guy who put his clipboard down and ran to the court when the center winced in pain from an entanglement with the Clippers’ Caron Butler last Friday.
“Tell me what happened. Did you get hit on the joint?” Vitti asked Howard, examining his already strained right shoulder. “And then everything went numb, like burning pain?”
Vitti was the guy on the court later that night who made the executive decision to take Pau Gasol out of the game after he took a hit in the face. It was announced the next day that the Spaniard had been diagnosed with a concussion.
BACKSTAGE BONUS: Vitti shows how he tracks player health
He was also the guy who knelt down to figure out where Jordan Hill had been injured and walked with him to the locker room mid-game. While the Lakers’ rash of injuries is concerning, they can at least rest assured they’re in good, experienced hands.
Vitti has been the team’s father figure for 29 years, and counting. He started in the NBA as an assistant with the Utah Jazz and became head athletic trainer for the University of Portland before that position opened up with the Lakers in 1984.
“I came down here and met with Pat Riley and Jerry West and the rest is history,” he said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
On practice days, Vitti gets to their training facility in El Segundo around 9:30 a.m. and has a meeting with his staff to go over who they’re working on. There are routine tasks like taping 30 ankles, and unanticipated things that pop up.
“Push it up in there,” said Vitti, giving Kobe Bryant something to clog a nose bleed. “Push it up … better … cute.”
The goal, according to the ‘Father’, is to try to hand over as many healthy players as possible to head coach Mike D’Antoni by 11 a.m.
“He’s invaluable,” Bryant said.
The highest compliment to Vitti, according to D’Antoni, came from Steve Nash, who said he’s as good as anybody he’s ever had.
“I know (Nash) had a great group in Phoenix so when I came out here, that’s the first thing he told me, ‘They’re terrific,’” D’Antoni said of the training staff. “And they’ve demonstrated that I think year after year.”
On game nights, Vitti arrives at the Staples Center more than two hours before tipoff. He’s done the walk from the arena entrance to the training room more than 2,000 times. His job then is to make sure those pregame elements – whether they be manual therapy or shooting – are getting done.
During the game, he sits courtside with a clipboard keeping an eye on the clock and reminding the coaching staff of the foul situation for both teams.
For away games, Vitti assumes the added role of planning where the team goes when and how.
“I don’t mind doing it – I kind of like doing it. It puts you in control. You know where you’re supposed be, who’s supposed to be there, and it makes you kind of the go-to person,” he said.
Vitti has been there through the franchise’s greatest moments like beating the Boston Celtics for the first time in 1985, as well some of its saddest – seeing Magic Johnson quit because of AIDS. And he continues to mentor them through their daily challenges.
He sat Howard down when he was trying to adapt to this new environment.
“I said, ‘whatever is bothering you about your past someday will be a distant memory to you. Let it go, you can’t change it. But what you can do is learn from it,’ and I think he sort of took it as this fatherly lecture and before I know it he was referring to me as ‘Father,’” Vitti said with a smile.
Vitti’s job has remained the same but also changed. The expectation to get a guy on the floor as soon as he can has always been the same, he said, but now there are more technological tools to help document and keep copious records of players’ injuries.
So now enters medical updates into his laptop, which displays box for each player.
“And there’s my team,” he said.
You can follow Jessica Kwong on Twitter at @JessicaGKwong.