In the NBA, it's all about playing with pain

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Taking a breather from his demanding job and reflecting on whether this season has been the busiest, most injury-riddled in his nearly three decades as head athletic trainer of the Los Angeles Lakers, Gary Vitti concluded: “Yes, absolutely.”

“It’s been a nightmare,” he said. “Top one or two years. I mean, I can’t think off the top of my head of another one.”

There’s been Steve Nash’s left leg fracture, Steve Blake’s abdominal strain, Jordan Hill’s left hip injury, Pau Gasol’s tendinitis and torn plantar fascia, Dwight Howard’s aggravated right shoulder on top of recovering from back surgery, and just last week, Kobe Bryant’s severely sprained left ankle. It isn’t just these headlining injuries, but the unnoticed ones that players suffer and rarely talk about that keep Vitti and his staff of five so busy.

With the nature of professional basketball, do NBA players ever step on the court at 100 percent?

“They’re 100 percent the first day of training camp,” laughed Vitti. “That’s about it, and even then, it’s not all of them. This year we started training camp with several guys not coming into camp in the best of health. Usually, I tell people the first day of training camp is your best day and it’s kind of downhill from there.”

It comes down to the beating players take on a day-to-day basis — not just 82 regular season games plus eight preseason games and the playoffs — but practices, constant traveling and irregular sleep patterns. It’s one thing to be in shape, another thing to be in basketball shape, and another thing to be in NBA basketball shape, which can require four games in five nights or five games in seven nights, according to Vitti.

So his staff’s realistic goal isn’t to get the players out there well, but just get them well enough to play.

“If someone’s hurt, we usually can’t wait until they get back to 100 percent before we get them on the floor, so if a guy’s 88, 85 percent, we figure that’s pretty good coming off an injury,” Vitti said. “We hope that the guys that aren’t injured are up somewhere above that — 85 percent or better.”

One player cleared in this category is Steve Blake, who returned in late January from abdominal surgery.

Asked after the Sacramento Kings game last Sunday if he was feeling 100 percent, Blake said: “No, not quite. Still a little bit of pain but once you get out there and the adrenaline starts kicking in, you kind of forget about it. I’m OK, playing at 90 percent now.”

PLAYERS LEARN TO PLAY HURT

With the exception of Robert Sacre, who beamed, “I feel 100 percent, 100 percent of the time,” even players with fewer minutes pointed out the little things that keep them from staying at their best physical state.

“I feel pretty close,” said bench player Jodie Meeks. “But you’re always going to have aches and pains and stuff here and there.”

Veteran Antawn Jamison, with 15 years in the league and counting, said players start to hit a wall around the All-Star break and that he can never get accustomed to the bumps and bruises and traveling.

“It comes with the territory and a lot of it is just mental toughness, just pushing through the fatigue,” he said. “Sometimes the game is about to get started and you’re just thinking to yourself, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,’ but as competitors you always find a way to push through and just find the energy to go out there and be productive.”

It’s a mentality familiar to Lakers legend ‘Big Game’ James Worthy.

“What you do is, it’s mind over matter,” explained the Hall of Famer. “There are times when the schedule is really tough, you have a lot of back-to-back games. If you only have 80 percent of energy, then you have to make up for it with 20 percent of mental focus, therefore giving you 100 percent, so I always think 100 percent.”

Worthy’s mind over matter scenario often applies to players with more than bumps and bruises, the prime example being Bryant throughout his 17-year professional career. The star, who’s said half-jokingly he gets insulted when referees ask if he’s OK, played on through a strained right shoulder last month.

“You get to a point where the pain doesn’t get any worse,” Bryant told reporters.

And while Bryant is an extreme example, Worthy pointed out that even Dwight Howard, who drew some criticism for his level of play, embodied that mentality coming back “earlier than he probably should’ve” — “should’ve” being January.

The center in the paint, constantly setting screens and getting hit, told Time Warner Cable SportsNet “I’m sore as crap” after a game.

“My legs are sore, my knees are sore, my back, my arms, my whole body is like, beat up and sometimes I walk in the house just limping, and I have to walk up all my stairs to get into my room and that hurts like crap,” he said. “But then the next day when I wake up, I feel a lot better.”

OLDER TEAMS NEED THEIR REST

It’s a familiar feeling for Kurt Rambis, another legend who played for the Lakers for 11 years.

“During the season, you never get back to 100 percent. You never just go like, ‘Wow, I feel great today,’” he said. “You’re always at a point of draining yourself.”

For this reason, coaches especially of older players and teams like the Lakers try to find ways to give them rest and practices off. It’s part of the coach’s job to help players manage themselves throughout the season and sustain their energy, Rambis said.

Steve Nash, the oldest on the team at 39 years old, has followed a good regimen and obviously gotten good results, still a starter averaging 33.2 minutes per game.

“I train and just keep my body healthy, I watch what I eat and I try to get as much rest as I can,” said Nash. “One hundred percent? No, not really, but I feel pretty good for the most part this year.”

The biggest issue with the NBA, according to Vitti, is not just the workload but the fact that there’s little recovery time.

“A soon as we’re done (for the season), I try to give everybody two weeks off, just get away from the game, have your body rest, try to recover,” he said.

Then he starts them up on a training program that “begins rather benign” and wraps up by Labor Day, that first Monday in September being the magic date because players should be in pretty good basketball shape by then, and if they’re not, have only a few weeks to get there for training camp.

“That’s why they call it ‘Labor Day,’” Vitti said. “Because then you really have to start working.”

Then it’s all downhill from 100 percent all over again.

You can follow Jessica Kwong on Twitter at @JessicaGKwong.

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