Lakers trainer Gary Vitti watches L.A. take on the Toronto Raptors. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Gary Vitti has seen a lot in his 29 years as the Lakers' athletic trainer. This is his most trying season yet.
He has felt the weight of the team's struggles, the Lakers standing at 32-31 and tied with Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference despite meteoric expectations.
He also experienced the strain in the trainer's room, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash missing a total of 51 games because of injuries, not to mention major hip surgery for Jordan Hill and Steve Blake's 37-game absence because of abdominal and groin issues.
But Vitti's influence isn't only in sports medicine. He played a vital role in the team's clear-the-air meeting in January in Memphis, caring deeply about the franchise that gave him eight championship rings in 12 trips to the NBA Finals.
First, though, the continual line in and out of the trainer's room, the NBA's version of taking a number at the oh-so-crowded deli counter.
"From a health standpoint, we've had an absolutely horrible season. One thing after another after another," the straight-shooting Vitti said recently on a quiet day at the Lakers' training facility. "And all the things we did see were pretty fluky types of injuries. We didn't get any garden-variety ankle sprains."
Nash had a small fracture in his lower left leg that also caused unexpected nerve damage. Gasol has been sidelined most recently by a rare tear inside the bottom of his right foot. And, of course, Dwight Howard had major back surgery last April, bringing the medical remnants of it into the Lakers' season.
"Everybody seemed to be down at one point. It was like a comedy of errors," Vitti said. "I can't think of another year where it's been this bad."
Vitti also saw some bad basketball earlier this season. He vividly remembers the day Coach Mike D'Antoni called a team meeting in Memphis with the Lakers spinning toward a laughable 17-25 record near the end of January.
Vitti felt the need to speak after players and coaches expressed their grievances.
"I snapped," Vitti said. "I looked around the room and I said, 'Aren't you embarrassed? Because I am. This is a storied franchise and it took us decades to put those banners on the wall. In 41 games, you've undone it. There's a responsibility that comes with this. You need to understand that with a level of pride. It's embarrassing to do what we're doing as a team.'"
There was silence for several moments after Vitti spoke.
"It was pretty incredible," said a person at the meeting who asked not to be identified.
Vitti, 58, tries to keep his career and personal life separate, whether marrying off his daughter, Rachel, in Texas during last month's All-Star break or making authentic Italian food at his Manhattan Beach home with his wife, Martha.
But his immersion in the Lakers can be thick. Especially in a season like this.
"I've made it my life's work to not have my happiness rely on how the team's doing. You can be pretty miserable if you do that," Vitti said. "But there is this underlying thing that's sort of with you all the time. It's hard to go out in a small community like Manhattan Beach when things aren't going well because people say things to you and it makes you not want to go out. You don't want to deal with it: 'Why isn't the team doing well?' It does affect you a little bit. I've got to keep it all in perspective."
Vitti responds to the mental game by putting a different quote every day on the whiteboard in the trainer's room, including a line from a book about the Navy SEALs mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
"Their saying is, 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,'" Vitti said. "That's what I put on the board when we came back from All-Star break. If you look at the task we had ahead of us, it would be overwhelming. So I told the guys to look at what's in front of you."
A week later, Vitti wrote on the board, "Don't let your history determine your destiny." Howard posted it on Twitter that day to his almost 4 million followers.
"He stole my quote," Vitti said. "I'm happy he did because that means he's actually reading it and it's meaningful to him."
Will the Lakers salvage this whole thing and justify a $100-million payroll? Or will this rank near the top of Vitti's most memorable seasons for all the wrong reasons?
"Knock on wood and I hate to say anything, but it seems like everything's getting better," Vitti said. "The basketball is getting better, which to some extent is due to the health getting better. If we can just get into the playoffs, where everything's going well, we can create a problem for other teams. I don't think anybody really wants to play us."