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Trainer Gary Vitti suffers through a painful season with the Lakers

Vitti says it all started with the vetoed Chris Paul deal, and then the speed of the game might have caught up to the Lakers this season. He says Kobe Bryant will be fine next season.

April 15, 2014|By Mike Bresnahan
  • Kobe Bryant talks with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti after a game in March 2013. Vitti, who has been with the Lakers for more than 30 years, says the team's worst season ever can be traced back to the vetoed Chris Paul trade.
Kobe Bryant talks with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti after a game in March 2013.… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Gary Vitti's workspace at the Lakers' training facility is surrounded by a life-size skeleton, detailed charts of the human muscular system and books about tendons and ligaments. Lots of books.

The medical library came in handy this season as the Lakers suffered a continual string of injuries, the worst in Vitti's 30 years as their trainer.

A few days before his 60th birthday, Vitti sat down with The Times for a candid interview on how Kobe Bryant will look next season, why the Lakers were ailing all season and the recent outbursts of angry Lakers fans.

Like many inside the organization, Vitti said the worst Lakers season ever — they're 26-55 with one game left — could be traced to the vetoed trade of Chris Paul by former NBA commissioner David Stern in December 2011.

"That's really where all this started," Vitti said, pointing out the failure to land the league's top point guard and the ensuing meltdown and trade of Lamar Odom. "So then we gamble on [Steve] Nash and [Dwight] Howard. Some people thought it was a good gamble, some thought it wasn't. Well, it didn't work out. So that's another nail in the coffin.

"Then Kobe ruptures his Achilles'. Any one of them, you might have been able to survive, but when they started stacking themselves one on top of the other, it became really difficult."

Bryant tore his left Achilles' tendon last April, rehabilitated for months, then returned to play for only six games in December before sustaining a fractured knee in the same leg.

Nevertheless, Vitti predicts a solid comeback for Bryant, who will be 36 when next season begins.

"Theoretically, the [torn] Achilles' tendon is stronger at 12 months than it is seven. So I think that in terms of the Achilles', he'll be fine," Vitti said. "He's already got himself down to about 217 [pounds] now. He looks pretty lean and hasn't even really started working hard yet.

"Having said that, we have a point guard-dominated league that is really fast baseline to baseline. I think Kobe's strength, in my opinion, he's probably the best low-post player in the NBA. I think Kobe's going to want to be in the post with his back to the basket.

"That to me is going to be the big question about Kobe. Not, can he play and will he be healthy and can he stay healthy? But what kind of a game is he going to play or what are we going to ask him to do and what is he going to want to do?

"Is he really going to be flying up and down the court with these young kids? Because I don't think anybody at that age can really do that."

Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni's small-ball offense isn't about slowing things down. D'Antoni is owed $4 million next season if he returns for the final guaranteed year of his contract.

"We're going to have to control the pace a little bit more," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak acknowledged, declining to elaborate on D'Antoni's job status.

"Kobe's never been the guy to get out and fill a lane and finish. So I don't think that will be the case next year. There will have to be some adjustments. Clearly as you get older, you have to make adjustments and Kobe is trying to do that," Kupchak said.

Vitti has a theory on the Lakers' injuries. They have lost 308 man-games this season to injury. In addition to Bryant sitting out 76 games, Nash will have missed 67, Pau Gasol will sit out 22 and Nick Young was sidelined for 19.

The team's injuries have kept Vitti up at night.

"We really can't find a common denominator other than, and I don't think it's specific to the Lakers, but the league has changed drastically in the last three years," he said. "These guys are really flying up and down the floor.

"The Lakers that won all those championships from 2000 on while running the triangle really controlled the pace of the game. I'm not saying we should run the triangle. The league is what it is. It's evolved into a very athletic league. But at high velocities there's much less room for error and it opens up a different bag of issues that you don't have at slower speeds.

"Why did we have so many [injuries]? Is it the level of athleticism that we have trying to play at that speed? I don't know the answer, but I think the speed of the game has drastically changed in the last three years."

Vitti was the Lakers' trainer for 12 trips to the NBA Finals, including eight championships. There were three "horrible" years in his career, he said, starting with Magic Johnson announcing he was HIV-positive in 1991. Last season was another rough one with Nash, Howard and Bryant slowed or undone by injuries.

"I didn't think it was going to get any worse than that," Vitti said. "And then we had this year, which was worse."

Vitti tries not to tie his personal happiness to the team's record. But these days he even is heckled in Manhattan Beach, where he has lived for 30 years.

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