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The man who always had the healing touch

Former Los Angeles Lakers physiologist Gary Vitti giving Kobe Bryant treatment on his right hand before a game in April this year.
Former Los Angeles Lakers physiologist Gary Vitti giving Kobe Bryant treatment on his right hand before a game in April this year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is an essential role in any sports franchise - the team physiologist, the one who patches up players following injuries, plans fitness programmes and fixes any health problems among the elite athletes.

Yet, rare is the team trainer who is celebrated and cherished as one of the faces of a sports franchise.

Gary Vitti, however, belongs to that rare bunch.

For starters, he has spent the past 32 years working for a single professional sports franchise. And when that franchise is the Los Angeles Lakers - one of the most successful and popular National Basketball Association (NBA) teams worldwide - it is no wonder the 59-year-old is widely regarded by their fans as a key figure during an era which brought them eight NBA titles.

"The common thread throughout our successful period is that, not only did we hire quality players, but we also hired quality people to surround all these stars," he told The Straits Times in a phone interview.

"It's a challenge for the Lakers staff like me to find what makes each of the players tick, and give them the right kind of motivation to keep them winning for as long as possible."

  • Vitti to speak at S'pore convention

    The Singapore Convention on Health, Fitness and Sports is where key stakeholders and thought leaders in the area of health, fitness and sports come together to generate ideas, and to share their experience and success stories.

    Key speakers include Gary Vitti, former head athletic trainer of the Los Angeles Lakers; Alan Ma, coach of China's national tennis team; and Dr Benedict Tan, chief of sports medicine at Changi General Hospital.

    The convention will be held from Oct 21-22 from 9am onwards at Aperia Mall at Kallang Avenue. For information, visit www.schfs.com.sg

And Vitti has seen all kinds of talents since joining the Lakers in 1984 - from the cerebral Kareem Abdul Jabbar to the joyous Magic Johnson, from the larger-than-life Shaquille O'Neal to the relentless Kobe Bryant.

Within the Lakers, he has been a trusted confidante to the superstars and head coaches, and also a revered mentor to the new players who wanted to bring back the glory days (from the 1980s to the 2000s).

Very often, he returns to the coaching philosophies laid out by the very person who hired him back in 1984 - then-head coach Pat Riley.

"He had a great saying. 'Hard work does not guarantee success, but if you don't put in hard work, you're guaranteed not to have success'," Vitti said.

"The lazy players don't last long in the Lakers, that's for sure."

While Riley demanded hard work from every player, Vitti was tasked with shaping them into ultra-fit athletes capable of running incessantly in executing their celebrated "Showtime" fast-break offence.

It was far from easy back in the 1980s, when basketballers cared little about nutrition and conditioning. Vitti had to slowly wean them off doughnuts by putting "cardiac risk" signs beside them.

"It was a gradual process, a slow sell," he recalled. "Slowly they understood that, whenever they played in the league, they were playing for their next contract.

"So it matters for them to keep their bodies well enough to play longer into their careers."

Some took to it readily, such as Abdul Jabbar, who incorporated yoga in his fitness regimen and managed to play into his early 40s. Bryant was another, a tough-as-nails competitor who formed a close relationship with Vitti to learn the best ways to stay in shape throughout his 20-year Lakers career.

For so long a familiar face on the Lakers' bench, Vitti will no longer be with the team on a day-to-day basis, having gone into semi-retirement after the last NBA season.

"I'll miss the camaraderie in the locker room, definitely, but it's time to move on," he said. "Back in 1984 when I joined, I had not finished my PhD. It's something that's been bothering me, so I think I might try and complete that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'The man who always had the healing touch'. Print Edition | Subscribe