Former Los Angeles Lakers athletic trainer, Gary Vitti checks in with Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson on the Scoop B Radio Podcast. Press Play Below To Listen!
Gary Vitti is about as synonymous with the Los Angeles Lakers basketball as peanut butter is with jelly.
It just works!
For 32 years, Vitti has been part of 12 Lakers trips to the NBA Finals as the team’s head athletic trainer.
Vitti began with the Lakers in 1984 while Pat Riley was head coach. During his Lakers tenure, he’s been around all of the names! Think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, think Magic Johnson, think James Worthy.
Just don’t forget Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, though!
Vitti weighed in a few topics like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I believe that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not only the greatest basketball player that ever played the game, I can make an argument that he was the greatest athlete to ever walk the planet,” Gary Vitti told me on Scoop B Radio.
“You really look at what Kareem accomplished in his career there is no one that comes even close to his success that he has had in terms of championships. Whether it be high school, college, pros, MVPs, scoring, he is beyond and I mean way beyond anybody else that has ever played any sport.”
“They still haven’t broken his record and I don’t think anybody will because for one thing, no one will play long enough. It takes a lot of years to score that many points. So anyway that is my opinion.”
Vitti also weighed in on Michael Jordan as the Greatest Of All Time. “I love Michael and respect him but I am not sure Michael changed the game as much as the game changed which allowed Michael to be Michael,” Gary Vitti told me.
“So when Michael got his first ring in ‘91 and the 5 that came after it, there wasn’t anybody left. The Lakers were done because Kareem had retired and then Magic [Johnson] came up 0 positive for HIV in ‘91. So he wasn’t challenged again by the great Laker team, the ones that because Kareem had already retired before ‘91, so he wasn’t part of that series against I don’t know what they would have done. They had Bill Cartwright, they had Cliff Levingston; I mean what were they going to do with Kareem? So he didn’t play the Lakers, the Celtics got old very very fast. Bird, Parish and McHale all got old at the same time, so the Celtics were done. There was no challenge there and the Pistons were done, so basically when you really look at the six rings that the Bulls won, they didn’t play anybody, they didn’t play any of the championship caliber teams of the 80s like the Lakers, the Sixers, the Celtics and the Pistons. All four of those teams had basically had their run and it was over and so its not taking anything away from him because he did what he was supposed to do. He dominated, but the game wasn’t the same game, it was different.”
Speaking of Magic Johnson, Vitti was the Lakers athletic trainer when Magic Johnson announced to the world that he was HIV positive. In ‘92, Vitti faced lots of criticism when he decided to not wear gloves while treating Johnson for a cut. “It was a different time,” said Vitti.
“The world didn’t know a lot about the disease. I knew more than most and I knew what I was doing, but it looked bad and you have to understand the reasoning behind doing what I did. You know, Karl Malone and [Mark] Price, the point guard in Cleveland and I don’t know, a couple of other guys were saying that they didn’t want to play with Magic and you know they were very vocal and public about that. But what a lot of people didn’t know was his teammates were coming to me privately and saying: ‘hey look Karl Malone doesn’t want to play. How often does he have to play with him? I have to practice with the guy every day you sure this is ok? And I am assuring everybody on the team that everything is ok and here we are in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and he gets a fingernail scratch, it is a non-bloody wound it’s a controlled situation and all eyeballs and camera lenses are upon me and I have those gloves in my back pocket. I thought about putting them on but then I looked at the faces on everybody on the team and I thought: ‘I can’t do that, I can’t put gloves on.’ I mean what kind of message am I sending to everybody, you know? So I refused to do it and Magic saw the same faces that I saw and he decided that he would retire again because he felt like: ‘they don’t want to play with me,’ you know what I mean? So why should I force myself on them? And if he didn’t retire, probably nothing would have come of it, but because he retired, that is when the picture hit the front page and you see me without the gloves and literally what happened was, a doctor from Rhode Island; so we think he was an overzealous Celtics fan, made a formal complaint to OSHA and whenever you have a complaint when OSHA comes in, not only do they look at that. You open the door, they come in your business and look at everything.”
Vitti also weighed on Kobe Bryant’s work ethic.“You can say whatever you want about Kobe Bryant,” said Vitti.
“You like him, you don’t like him, you love him, but there are four things that you cannot take away form Kobe Bryant. Let’s say one of them is talent. But in my opinion and it is in this keynote that I do called: “32 years of titles and fears.” One of my “GV gems,” they are little life lessons that I have taught my kids and they call them “GV gems.” One of them is that talent is the most overrated thing in life. So what if I told you that Kobe was talented, but he wasn’t the most talented; there are other players that are more talented than him. Why does Kobe have five rings and some of these other guys have none? So we are going to give him the talent thing but when you really look at Kobe there really is nothing that special about him physically, in terms of a basketball player. You know…did he have speed? But there were other guys that were faster. Did he have good size? Was he strong? Yes, he was! There is no doubt about it, but there were other guys that were bigger and stronger and faster. So why him? Why did he do more with less? So let’s give him one. We are going to give him the talent thing, but we are going to qualify it like I just did. The second thing was that he worked really hard. But a lot of guys worked hard. It is not enough today no matter what you do. I don’t care what you do for a living, this could be outside of sports and this is what I told my children. It’s not enough to work hard. A lot of people work hard. If you want to be the best, you not only have to work hard, but you have to work smart. Work hard and smart. Use your brain. Number three, Kobe was tougher than anybody than I have ever come around. He basically eliminated the word can’t and won’t out of his lexicon and replaced them with can and will. He just believes that he can do it no matter what it was. If you want I will finish this and then I can tell you a story. I will admire the way he looks at things. Tougher than anyone that I had ever been around and you know I have worked football and everything and this guy is a different cat. The other thing about Kobe is he was intellectually brilliant at the game. So when we would come into locker room at halftime and some of his teammates were checking their cell phones for tweets and emails and text messages, Kobe was in the training room with a laptop looking at cuts in the first half, so he could figure out how he could counter it in the second half. He is an intellectually brilliant guy. So whatever you want to say about the kid you can’t take those things away from him. That is him, that is who he is to the core.”
Vitti then tells a hilarious, competitive story of Kobe Bryant while on a team flight. “He comes flying down the aisle of the airplane and he says to me: ‘G you gotta watch this,’ said Vitti.
Evidently Bryant watched a scene from the “Saw” movie and was inspired.
“He hands me this disk, this Saw disk and one of the scenes is this guy has this thing on his head called the reverse bear trap,” said Vitti.
“So there’s this giant metal thing on this guys head and there are these things in his mouth and you know how you step on a bear trap and the two metal things come together and they crimp onto your leg or foot? Well this is the opposite, so these things are already together. But if you trip the wire, then they are going to open and not close. And when it opens, its going to rip your jaw off of the rest of your skull. So the saw guy that created the contraption drugs this guy and while the guy is out, he implants the key to the contraption behind the guys eye ball. So he has this thing on his head that he can’t get off unless he gets the key and he gives the guy a scalpel and he has to cut his own eyeball out to get the key to take the thing off his head.”
After Vitti tells this story, he pauses. “Kobe was absolutely enamored by this scene,” said Vitti.
“He came back and before he even saw it, he told me that I need to watch this.”
“He had already convinced himself that if he was ever in this situation that he would take the momentary pain of cutting his eyeball out to save his life. I mean, think about that. You know first off, who thinks up stuff like that. And even if you watched it, you wouldn’t put yourself in that guy’s position for real, Kobe, he actually kind of relieved it and was like” ‘if it was me. I could do it.’ He had already convinced himself that he could do it and he convinced me that he would do it. So that is the kind of guy he is. He would cut his own eyeball out to get a key to take something off of his head.”
This summer Charles Barkley to Fred Ennette of the Unnecessary Roughness Podcast that he would rather retire then join a super team. He also said that the Houston Rockets that he played on with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were not a super team.
I asked Drexler about Barkley’s super team assessment. He respectfully disagreed, but added that super teams in the NBA were nothing new. He cited the Lakers’ blend of Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, James Worthy, A.C. Green and more as proof. “Yeah, but it’s a little bit different,” said Gary Vitti.
“In the sense that are you talking about a super team that was put together through free agency. Or are you talking about a super team that drafted well and developed players? You know, eventually because super, so, Kareem did go to the Lakers as a free agent, but he was already there. They drafted Magic Johnson, ok then they drafted James Worthy. They traded for Byron Scott, so it wasn’t that Byron was a free agent and chose to go where he wanted to go. It was different, there was more strategy in putting the team together in the sense that the franchise either traded or developed along with free agency. This super team stuff is more like the players getting together and saying: ‘hey let’s play together. I am going to be a free agent, you are going to be a free agent next year. Come here and we will get this guy, he will be a free agent next year.’ And so its different. The construction of the super teams was different back then. Management created the super team where it seems like now the players and the agents are creating the super team.”
LeBron James is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Gary Vitti weighed in on the team and James this season. “They inherited when they fired Mitch Kupchak and Jimmy Buss,” he said.
“They were in pretty good shape. They had young kids, they had picks and they had money. And so what is going on now is sort of the fruition of those seeds that were planted back then.
“I really don’t think they will be in the upper bracket, I don’t think they will be in the top four and then the question is: ‘what is going to separate 5 through 8 or 5 through 9?’ Because the team that doesn’t make it and it could be as close to one or two games, from 5 on down; it just depends on what the league does. The Western Conference is tough, they certainly have a better chance of being a playoff team with LeBron. Maybe the greatest thing is the culture that the Lakers created may be reborn. There may be a renaissance there because of LeBron’s work ethic and his competitive nature that will rub off on the young kids. And I think that answers your question. I think they will be playoff team and I think they have a bright future, but they are definitely not there yet. In this league today, you need a minimum of a three headed monster. Golden State has four, if you consider Boogie [DeMarcus Cousins] a monster. In my opinion, he is probably the best center in the league when he was in Sacramento, before he got hurt. So we will see how he comes back from his achilles thing. We will see what happens. Who we will see? I don’t know. Golden State has four or five guys that could take over a game. Houston is really, I think the best series is going to be Houston and Golden State. That is going to be better than the Finals.”
Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson is the host of the Scoop B Radio Podcast. A senior writer at Basketball Society, he’s had stops as a staff writer at The Source Magazine, as a columnist and podcast host at CBS and as an editor at RESPECT. Magazine. In his downtime, he enjoys traveling, swimming and finding new sushi restaurants.