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Lakers athletic trainer on Kobe, Jack, Magic and more 

Posted: Monday January 22, 2007 12:01PM; Updated: Monday January 22, 2007 5:53PM
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Gary Vitti, shown here with Kobe Bryant in 2004, calls the Lakers' star guard
Gary Vitti, shown here with Kobe Bryant in 2004, calls the Lakers' star guard "the tougest player I've ever worked on."
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
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Gary Vitti likens his job as athletic trainer of the Los Angeles Lakers to running a wellness center for 15 basketball players. The 52-year-old native of Stamford, Conn., has been rehabbing Lakers and taping their ankles now for 23 seasons, the NBA's longest active tenure with a single team. His work typically continues when hoops season ends; he spends the summer months overseeing the Lakers' training room.

Though Vitti can't prescribe drugs, he can dispense advice.

"It doesn't matter what the players have," he says. "They come to me if an eye hurts, an ear hurts, a foot hurts. They come to me if they have an STD or if they need psychological help."

And, most of the time, the players listen to Vitti, who recently spoke to SI.com about such things as Kobe Bryant's toughness, Magic Johnson's HIV, Shaquille O'Neal's ankles and a close encounter with Jack Nicholson.

SI.com: In the not-so-distant past, if an NBA player got hurt in a game, the team trainer would come on court bearing a bucket and a sponge.

Vitti: Those were the old days. Today, the team trainer is not just well-educated, but he has an array of computer, diagnostic and therapeutic tools at his service.

SI.com: Since July, your training room has looked like an episode of Grey's Anatomy, without all the inter-operating theater sex. What's the cause of all this pain?

Vitti: Part of it is that we now carry 15 players, and part of it is that the game has become so athletic. And part is just plain bad luck.

SI.com: First Brian Cook had surgery on his right thumb, then Chris Mihm had his right ankle scoped.

Vitti: Chris' ankle injury was the worst I've ever seen in basketball. It's the kind you see in a car crash.

SI.com: In late October, Kobe Bryant sat out the season opener because of soreness in his surgically repaired right knee, and Kwame Brown missed two weeks with shoulder and neck ailments. Then Mihm had a season-ending operation; Jordan Farmar suffered his own ankle injury; Ronny Turiaf went down with bursitis in both hips; Cook was sidelined by an upper respiratory tract infection and a bad case of vertigo; Bryant and Vladimir Radmanovic both missed time with busted-up ankles; Lamar Odom sprained his right knee; and now Bryant is playing despite a tender groin.

Vitti: Kobe is amazing. He's the toughest player I've ever worked on.

SI.com: Who's the player you've most admired?

Vitti: I'd say Magic Johnson.

SI.com: Your most controversial NBA moment involved Magic. In a 1992 exhibition game, you chose not to wear gloves as a precaution against AIDS transmission while treating a cut on his forearm. A photo of you applying a swab to Magic's cut ran in newspapers across the country. Some East Coast doctor even complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Vitti: When Magic made his first comeback four years before, a bunch of his teammates were concerned about the risk of infection. Thy were, after all, practicing against him every day. The same concerns were voiced when Magic made his second comeback in '92.

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