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Bob (Chopper) Travaglini used to cook spaghetti with his parents in a south New Jersey restaurant. One day, after what seemed to be his millionth order of spaghetti, he started a semipro football team, and for the last 23 of his 47 years he has been treating bruises, taping ankles and soothing egos. For the past six years he has been doing this, and many other things, for the NBA Denver Nuggets. Before that he worked for the Virginia Squires and Washington Caps of the ABA and knocked around in some minor league football bushes that the late Euell Gibbons could not have identified.
So this particular time, see—Travaglini is telling the story over cocktails late one night after a Nuggets game—one of Chopper's guys was doubled up on the ground, and he ran out with his bag. Only it wasn't the basketball season; Chopper was filling in as trainer for the Denver Stars of something called Major League Rodeo.
"Being from South Jersey, I'm unfamiliar with bulls and horses and things," says Chopper. "So I'm out there running across the dirt, and I hear somebody holler, 'Chopper, look out!' And I turn around," and not five feet away is a 2,000-pound piece of meat that wants to do nothing but kill me. So I throw the bag down and take off—thank goodness I had sneaks on—and climbed over the rail. So I learned a lesson. From then on I always look around before I run out. I don't care if it is basketball. There are big, angry guys running loose out there sometimes, too."
The most hazardous duty for a pro basketball trainer, of course, usually comes after hours on the road when he is chasing down a fun-loving player who has forgotten the location of his hotel. That is a big part of the job. As is consoling lonely rookies and endangered coaches, bribing airline agents and bus drivers, making nonexistent hotel rooms appear, washing uniforms, leaving wake-up calls and finding ways to get to games through weather that stops the U.S. mail. The trainer also does the things trainers are expected to do according to their job descriptions, like treat minor injuries, supervise rehabilitation programs for players who have suffered major ones, tape ankles and administer smelling salts. But, says Golden State's Dick D'Oliva, "That is only 25% of our job."
All but the two wealthiest NBA teams—New York and Los Angeles—require their trainers to act as traveling secretaries and equipment men on the road as well. "I'm a travel agent, laundress, mother, father, brother, shrink, banker and lawyer," says D'Oliva, who also has had to bail out more than one Warrior from jail. The trainer is generally one other thing, too—a court jester.
"You have to be a funny guy in this job," says Al Domenico, 51, now in his 17th year with the Philadelphia 76ers. "If you don't keep everyone up, get their minds off the bad games and the travel, throw things at them when they're getting on the bus at seven in the morning so they can laugh, then you're not worth a damn." It should be noted that in a recent article about the most important people in Philadelphia sports, Philadelphia magazine named Domenico, not Julius Erving or General Manager Pat Williams, as the most important person on the 76er roster, which says something about pro basketball trainers. For all their value, however, not one of them earns $30,000 per year, which is what the league's lowest-paid player draws.
D'Oliva and the Phoenix Suns' Joe Proski, 40, whose father was an assistant trainer, among other things, for the Green Bay Packers for 40 years, did time in baseball's rankest minor leagues, driving buses, catching batting practice, raking pitchers' mounds and sleeping in two-bit motel rooms. The Lakers' Jack Curran, 45, was a truck driver until he got his first trainer job with the Pensacola Dons of Class D baseball. Later he hooked up with the New Haven Blades, a team in the Eastern Hockey League.
"First thing they wanted to know was 'Can you sharpen skates?' " says Curran. "The second thing was 'Can you be the backup goaltender?' I said, 'Heck, yes.' Anything for a job, right? So every day I'd put on the pads and be a target in practice. Then on Thanksgiving night, 1959, against the Clinton Comets, one of our players skated across Normie DeFelice's arm. So I finished the game as their goalie. Clinton's winning 3-2 when I go in and I give up five goals to my own team. Ha! We win.... I mean New Haven wins, 7-3."
For his part, Domenico worked the Roller Derby, "which was really fun," he says. "They used to decide who would win before each game, but they really needed a trainer because they would go out and beat the hell out of each other. That sport had the one injury a trainer could really do nothing for—pulled-out hair. We had a lot of that."
Chopper Travaglini's early years were spent with some of the fabled roughneck football teams from the South Jersey-Philadelphia area, outfits like the Jersey Jays and Pottstown Firebirds. Things are so tough down there that Travaglini once tore ligaments in his elbows while taping ankles. "We had some tough tape," he says. "It was tough to get it off the roll. Then the guys would make me pull it so tight, I tore ligaments. I had 40 guys to tape one day, and they were in a bad pre-game mood. So I injected myself with novocaine so I could finish the job."