"I was just really happy to see the ovation he received," Kobe Bryant said about Los Angeles Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti after Sunday's game against the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers honored Vitti at the end of the first quarter of Sunday's game with a presentation that included a Lakers' jersey with Vitti's name on the back and a medical cross in the Lakers' iconic purple and gold colors. After 32 years with the team, Vitti will step down from his post at season's end.
"Everybody knows about the great players that the Lakers have had, but none of us would be able to get out there and perform the way we perform without him," Bryant said about the man who serves as chief storyteller in the locker room. "He's the guy behind all of it."
Bryant added, "What he's meant to my career, [I] can't really put into words."
No coincidence, Vitti's night of recognition came against the hated Boston Celtics. After losing to the Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals, the Lakers brought in a curly haired mustached man that has been a fixture on the Lakers' bench from the time when Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy led LA to titles to Bryant's final hooray.
Vitti has eight NBA titles, meaning he can cover all eight fingers with championship rings. Three of those fingers represent victories over the Boston Celtics, and through all those 32 sun-soaked years, Vitti only lost to the Celtics once: in 2008.
For Bryant, his first championship against the Indiana Pacers literally had Vitti's hands all over it. As the story goes, Jalen Rose had walked under Bryant on a shot, and the superstar shooting guard had a horribly sprained ankle that promised to end his involvement in the 2000 NBA Finals. However, Vitti massaged Bryant's ankle until the player felt a loud pop.
A little concerned, Vitti told Bryant either that pop was a great sound or a terrible sound. As Bryant cautiously tested his ankle, it became clear that Vitti's hands had worked magic, and Bryant miraculously recovered to help LA to its first title in over a decade.
Fans in attendance gave Vitti a standing ovation, and the Lakers gave the longtime trainer two round-trip tickets to Italy to enjoy his impending retirement. Vitti owns a house outside of Rome and spends his summers in the boot-shaped country. Also, the 59-year-old ended up on the in-arena Kiss Cam and drew the loudest applause of the segment.
Though rookie D'Angelo Russell had only worked with Vitti for one season, he summed up the feelings held by nearly all who encountered the Lakers' secret weapon for over three decades: "He's a special guy. He's all love and peace to everybody."
Notes: Prior to the game, Vitti walked through the locker room in an eye-sore of a Hawaiian shirt that had the Lakers' logo painted all over it. Asked what that shirt meant, Vitti explained that the Lakers' late owner Dr. Jerry Buss had given him the shirt for his first training camp in Hawaii. Vitti will stay on as a consultant with the Lakers' medical staff for an additional two years.