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Quadchotomy of the NBA Athletic trainer

by Gary Vitti
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NBA Athletic Trainer

Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

One of the most common lines you will hear in professional sports is: “hey, I gotta guy.” It doesn’t matter what it is. Someone’s gotta guy. If you need a car, a realtor, a tailor or an athletic trainer, someone’s gotta guy. Every NBA GM has ten resumes on their desk to replace everyone in the organization. Every GM knows someone that’s gotta a guy to replace you.

Jerry West became the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982. In 1984 he hired me as the head athletic trainer. Sixteen years later in August of 2000 Jerry resigned and we went to camp without him. We were not better without him, but the fact is the team did not stop without Jerry. We played the next game. In October of 1991, Magic Johnson announced his retirement as an NBA player and we played the season without him. We were not better without Magic, but the fact remains the team did not stop without Magic. We played the next game.

I learned very early in my career that no one was indispensable. If we could go on without Jerry West or Magic Johnson, I wouldn’t even be an afterthought. I knew I was dispensable, but it was great that I had people that didn’t make me feel that way. From Jerry West to Pat Riley and later Mitch Kupchak I never felt like there was an axe hanging over my head. I felt a lot of pressure in my job, but it was self-inflicted because I wanted to be the best I could be.

My philosophy was if you did what was best for the player, you could never make a mistake. The team physicians, Dr. Robert Kerlan and Dr. Stephen Lombardo and Lakers management felt the same way. They were wonderful to me and never put me in a bad situation. By nature of the game, players are not always 100%, but it’s a calculated risk to put a player on the floor. If a healthy player could get hurt an injured player is undoubtedly at higher risk, but it’s a calculated risk. Unfortunately, not all athletic trainers in the league had the same management style behind them that I had. Many general managers and coaches ran their organizations with a big hammer forcing employees to look over their shoulder. There are still instances of harassment and constructive termination by forcing employees to quit rather than fire them. Abuse can be rampant in high-end sports, whether you are winning or losing.

The athletic trainer can be pulled in many different directions, what I call the quadchotomy of the NBA athletic trainer. The athletic trainer answers to both the GM and the head coach, which is fine if they are both on the same page, but what if they are not. It’s the GM’s job to put the team together for the head coach to coach. There are often divergent opinions about who the coach wants on the team and how the GM wants those players used. The athletic trainer might be hearing it from both sides, which could put that person in a very precarious position. There is a philosophy that you don’t draft, trade or sign who the coach wants because if you fire the coach, you are stuck with who he leaves behind. I was fortunate to work for two class act general managers in Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak. I survived 13 coaches and too many players to count.

In each of those relationships, the athletic trainer must form a trust and a bond that is impossible to understand unless you have lived the life of one of those positions. The relationships between the head athletic trainer and GM, the head athletic trainer and the head coach, the head athletic trainer and the players are entirely different from one another, but all exist under the team umbrella for the head athletic trainer. A coach will never understand the bond between a GM and the head athletic trainer nor vice versa unless they have lived it. It’s the same way for a player to understand the relationship between the head athletic trainer and the GM or the coach. Some players go on to be a GM or coach, so it clicks in later. Jerry West did all three. He played, coached, and then became the general manager. Maybe that was why he was so good to work for, and he taught those skills to Mitch Kupchak, who was an equally good leader.

The head athletic trainer has his office in the training room, and the training room traditionally is in between the locker room and the basketball court. As a result, he is in the midst of everything. The GM and the head coach usually have their offices elsewhere, often on the second floor. They come down for two hours to practice then go back to where they came from. As athletic trainers, we are not management or coaches or players, but we are in the middle of these three separate entities, and it’s our job to connect the three. We are the eyes and ears for the GM and the head coach, but that doesn’t mean you are a spy and run upstairs and tattle everything you see and hear.

Jerry West was an open door and an open ear for me. I knew I could trust him, and it worked like this. There were times I would tell him something, and he would ask me who. I would say I’m not telling you that. I’m just making you aware of it, and you’ll have to trust me that it will work out. There were other times I would tell him who, what, when, and where. There were other times I would keep it to myself and say nothing. There was a trust that I would tell him what he needed to know and keep him out of what he didn’t need to know. Mitch was trained by Jerry, and although he had his own way of doing things this philosophy continued, and till this day, we can rely on and trust each other.

I tried to have the same philosophy with my coaches, and for the most part, it worked. But by nature, most coaches are very controlling. They think they need to know everything and be involved in every decision, including the roster and staff. Sometimes the head coach inherits a staff, and almost always he inherits the athletic trainer. I can only remember one coach that challenged me on the who, what, when, and where. I would not give up the player, and he called me at home at mid-night wound up in a tizzy. I still would not give him up, and he just couldn’t understand that. Of the thirteen he was the worst coach I worked with, and the team suffered with him at the helm.

The head athletic trainer and player relationship is another totally different animal. You can be friendly, but it’s difficult to be their friend because you have to get them to do stuff they don’t want to do. If you come off as a spy or rat, you will lose their respect. I saw and heard things on and off the court that were detrimental to the team. These are young kids with a lot of money and a lot of time on their hands, which is a bad combination that leads to bad decisions. I always liked the Dean Martin quote: “Good decisions come from experience and experience, well that comes from bad decisions.” I would tell players do not put me in a position where I had to go to management about their behavior. I made it simple for them, they knew I would never lie to them, but I also made sure they knew I would never lie for them.

The fourth entity in the quadchotomy of the athletic trainer is the agent. When I first came to the NBA, I did not know any of the player’s agents. When I retired in 2016, I knew them all, and they had my number on speed dial. If a player was injured in the game and I had to take him off the floor – back to the training room before I could get there my cell phone was ringing.

Most of the agents were good guys and only wanted what was best for their players, but some had their own agendas. The good ones could be quite helpful in talking sense into a player when needed. The ones with their own agendas often gave players bad advice that led to a bad image and a shortened career. I treated the agents as I did the players. I will never lie to you, but I will also never lie for you or your client. As a result, I think I retired with good head athletic trainer and agent relationships, but they certainly complicated things. I’m not saying having them around is a bad thing, it’s just complicated when you keep adding more people into the decision making process. All chefs know; too many cooks spoil the soup.

The challenges of working as an NBA athletic trainer are four-fold; hence, the title of this chapter, “The Quadchotomy.” It’s not any different for most people. Yours may be a dichotomy or trichotomy. The fact is we are all pulled in different directions, and sometimes you may be torn by different entities that will try to affect your decisions. How does one make the right decision? I tried to follow the advice of the wisest man in history. His name is Soloman, and his counsel is known as the Book of Proverbs. Soloman said that “a good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold. (Prov 22:1). The difficult decisions you make in life will determine your reputation, which will be your greatest asset and your legacy.

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