Longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti remembers his friend Kobe Bryant
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
It has been 472 days since Kobe Bryant died, but Gary Vitti still gets choked up whenever he speaks about him.
Vitti constantly hears helicopters whirring over his Manhattan Beach home, a sound that used to stir a childlike excitement in his heart and inspire him to look up at the sky with wonder.
Now that noise fills him with dread.
"Every single day I'm reminded of him," Vitti said of Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash January 26, 2020. "I can't seem to get past that."
Vitti is perhaps the most recognizable NBA athletic trainer of all-time, a bald and white-mustachioed staple on the Lakers’ sidelines who was part of eight championships and 12 Finals over his 32 seasons with the team, extending from the Showtime Era through Bryant’s retirement in 2016.
When Bryant is posthumously inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday, Vitti knows his unhealed wound will be ripped open all over again. Vitti worked with Bryant each of his 20 seasons in the league after the Lakers acquired him as a 17-year-old out of Lower Merion High in a 1996 draft-day trade.
At first, working with the minor was a challenge.
"I had to call his mother if I needed to give him Advil," Vitti said with a chuckle.
Before training camp Bryant's rookie season, in Hawaii, the Lakers organized a team dinner and asked every player to stand up and introduce themselves. Shaquille O’Neal kept it short and sweet. "I'm a motherf---ing prolific scorer," he said.
When it was Bryant's turn, he turned to his new, much older teammates and told everyone that he was tough. At the time, Vitti was skeptical. In his experience, actual tough guys didn't need to boast of their toughness.
But over the next two decades, Vitti realized that word was deeply inadequate in describing Bryant.
Through countless finger, shoulder, hip, knee, ankle and foot injuries, Bryant would plead to stay on the court and play through the pain. One time Bryant suffered a thumb injury mid-game and Vitti insisted on taking a look at it. After all, without a functioning thumb, Bryant wouldn't even be able to hold a glass of water.
"Just tape it," Bryant said, flashing his searing glare at the trainer. Vitti stood his ground, refusing to tape the thumb until he inspected it. Bryant's voice grew louder and more agitated. Vitti then delivered Bryant the metaphorical slap across the face he needed, snapping him out of his single-minded competitive stupor with two words.
"It's me!" Vitti screamed. Bryant immediately relented.
Vitti was the man who stood between Bryant and the court, an inherently adversarial role. He was tasked with protecting the superstar from himself. There is perhaps no greater expert in the world on Bryant's toughness than Vitti, whose fire was tested time and again by the most determined player in the sport’s history.
Over the years, a beautiful trust was born. Bryant realized Vitti truly wanted him to play. And Vitti began to understand Bryant's crazed dedication.
It really clicked for Vitti when they were on the team plane in 2005 and Bryant walked over to his seat carrying a DVD of the horror movie "Saw II." Bryant told Vitti about a scene in the film in which a contraption was placed around a man's neck that would kill him in 60 seconds unless he were able to unlock a padlock and take it off. The key to the padlock had been surgically implanted in the man's head so, in order to save his own life, he had to dig out his eyeball with a scalpel within a minute.
"He goes, 'Listen, I'm telling you, I know I could do it,'" Vitti recalled. "I think it says something about him. It's a crazy story. But if you actually knew him, it says something because who else would think of that? Actually put themselves in the story? Nobody. It's fantasy, it's horror, it's never really going to happen. But in his mind, he was prepared to do what he had to do."
The lore around Bryant's toughness extends far and wide. He'd go to gyms in the middle of the night for shooting marathons and then be the first person at practice the following morning. He didn't back down when the 325-pound O'Neal wanted to fight him. He played through food poisoning in the 2002 NBA Finals. He carried the team on his bruised and battered shoulders night after night, delivering superhuman performances.
But one moment especially stood out to Vitti.
Late in a close game against the Golden State Warriors in 2013, Bryant suffered a torn left Achilles' tendon. After crumpling to the ground in pain, he reached behind his calf and tried to pull down his own tendon so he could keep playing.
"He said to me, 'Can't we go in the back and you can tape it up and I can play?'" Vitti recalled. "It doesn't work that way. He just convinced himself that he could do things."
Vitti, however, allowed Bryant to reenter the game to shoot the two free throws he was owed before the Lakers would call a timeout and immediately sub him out. In an incredibly moving and awe-inspiring sequence that drew a standing ovation from 20,000 people at Staples Center, Bryant limped onto the court, made both shots, and then limped back to the locker room unassisted.
Bryant later told Vitti that him refusing a wheelchair was a purposeful jab at Paul Pierce, who was carried off the court and wheelchaired to the locker room during Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Lakers after suffering an apparent knee injury and returning minutes later.
Upon reaching the locker room, Bryant fell apart.
"Once he got back into the training room, he literally lost his mind," Vitti said. "He was throwing Gatorade bottles around. If you were in there, you kind of had your head up because you might get hit with something. He was very upset. We went through the whole thing with the docs, the evaluation.
"And then there was a knock at the backdoor. It was [his wife] Vanessa and the girls. He immediately, immediately shut off his emotions. He didn't want them to see him like that."
Vitti said there were two distinct sides to Bryant. The Black Mamba was a ruthless killer on the court. He wanted to humiliate and destroy whomever stood between him and the basket. He saw red at all times. But off the court, Bryant was a different person, especially around children.
Vitti watched him transform into a tender puddle of mush around the more than 200 children with life-threatening medical conditions that he met through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. And every time Vitti's wife brought their goddaughter to a game, Bryant would pause his warmups and run over to the sideline to give her a hug.
Bryant was also a stand-up friend. After Vitti's father died in 2019 at age 97, Bryant left him a minute-long voicemail. Vitti texted it to me, adding a note.
"I want people to know Kobe … not just the Mamba," he wrote.
Bryant's message was heartfelt and touching. He called Vitti "GV" and told him he loved him multiple times. He asked how Vitti's mother, wife and children were doing. And then he reminisced about Vitti's father.
"Just wish I could give you a hug more than anything," Bryant said in the message. "Your pops is always such a big light. I remember coming down to New York, he'd always have such a big smile on his face and give me the biggest hug and we'd speak Italian for a few minutes, man. Just full of life, full of energy, which is where you get that soul from yourself, man. I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am. And I love you. And big hugs to the family, man."
Over the years, Vitti was on the receiving end of both Bryant's warmth and fury. Their biggest fight ended up being a misunderstanding.
Vitti refers to the training room as Switzerland. In that room, he heard and saw things that often put him in an awkward position with management. He always told his players that he'd never lie to them, but he'd also never lie for them.
During the 2000-2001 season when Bryant's and O'Neal's contentious relationship kept coming to a head, some information about Bryant got leaked and he erroneously assumed Vitti was the perpetrator. Bryant felt deeply betrayed and exploded at him, until later learning that his wrath had been misdirected, and Vitti hadn't said a word.
They quickly moved forward.
"We were really good, really good," Vitti said. "I couldn't have asked for more. I do say that 20 years together, it wasn't all like fun and games. But in the end, there was mutual respect and mutual love and that's for sure."
Vitti protected Bryant as much as he could. He respected him. He was stunned by him. There were so many games in which Bryant would do something spectacular and Vitti would look over at whomever he was sitting next to and say, "Do you believe this s---?" Eventually, that happened so many times that Vitti became accustomed to the impossible.
"It was believable," Vitti said. "It was Kobe."
Bryant was a five-time champion, 18-time All-Star and won the MVP award in 2008. He scored 62 points in three quarters in a game against Dallas in 2005. He had a career-high 81 points in a game against Toronto in 2006. He had four consecutive games in 2007 in which he scored at least 50 points.
Vitti says Bryant wasn't the most talented, quickest or fastest player. What separated him was his resolve. He worked harder and smarter than everyone else. While other players sat in the training room at halftime scrolling on their phones, Bryant would watch film of the first half on his computer so he could have a slight edge in the final 24 minutes.
He was dogged in his determination and obsessed with the pursuit of excellence.
Initially, Bryant wanted to be the next Michael Jordan. Vitti watched him imitate Jordan to an almost comical degree, meticulously studying his moves and even emulating the way he stuck out his tongue.
After Bryant died, Vanessa asked Jordan to present her husband into the Hall of Fame.
Vitti knows how much that would’ve meant to the Lakers legend.
"If the whole world hated Kobe but Michael respected him," Vitti said, "that would've been all he needed."
After reaching the mountaintop over and over again, Bryant eventually took his foot off the gas during his final season in the league in 2015-2016. The Lakers had no chance of winning a championship. For the first time in his life, he took the pressure off of himself.
Those seven months were a blur of tribute videos and arenas packed to the brim with adoring fans who wanted to say goodbye. They wanted a show. And for better or worse, he obliged.
"I used to joke with him, I said, 'You're unbelievable, man. You took 10 horses--- shots in the first quarter. You put us in the hole 19 points. You take the 11th shot, equally s---y shot, but it went in and you got a standing ovation,'" Vitti recalled. "He looked at me and laughed and went, 'I know.' His swan song was not about winning, it was about having fun."
Bryant's next chapter was shaping up to be as impressive as his Hall-of-Fame career.
Unlike many professional athletes, he didn't lose his identity when he retired. Instead he reinvented himself as a storyteller, winning an Oscar in 2018 for his short film "Dear Basketball" and becoming a New York Times best-selling author for his children's books, "The Wizenard Series."
Vitti called Bryant brilliant. He spoke three languages. He taught himself how to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to surprise Vanessa. He was successful at everything he poured himself into — and he had so much left to accomplish.
"It's really upsetting to me because we didn't just lose a great retired basketball player," Vitti said. "We don't know what we lost. It hadn't come to fruition yet. And that's sad."
A few months ago, Vanessa reached out to Vitti. Her and Bryant's 18-year-old daughter, Natalia, had jammed her finger while skiing, and as a doctor examined her hand, Vanessa joked on Instagram that she was was "waiting for that Vitti finger pull," referencing when the trainer famously popped Bryant's dislocated right middle finger back into place during a game in 2016.
A few days later, Vanessa FaceTimed Vitti — but the call didn't go as planned.
"Seeing her with her girls, without Gigi and Kobe, I just came apart," Vitti said. "I couldn't talk to her. I couldn't handle it. I reached out to her the next day. It's raw still."
As the days, weeks and months have passed, that hasn't changed.
Vitti thinks about Bryant everyday. Each time his heart aches. This loss was just so big, painful and unexpected.
It's just too hard to accept.
"I haven't gotten there yet," Vitti said. "I don't know if I will, ever."
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.