The Los Angeles Lakers head trainer grew up a huge fan . . . of the Dodgers.
Big dreams aren't limited to the athletes on a basketball court. Sometimes the people on the sidelines, like Lakers head athletic trainer Marco Nuñez, have big aspirations.
"Being an L.A. kid, I thought, Why can't I work for the Lakers?" Nunez recalled. "If I want to work with the best, that should be my ultimate goal."
Nuñez was raised as an L.A. Dodgers fan, living with his family in a residence on the corner of Adams and Vermont, less than a mile away from the Staples Center.
"When I was young, all I knew was baseball," Nuñez explained. "My dad wasn't a basketball or football fan. He grew up in Mexico, played in the Mexican league."
When the Nuñez family went to Dodgers games, Marco’s father had a certain tradition.
"My dad would always take his radio with him, and he would listen to [Spanish-language broadcaster] Jaime Jarrin while we were watching the game," said Nuñez.
When young Marco reached his teens, the Lakers became the first team he followed after he started playing basketball.
"I decided to venture out and explore other teams," said Nuñez, who promptly checked out the TV schedule for Lakers games and then set aside time to watch the team and learn the nuances of the game. "I knew the Lakers were a huge team in L.A."
He became a fan of the Lakers, yet Nuñez stayed true to his first love of baseball, lettering in the sport at Bishop Mora Salesian High School in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A.
"Basketball was a weekend-warrior thing," Nuñez acknowledged.
When Nuñez started college at Cal Poly Pomona, he was motivated partly by representing his Hispanic roots in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field of civil engineering.
"There weren't that many Latinos in engineering," Nuñez pointed out. "I did it about a year and a half, and I didn't like it. I was trying to figure out what else to do."
Once again, Nuñez struck out on his own to discover what really appealed to him. He found it when he attended a lecture given by Ky Kugler.
"I give [athletic training talks] and do a lot of recruitment and mentoring," said Kugler, now a professor of athletics training at Chapman University.
Nuñez was immediately intrigued by how Kugler described his profession, emphasizing that communication skills and empathy are as important as kinesthetic knowledge.
"The individuals that you work with have to know that you have a vested interest in their safety." Kugler said. "People don't care how much you know if you don't care about them first."
"[Kugler] invited me to shadow him for a week," Nuñez recalled. "After that time, I knew that's what I wanted to do."
Kugler, who noted he has also mentored Jasen Powell, the current head athletic trainer of local rival Los Angeles Clippers, says Nuñez was committed once he chose the career.
"I'm proud that I had a small investment in his future and that he recalled the talk that I gave," Kugler said. "He stayed the course with the Lakers."
Nuñez put in time as an athletic trainer for the Lakers' D-League affiliate, the D-Fenders, as well as the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks and the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena Football League. Still, working for the Lakers remained the ultimate objective.
"My goal was the top professional level," explained Nuñez. "Being from Southern California, why wouldn't I want to work where I lived and grew up?"
"Everywhere we go, I try to find good Mexican food. It's tough in Milwaukee."Marco Nuñez, head athletic trainer, Los Angeles Lakers
In the 2008-09 season, Nuñez joined the Lakers staff as an assistant athletic trainer, working under Gary Vitti. Vitti has a well-established reputation, serving as head athletic trainer for 32 years and recommending Nuñez as his replacement before departing last year.
"If you have longevity in a position, you develop relationships with people," Kugler, a close friend of Vitti's, observed. "Athletic trainers are a sounding board ... a go-between [for] athletes and the coaching staff. They become a confidant. They do a lot of role-modeling. They do a lot of mentoring along the way."
Players trust Nuñez to help whenever they need it. Lakers forward Julius Randle passed Nuñez the phone when his fiancée, Kendra Shaw, called after the pregnant Shaw felt faint one day while the team was on a road trip across the country. Nuñez, who has three children of his own, spoke to Shaw, calming her down by assuring her that dizziness was a normal symptom before labor. He then helped arrange a flight for Randle to return quickly to his fiancée’s side. A healthy Kyden Randle was born on December 23, 2016.
"The one big thing I learned from Gary was that you're kind of a big brother to them," Nuñez said. "The trust is there, not just for the medical, but with every aspect."
Still, there are limits.
"As head trainer, I have to keep that professional distance," explained Nuñez. "You won't see me at the club."
Instead, he usually bonds with players by sharing meals on the road.
"Everywhere we go, I try to find good Mexican food," Nuñez mentioned. "It's tough in Milwaukee."
Though it isn't easy being away from his family, especially on holidays, history buff Nuñez also appreciates the opportunities travel with the team offers.
"We go check out the local sites," Nuñez noted. "In Philadelphia, I went to see Independence Hall."
There's a lot of pressure involved in any position of such a high-profile team as the Lakers, but especially on the person who often decides if the players can perform in a game or not. Too often, competitive players are willing to risk making an injury worse by continuing to play.
"The higher level an athlete is and the more money that is involved, sometimes they become their own worst enemy when it comes to health care," Kugler opined. "They have high-level salaries and status in society, and they'll do a lot of things to protect that.”
It helps Nuñez to have a good working relationship with Lakers head coach Luke Walton, one that goes back to Walton's time as a player when Nuñez first joined the organization. In one of his first acts of employment, Nuñez taped Walton's knee, which suffered from tendinitis. Nuñez never forgot Walton speaking appreciatively to him and welcoming him to the team.
"I was never good enough as a player to get Gary Vitti’s time," Walton said on the show Backstage Lakers. "He was reserved for Kobe [Bryant], Pau [Gasol], Lamar [Odom]. So it was me and Nuñez grinding away in the training room."
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"He got the job as head coach before I got the trainer job," Nuñez revealed, mentioning how knowing Walton would lead the team motivated him even more. "I thought, 'I have to get the head trainer job.'"
Now the two interact on a daily basis, working together to get the most out of the Lakers roster.
"Every morning, we discuss the status of every player," Nuñez said. "We're in constant communication."
"The travel, the hours, do they sometimes stink -- yes," Kugler said, before praising the perseverance of Nuñez as an athletic trainer. "Marco is a great example. He went through many, many stops and long hours. You have to have a passion for what you do."