For 32 seasons, from the 1980s Showtime era through Shaquille O'Neal and the beginning and end of Kobe Bryant, Gary Vitti tended to the Los Angeles Lakers, a fixture on their sideline in a career spanning 13 head coaches, eight championships, numerous Hall of Famers and enough stories to fill a library.
When Bryant ruptured his Achilles in 2013, Vitti was there. "Just tape it up," Bryant famously told him. And when Magic Johnson stunned the world by testing positive for HIV in the fall of 1991, Vitti was there. "When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person," Johnson told an emotional Vitti. "I'm going to do something good with this."
Last April, Vitti retired from his full-time post as the NBA's longest-tenured head athletic trainer, but he signed on to remain a consultant for two more seasons, in part to continue researching new technologies that might help not just heal injuries but hopefully prevent them altogether.
Though he no longer sat on the team's bench, Vitti was still a presence in the stands at Staples Center, where he'd often sit with his wife, Martha, and walk around the arena's lower bowl to shake hands and chat with friends and Lakers employees.
And Vitti still kept a small office down a hallway at the team's practice facility in El Segundo, California, where he could be found on most weekdays, calling software engineers and analytics firms, meeting with vendors about wearable sensors and sneaker microchips, examining SportVU data and the latest trends in sports medicine and nutrition.
Toward the end of practices, when media was allowed onto the practice court before interviews, it wasn't unusual to see Vitti chatting with Lakers head coach Luke Walton or individual players.
But since the team's dramatic front-office overhaul Feb. 21, when Lakers governor Jeanie Buss fired her brother, Jim, and general manager Mitch Kupchak, and promoted Johnson to president of basketball operations, Vitti has been noticeably absent.
According to sources close to the franchise, before Feb. 21, Vitti had been seen at every home game save for one and at the facility about four days a week when the team wasn't on the road -- but since the regime change, those sources say, Vitti hasn't been seen at any games, practices, anything.
In response to questions about Vitti's status, Lakers spokesperson Alison Bogli clarified that Vitti previously reported directly to the general manager and that with the regime change, their new GM -- Rob Pelinka -- is assessing what is needed going forward. No decisions have yet been made about what projects Vitti will continue to work on as a consultant for the Lakers, Bogli noted, adding that Vitti was certainly welcome to attend games whenever he liked.
"We love Gary and look forward to honoring his contract," she said.
Vitti issued the following comment to ESPN regarding his status with the Lakers:
"I worked more than half of my life for the Lakers, and I can honestly look at myself in the mirror and say I gave every ounce that I had every day. I will forever be grateful to [the late Lakers owner and patriarch] Dr. [Jerry] Buss, a man I believe exemplified what I believe to be the trifecta of the most important human values: honesty, kindness and loyalty. Going forward, it's not my team so Jeanie can do what she thinks is best."
Vitti declined to comment when asked about the status of his contract or if he would attend games or work with the team moving forward.
It remains unclear what will happen regarding the efforts Vitti made to connect the Lakers with various cutting-edge entities in the spirit of injury prevention.
Almost a year ago, the Lakers honored Vitti during a game against the rival Boston Celtics. A tribute video played. Fans and players gave him a standing ovation. He was presented with a framed Lakers jersey that had a purple-and-gold medical cross instead of a number. And the Lakers also gave Vitti two first-class tickets to Italy, where he keeps an offseason home about 60 miles outside Rome that he has visited every offseason since 1984, save for one.
"I'm a Laker," Vitti said in the video that played on the scoreboard that night. "That's what I am. It doesn't get any better than that."