Lakers trainer searches for an injury solution

Gary Vitti, the L.A. Lakers' head trainer for 31 seasons, has dedicated his career finale to injury prevention. Robert Beck for ESPN

Gary Vitti was so interested in research and technology that he devoted his professional life to it -- first at the University of Utah, then the University of Portland.

"All I ever wanted to be was a college professor," he says.

Then the Los Angeles Lakers called.

"When the Lakers call, you answer the phone," Vitti says.

A 30-year-old Vitti hopped on a flight and sat down with Lakers coach Pat Riley in 1984. The two discussed nutrition, strength training and more, with Vitti offering a slew of recommendations.

"I think Pat was sort of mesmerized by this stuff," Vitti says. "We're talking about some very basic things that weren't even being done in those days, so Pat sort of jumped on it. But I said, this is what I see and where it's going. That's why all I want to do is be a college professor. I want to finish my PhD, get some graduate students and do this research and find out what works, what doesn't."

Riley had a better idea.

"Well, you can do all that, and you can do it with the greatest athletes in the world," Vitti remembers the "Showtime" coach saying.

After three decades, that's still Vitti's role. He's the NBA's longest-tenured trainer, having managed the health of players from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant for 31 seasons, all the while still trying to find out what works and what doesn't.

But in his final season, Vitti is focused not only on fixing injuries but preventing them altogether.

"Now, I'd like to try to find a solution," he says.

Set against a wall at the Lakers' El Segundo, California, practice court, cloaked in a large white nylon curtain, a nearly 9-foot tall, 7-foot wide structure appears, at first glance, as nothing more than a dressing room for players. Two binder clips hold the curtain's entrance closed, concealing whatever's inside from public view.

But on a recent weekday afternoon, Vitti removes the clips, parts the curtains and ushers a reporter inside the Lakers' 3D laser full-body scanner.

"Hold very still," he says, positioning the reporter on a layered wooden platform and closing the curtain.

Lakers head strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, checking the controls at a nearby computer, jokes, "This will only hurt for a second."

Inside, it's pitch black and spacious enough for most NBA players to test their wingspans in all directions. A mechanical whir, much like one from an office copy machine, starts as four lasers on metal tracks -- one located in each corner -- rise from the floor into position. A (painless) head-to-toe scan begins as the lasers move steadily down the tracks, shooting out beams of red light to form a single line that moves over every inch of the object in the center, X-ray style. The whole process lasts 12 seconds.

Outside, a teal 3D rendering takes form in real time on a desktop flat-screen. DiFrancesco spins the image with the click of a mouse. "That's you," he says. And it's accurate to within one millimeter.

Information from the scanner helps the Lakers detect any postural distortion patterns -- in other words, if a player's asymmetry of posture is off in any way, a signal that something might be wrong.

The Lakers acquired the scanner earlier this summer from the German company Human Solutions, which specializes in fashion, specifically high-end tailoring. They're the only NBA team that has it, according to Vitti, and though there are still kinks to be worked out, they believe that it could be a useful tool to not only keep players healthy, but help them perform at their best.

Their ultimate goal: injury prevention, the NBA's next frontier.

"That's what I keep hearing," Lakers coach Byron Scott says.

It's a hot topic as teams stockpile the latest technology all geared toward that end.

Scott, who played 11 seasons for the Lakers, has been at the precipice with Vitti before.

"Nobody was doing strength training [in the 1980s]," Vitti says. "As a matter of fact, ask Byron. Jerry West told me that I was going to ruin Byron Scott as a basketball player by getting him in the weight room."

The Lakers have led the league in games missed because of injury in each of the past two seasons (319 in 2013-14 and 339 in 2014-15), in which the team lost a combined 116 games. Vitti calls it the worst stretch in his career.

"It was ugly," he says.

The Phoenix Suns have often been credited as the best, but the Lakers concede nothing when it comes to injury prevention.

Three years ago, some of their summer-league players wore Catapult's biometric vests designed to monitor players' workloads with the goal of maximizing performance while minimizing injury risk. But they've kicked it up a notch of late.

This offseason the Lakers began using a pulse oximetry device by Masimo that uses infrared light to gauge inflammation levels, hydration levels, the oxygen in their blood and more. Players insert an index finger into the device once in the mornings, and then again during and between interval bouts of work, for about two minutes before a reading appears. Vitti says the technology is typically used by anesthesiologists.

The Lakers also use an online psychomotor vigilance test to measure reaction time.

DiFranceso asks the players a series of questions on a scale -- about how their body feels, how they slept and how hard they feel they pushed themselves that day.

And then there's the SportVU cameras, which capture the movements of the basketball, all 10 players on the court and the three referees 25 frames per second throughout a game. Among other things, SportVU cameras provide data about players' speed and distance covered.

The Lakers combine all the information they're being fed from various tools into a formula that helps charts players' health and performance in green, yellow and red zones, a format that they began testing last season. (Green is good, yellow is caution, red is bad.)

Scott says he began receiving reports on his players and the zones they were in last season.

"They're considered warning signs for us," Scott says. "A lot of times, when I'm trying to arrange a practice or figure it out, I'll tell [Vitti], 'This is what I plan on doing today. What do you think with the workload that some of these guys have? And where are they right now? Can they take it or should I back off or should I increase?' So I have to talk to him a lot about it because he's the one who will say, 'They need a day off.' And sometimes I listen, sometimes I don't."

Scott laughs as he says that last part. He's kidding, maybe.

"But I've got so much faith and trust in him that when he tells me that or he tells me, 'B, you might want to take it easy on their legs today,' I listen. Because I know with the technology now, he has a much better understanding on [how] certain guys are doing too much and if you push them a little bit too much more, something is going to break," Scott says. "And I don't want that."

There were two injuries last season that Vitti says they might have been able to prevent. The first was to forward Ryan Kelly, who dealt with hamstring issues starting in training camp. The second was to forward/center Jordan Hill (now with the Indiana Pacers), who suffered a strained hip flexor midseason.

"We could've identified those two guys in the red zone. For sure, we could've. Ryan Kelly, absolutely, 100 percent, for sure," Vitti says. "But it happened so quickly. And we were in the first year with Byron [as head coach] so we had no idea what he was going to do the first day. So very early in the second practice, Ryan already broke down. That particular injury really caused us to step this up a notch."

All but two of the Lakers' injuries last season were caused by trauma -- a physical collision or something of that sort, Vitti says. Some injuries -- such as a player landing on another player's foot and thus spraining his ankle -- just cannot be stopped, but they still consider every factor that led to it.

Vitti and DiFrancesco readily admit their process is still a work in progress.

"The proof is that we're doing pretty well, but I wouldn't go out publicly and say, 'We're preventing injuries,' " Vitti says. "What I would say is, the Lakers are doing everything they can that they know of. We're using all the technology that we're aware of that exists that we know is valid, reliable and useful to try to reduce the susceptibility of injury -- not even reduce injury, but reduce the susceptibility of injury because they still may get injured, as well as increase performance."

They're still aggressively pursuing the latest technology to help, as well.

The Lakers are in talks with a company called Plantiga about placing microchips in players' sneakers.

"This is probably, in my opinion, if this is valid and reliable, it may be the most single useful thing of all the s--t that we're doing," Vitti says.

"If you can imagine getting true foot-to-ground information, whether it's ground contact time -- so if you're getting tired, your foot is going to spend more time on the ground," says DiFrancesco, whom Vitti, a fellow New Englander, helped bring into the Lakers' organization five years ago. "I could have my iPad knowing that this player and this player are well below their ground contact time while they're on the practice floor. That information in real time could be utilized."

The Lakers are also in talks with a company called dorsaVi for wearable sensors, roughly the size of a quarter. A player could wear several - four seems likely -- and the specific sensors -- ViPerform -- record data at 200 frames per second.

In many cases, Vitti and DiFranesco say they'll use the Lakers' D-League team, the D-Fenders, as test subjects, which is the plan for the wearable sensors and sneaker microchips. Both technologies are allowed in practices at the NBA level but not during games.

Even then, there's only so much the players can be exposed to on a regular basis. The Lakers also have to implement new things over time rather than overwhelming the players with so much all at once. "Baby steps," as Vitti says.

"What we're trying to create with the player is a curiosity and an interest so that we don't have to go drag guys in and make them feel like lab rats," Vitti says. "They're actually running to us to get the information so that they know what to do with their training and their diet and their sleep and their rest and their recovery, etc."

Indeed, both Vitti and DiFrancesco point out that a trainer's credibility with players is constantly at stake.

"I have so many vendors say to me, try it, you have nothing to lose. That's bulls--t," Vitti says. "I have a lot to lose. If I bring something to a player, and it doesn't work, and then later on I bring something that is better, already his attitude is, 'Oh, is this another one of your bulls--t ideas?' So we want to be cutting edge, but we don't want to be way out there. We don't actually feel like we have to be the first at everything."

In Vitti's world, there's rarely a still moment.

"This job," he says, "is really all-encompassing."

Every offseason since 1984, save for one, he spends three weeks in Italy in a village about 90 minutes outside of Rome, where his parents are from. It's his chance to get away but work is never far.

"Even when I'm not thinking about it, I'm thinking about it," Vitti says. "It's one of the reasons that I have to retire. I want to think about some other stuff. I want to think about my kids. I turn it off a little bit when I get to Italy, but it's still there. My phone is always on, even when I'm on vacation. It's just always there."

Injuries take a toll on the players, but they also affect the trainer tasked with repairing them. Some are harder to bear than others. The broken leg Lakers forward Julius Randle suffered in his NBA debut last season still haunts Vitti.

"Nineteen years old," Vitti says, "and he breaks his leg 14 minutes into his first NBA game ..."

His voice trails off. Randle's injury is still hard to process. Vitti considers it by far one of the worst in his career. It contributed to Vitti considering retirement.

"I can't do this anymore," Vitti said he told himself at the time.

But one of the reasons he wanted to stay for another season was to see Randle return to full strength. The NBA sophomore has played in all seven of the Lakers' preseason games, with one more to go.

Vitti's pension also kicks in when he turns 62 on April 17, four days after the Lakers' regular-season ends. So the timing lines up nicely. Soon, he'll no longer juggle his daily duties and research.

"I can't do that s--t and everything else," Vitti says. "It's too much. So I'm going to do this season, then two more as a consultant. I'll still be involved with the technology then feeding the technology to Mitch [Kupchak] and Byron and whomever else."

More than half of Vitti's life has been spent solving problems for the Lakers. Now he's committed to finding a way to stop the hurt before it even begins.