Lakers honor another retiring legend in Gary Vitti

Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott celebrate with Gary Vitti on Sunday when the retiring Lakers trainer was honored by the team. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

LOS ANGELES -- Throughout his farewell tour this season, Kobe Bryant has received many lavish gifts. The Golden State Warriors presented him a five-star Napa Valley vacation package, the Boston Celtics a framed piece of TD Garden's parquet floor from the 2010 Finals, and Michael Jordan a full set of every Air Jordan sneaker (I through XXX) during All-Star Weekend.

But just as Bryant has made final stops in road arenas, so too has longtime Los Angeles Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, who, like Bryant, is retiring this summer. And Vitti, who has been in his role for 32 seasons, has also received his share of farewell gifts this season -- mostly wine (including a case of Napa Valley wine from the Sacramento Kings) and cards with messages that have touched him.

"I'll drink the wine but cherish the cards forever," Vitti wrote in a recent email to ESPN.

Vitti, who will remain with the Lakers as a consultant for the next two years after retiring from his full-time role, was honored after the first quarter in Sunday's 107-100 loss to the Boston Celtics at Staples Center.

While a tribute video played and fans stood on their feet and applauded, Vitti was presented with a framed Lakers jersey that had a purple and gold medical cross instead of a number. The Lakers also gave Vitti two first-class tickets to Italy, where he keeps an offseason home about 90 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's what I am. It doesn't get any better than that."

Before the ceremony began, though, Bryant rose to his feet, a smile on his face, and began applauding. Bryant continued, then raising his hands above his head, still applauding, still smiling, and when Vitti left the floor, the first person he hugged was Bryant. The two shared a long embrace on the sideline, shared a few words, smiled, laughed and Bryant wrapped an arm around Vitti and pulled him close.

"To have had this relationship with him for all these years and to be going out at the same time is pretty sweet," Bryant said.

"To have had this relationship with him for all these years and to be going out at the same time is pretty sweet." Kobe Bryant on the retiring Gary Vitti

Bryant's first introduction to Vitti came through an instructional tape that Bryant watched growing up. In it, Vitti talked about training, physical therapy and more. Then the two started working together during Bryant's first NBA training camp with the Lakers, held 20 years ago in Hawaii.

"So it was pretty cool for me, because he was already a legend in my eyes," Bryant said.

Back then, Vitti comprised the entirety of the Lakers' training staff (it now numbers six) and handled every task, even taking part in conditioning drills with Bryant. The two forged a bond on their first day together.

"We've been close ever since," Bryant said.

The 61-year-old Vitti has watched over the 37-year-old Bryant for two decades, tending to Bryant's oft-injured body, which has led to many memories.

For Bryant, the one that sticks out most came during the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers, when he suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him in Game 3.

Before Game 4 of that series, Bryant said, "I could barely walk and [Vitti is working on] my ankle and all the sudden you just heard this loud 'pop.' We just looked at each other and said, 'OK, this is either really good or really bad.'

"I start walking around and I said, 'Damn! You fixed it. You fixed it!' "

Bryant finished the series, and the Lakers won in six games. It's only one of countless memories the two have made over the years, but their relationship hasn't always been smooth.

"I have also been on the end of his wrath," Vitti wrote in his email to ESPN.

Specifically, Vitti referenced the end of the 2000-01 season, and for reasons he said he doesn't understand to this day, communication between he and Bryant stopped for a time.

"He had a foot/ankle thing going that was not getting better and I think he thought I was not doing enough," Vitti wrote. "If he thinks you are not giving 100 percent, you're in his crosshairs."

That offseason, Bryant lost his grandfather, John Cox, who helped Bryant learn the NBA game by sending him videotapes when Bryant was growing up in Italy, where his father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, continued his professional basketball career.

"We went through the offseason and then 9/11 happens, which really affected him, followed by his grandfather dying [and] all this was right before training camp in Hawaii," Vitti wrote.

Vitti recalled Bryant arriving late because of the funeral, and Vitti left a message for Bryant to visit the training room one morning.

"He shows up and I'm the only one there, this after having not spoken to him all offseason," Vitti wrote. "I expressed my condolences for his grandfather and we hugged it out and have been great ever since. Through his free agency time, I think I was the only one he was speaking to in the organization."

Bryant recalled the specific instance that Vitti referred to and offered some clarity.

"It was just the time in my career where a lot of Shaq s--- was going on and a lot of stories were leaking in the organization," Bryant told ESPN recently. "Private conversations that I would have with Phil [Jackson] would all of the sudden get out. Other conversations that I thought were private within the walls of the training room and the locker room [would get out].

"I was like, 'What the f--- is going on?' All these bad things kept coming out and I was like, 'What the hell is going on around here?' So I just stopped talking. My lips are sealed, my mouth is shut, I'm just going to play the game and just wall everything off. That's what was going on."

Bryant added, "I was still really young. I was just playing basketball. I didn't understand media and sources and all this other stuff. I just had to sit back and observe and figure out what was what."

But, just as Vitti recalled, Bryant said the two reconnected that day in the training room.

"Yeah, I think so, too," Bryant said. "I knew he was there for me. I always knew he had a big heart and I always knew he really cared about his players. Once we had that connection, it was like, 'OK, this is my guy. This is my guy.' "

Vitti's compassion came at a crucial time for Bryant, still mourning the loss of his grandfather.

"I've watched him grow up, and he's watched me grow old." Gary Vitti on his time with Kobe Bryant

"I knew he's been through these things before with players, and players I've admired and looked up to," Bryant said. "For him to be there with me in that situation was very comforting. And Gary is a very comforting guy. He's very emotional. He's extremely emphatic. He has a lot of compassion for others. It made me feel extremely comfortable, and then I went out there and played and the game was always a refuge for me and that certainly helped. It helped a lot."

All along, Vitti has been as close to Bryant as anyone, through good and bad.

"Coming in at 17 years old and being together for 20 years, that's a lot of water under the bridge," Vitti wrote. "We've both had ups and downs in our Laker and personal life."

Vitti is working on a book about his career with the Lakers, titled "32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House."

No doubt, his time with Bryant deserves its own chapter, if not several.

"I've watched him grow up," Vitti wrote, "and he's watched me grow old."