LOS ANGELES -- Gary Vitti eased his way into a hat store in Cleveland on a recent Lakers trip in search of a lid for his bald head, when the door quickly opened and a man burst in.
"Hey, you're Gary Vitti, the Lakers' trainer," the man blurted out. "You're the man! You're more important than the coach."
Vitti rubbed his head and laughed at what he had just heard. "No, man," Vitti said, smiling, "no way."
When this story was shared with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, he cracked a smile and laughed.
For 26 seasons Vitti has been the Lakers' trainer, dating to the Magic Johnson "Showtime" era. And seven championships later, there is no downplaying the significant role he has played in the team's success.
Vitti, 55, is responsible for the care of the Lakers' prized multimillion-dollar assets, the one who treats their players and keeps them fit.
"It's obvious that I think trainers are a major part of the scene," Jackson said. "We have a really good staff. I'm not going to lay it all on Gary, because I think Gary recognizes that everybody has their expertise."
Vitti agrees, saying his entire staff plays a role in keeping the Lakers fit, including assistant trainer Marco Nunez, athletic performance director Chip Schaefer, athletic performance coordinator Alex McKechine, massage therapist Marko Yrjovuori and equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas.
"When a player gets hurts or sick, the first thing he does is come to me. Then I decide what we're going to do," Vitti said.
"We all do things differently, and some people do some things better than others. And some athletes gravitate to one trainer more than another."
Vitti figures he and his staff work 320 days a year -- seven days a week during the season, five days a week in the summer. Then they get about three weeks of vacation before it all starts again during fall training camp.
A routine day for Vitti begins right after he wakes up and turns on his computer at his Manhattan Beach, Calif., home. He checks e-mails and makes contact with the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association, plus the team's doctors.
If the players are scheduled to arrive at the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo, Calif., at 10:30 a.m. for an 11 a.m. practice, Vitti and his staff arrive about 9 a.m. They make plans for the day and on which players need therapy.
When the Lakers arrive, the training staff stretches and warms up the players.
During practice, Vitti is back on his computer documenting therapy reports, talking to Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak about injured players and getting ready for post-practice therapy.
Vitti also handles the Lakers' travel arrangements, making sure their chartered flights and hotels are booked and that they have practice sites on the road.
"I go home and hope the phone doesn't ring, but it does. It rings a lot," Vitti said, laughing.
"The bottom line is that I run a wellness clinic here for the players. It doesn't make a difference what is wrong with them, whether it's an orthopedic injury, whether it's some sort of internal medicine issue, they come to me first."
Kobe Bryant has been under Vitti's care since he was 17.
Bryant told the story about how he sprained his ankle in Game 2 of the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers. He missed Game 3, but Vitti got him ready to play in Game 4.
"I sprained my ankle really, really bad, we were up all night long working on that thing," Bryant recalled. "The next day at the shoot-around, he was working on my ankle, and all of a sudden my ankle was like, 'pop, pop.' And we looked at each other and we knew that I would be able to play. So, yeah, we have a great relationship."
Vitti tries to have that same relationship with management, coaches and the players.
"Of course, management, they want to know everything," Vitti said. "And, of course, the players want to know everything that management is thinking. So it's sort of a slippery slope. All the sides have to trust you."
Getting recognized by that fan in Cleveland is commonplace for Vitti.
After all, he sits next to Jackson on the Lakers bench and, during the 1980s, he did the same with Pat Riley. During a game, the camera often finds Vitti.
"I've been in Italy and Americans walk up to me and say, 'I know exactly who you are,' " Vitti said. "It's amazing, because I'm not famous. Kobe is famous. He has facial recognition anywhere he goes. He can't walk down the street. ...
"I always say to people, 'If you know who I am, you are real Lakers fans.' But this is not about me. It's more about the Lakers."