Los Angeles Lakers: Michael Cooper

"Listen, I can't tell you what's going on. Just be there. This is gonna change all of our lives."

These were the words of Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti as he instructed members of the 1992 Lakers to attend a mandatory meeting at the Forum on November 7, 1991. Among a select few sworn to secrecy, Vitti couldn't reveal the reason: Magic Johnson needed to tell his teammates about testing HIV-positive. Shortly after, Johnson would tell the world.

Mike Powell/Getty Images
Vitti and Johnson go back a long time in their working and professional relationship.



The day did change lives, and well beyond those in the Laker family.

With Monday marking the 20th anniversary of Magic's unforgettable press conference, I met with Vitti at the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo for his thoughts on the day and its significance. The two have been close friends since 1984 and despite having talked about this period countless times, Vitti still gets choked up reliving it. The details and emotions shared make this podKast truly worth a listen.

You can hear the entire show here, and below is a breakdown of talking points:

(:08) - Vitti's and Johnson's relationship was initially distant, then a bit contentious after the trainer felt the point guard gave him a "snotty answer" to a question. Johnson quickly explained via a smile and a bear he was only kidding around. "That was the moment we bonded," explained Vitti of a friendship now grown exceptionally strong.

(3:13) - Vitti actually figured out Magic contracted the HIV virus before being formally told. The Lakers were in Utah for an exhibition game against the Jazz, and Magic, who'd been experiencing fatigue, was told he urgently needed to return to L.A., no questions asked. Everybody was in the dark and the mystery ate at Vitti. "I just couldn't let it go," says the trainer of the undisclosed issue. "All of a sudden Magic has to go home. It can't be good, right?"

After wracking his brain for days, he suddenly remembered during a game against the Jazz that Magic had taken a physical for a life insurance policy. The light bulb went off, and keeping it together while on the job was a nightmare task.

"That game, Tony Smith, was a second year guard," recalls Vitti. He was having a great training camp and he severely sprained his ankle. Third degree ankle sprain. And he's laying on the table in the training room at the Delta Center and he's very, very upset. He's in tears. And I grab him by the shirt and I say, 'What are you crying about? Because the injury hurts? Or are you crying because you're depressed?' And he just sort of shakes his head. And I said, 'Well, you're gonna get better. You're gonna get better. Some people aren't.'

"No idea what I'm talking about. He looks at me like I've got three heads."

In many ways, however, knowing was just as bad as not knowing. Vitti could tell nobody -- even his wife -- which meant lying to the faces of people like then-head coach Mike Dunleavy about Magic having the flu. Thus, he often had to carry this emotional weight alone.

"We thought it was a death sentence," admits Vitti. "At some point, I'm gonna lose one of my close friends. And not just lose him, but he's gonna whither away in a horrible death."

-(10:15) Thankfully, Magic was around to talk Vitti off the ledge. Crazy as it sounds, that's essentially what happened when the two finally discussed Johnson's diagnosis. Vitti was "a wreck" and Magic remained positive, promising his friend he'd be just fine.

"I don't want you to worry about me," Johnson told Vitti. "When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person. I'm gonna do something really good with this. I'm gonna beat this."

Vitti collected himself enough to pledge unwavering support.

"I said, 'I'm with you all the way. To the end. Whatever it takes. If I have to leave the Lakers or whatever you need me for, I'm your guy.' "

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PodKast: Michael Cooper on Magic, Bird, socks, USC hoops, and more

August, 31, 2011
8/31/11
1:43
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
Tuesday afternoon, I was fortunate to spend some time talking with Lakers great Michael Cooper, an integral part of five championships with the Showtime Lakers, and now coach of the women's basketball team at USC. Long and lean-- very, very lean-- Cooper was nonetheless a fierce competitor, earning All-Defensive Team honors eight times, and the DOPY Award in 1987. Larry Bird called him the toughest defender he ever faced. Praise doesn't come much higher.

PODCAST
Brian welcomes Lakers legend Michael Cooper, now head coach of the USC women's hoops squad. Coop talks about defending Larry Bird, the best of his five title teams, Magic's influence beyond the NBA, and why he wore his socks so high.

Podcast Listen
Over the course of about 30 minutes, we had a chance to touch on a wide range of subjects, from where he developed his intensity to the magic of Magic, both on and off the court. Among the highlights:

*Why he developed such a strong defensive mindset in L.A.: "You had to find a niche [with the Lakers]. When I met coach [Jack] McKinney, he said, "Coop, we need a player who is going to play some defense. We need a lock down defender at the 1,2, and 3 positions. That was kind of my calling card. I reverted back to all my fundamentals, and my aggressiveness as far as defense goes ... This was my niche to make it on the Lakers team. Everyone likes to score, but I felt that it was how I was going to be able to not only make that team, but stick around. And lo and behold, that worked out well for me."

Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images
Larry Bird called Michael Cooper the toughest defender he ever faced.



*On defending Larry Bird: "I used to study games of his. It would be a month before we would play the Celtics, but I was getting ready for him. Watching him play. What did he do on out of bounds passes? What did he do going around picks? ... Larry was naturally born left-handed, and taught himself how to shoot right handed. He was very ambidextrous so you couldn't force him one way or the other, because he was just as good going to his left as he was to his right. The only tendencies I had [available from film] to pick up with him was how he came off of picks. How he set you up to come off a pick."

*Best of the five title teams on which he played: I thought our '84 team was very good, even though we came up short [against Boston in the Finals]. We had all the necessary parts to win a championship. Of the championships that we won, I'd have to say our '85 championship was about as good as we were going to get. Everybody was hitting on all cylinders. James Worthy was was just coming into being the type of player he'd eventually become, a Hall of Famer. That team had it all. We had a bench, we could play defense, we could run, we could rebound with you. We could get big, and even became "Riley's Runts," because we could get small. That '85 team was probably our best team, per player, and the camaraderie and the chemistry was very good.

*Coop explained the challenge of not just beating Boston, but overcoming the mystique they had in big moments.

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