Below is the second part of my Q&A with Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, who offered insight on Julius Randle’s season-ending leg injury and why he initially faulted himself for Randle’s ailment. I detailed Randle’s efforts in those areas as well as his improved dietary habits in the print edition. But below is an expansive transcript of part two of my interview with Vitti earlier this summer at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo.
What do you remember about the night when Julius fractured his tibia in his right leg during the season opener last year?
Vitti: “It was devastating Probably the most devastating moment of my career was when I realized Earvin “Magic” Johnson was tested positive for HIV. That wasn’t breaking your leg. That was a death sentence at the time. Second to that was this, Julius’ broken leg. When I got to the floor, he told me, ‘I broke my leg.’ Then I looked at it and could see the deformity and immediately splinted his leg with my hands and he moved a little bit.
I could feel a little crepitus. I could feel the bones crunching. I looked at him and said, ‘You did break your leg’ I would not let go of it. I splinted the fracture with my hands and called for the doctors and EMT’s that came out with the splints. I did not let go of them until we could get a splint. Just to see the poor kid at 19 years old in his first game of his career was devastating. We went on the road that night [to Phoenix]. It was a surreal experience and I was in a fog. You start thinking, ‘What did I do wrong? What did we do wrong. How did this happen?’ Then you go through that whole sort of thing.
Were there any warning signs that could have contributed to Julius’ injury?
Vitti: “That’s the interesting thing. Julius came in a couple of weeks before and told our assistant trainer that he bumped his leg on the bed post. It was a little sore. He looked at it and didn’t think there was much to it. He then called me and I went in and looked at it. It looked like he had some subperiosteal swelling. The way I explained is when you’re eating ribs, right between the meat and the bone, there is some connective tissue. That looks really smooth. That stuff is on the bone. When you’re eating the ribs, it’s not on the bone. It’s been cooked off. But you can bump that. People bump their shins all the time. You can get your swelling underneath it. It can be pretty tender. It was for a couple of days. So I said, ‘Let’s just keep it an eye on it.’ Plus, he had actually done something and he told us, ‘I bumped it.’ It’s not like he came in and said, ‘My shin hurts.’
We questioned him over the next couple of days. He said, ‘Nah it doesn’t hurt at all anymore.’ So he didn’t have persistent pain. That is what you see with a stress reaction and stress fracture. You see persistent pain. As you run and jump, it hurts more. So you can start practice and you have a level of pain that is a two or a three. But the more you run and jump on it, it goes up.
When you stop running and jumping, it doesn’t hurt as much. These are the tell tale signs. But he didn’t have any of those. He was asymptomatic, to the point where even when he fractured and I’m holding his leg, I didn’t put it together. It was the furthest thing from my mind that this was the leg that he talked about a couple of weeks ago.
Then when we x-rayed him, he realized it. He said to me, ‘I fractured this where the bump was.’ That’s when I really lost it. I was devastated. I went to management and our doctors and said he said something about this a couple of weeks ago and it looked benign and it wasn’t typical. I asked our doctors and I asked Dr. Wiss, who did the surgery (at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.) He said, ‘Sometimes it’s like that.’ A stress reaction is predominately asymptomatic.
So what do you do when you take a 19-year-old kid who doesn’t have any pain and has a stress reaction? Do you stop him and put a rod in his leg? What do you do in that situation? You’ll never know. What happened, happened. Sometimes this is like veterinary medicine. You have a dog or a cat and you know there’s something wrong with him, and the dog or cat can’t tell you. This was that situation. We cannot solely rely on the symptoms and science. You have to really take this slowly. That’s what we’re going to do.”
So Julius’ injury was even more devastating to you than even when Kobe [Bryant] tore his Achilles?
Vitti: “Yeah, I think so in some ways because Kobe’s Achilles was sort of at the end of his career and it could have happened. I don’t think it was predictable. So at the moment that Julius told me in the x-ray room when we saw the fracture, ‘This is where I had that bump,’ I felt that it was my fault. I didn’t feel Kobe’s [injury] was my fault. Everyone has told me it wasn’t my fault. But I have carried that for a while. Even Dr. [Steve] Lombardo [Lakers doctor from Kerlan Jobe Orthopedics] got on me and told me to stop it.
Have you come to grips with it and no longer blame yourself for this?
Vitti: “I’ve come to grips with it. It happened, so there’s nothing I can do about it. I have to come to grips with it. Sometimes maybe you expect more from yourself than other people expect from you. Maybe if I had x-ray eyes or MRI eyes. I should have known something. Somehow I should have known. In my 30-plus years, I should have known. But everybody is telling me there is no way you could have known unless you had x-ray eyes.”
How did Julius stomach this long-term absence and handle his recovery?
Vitti: “He was great. He went through all the stages. There’s depression and anger. ‘Why me, why this?’ I think he got through that very quickly, especially for a young man. I really admire how he handled the whole thing like a real pro, and he was only 19. Once he realized it was what it was and there was nothing he could do about it, he adopted the philosophy that I’m going to do everything right. He changed his diet. He did the things he could do. He concentrated a lot on that, not on what he couldn’t do because of his leg. But what can he do to control his life.
I really admire him the way he handled it like a real pro. The kid never had a chance to play in the NBA. Before he knows it, he’s getting a metal rod stuck in his leg. I don’t think there was ever any doubt the would come back from the injury. He just did everything right. He handled it like a seasoned veteran would.”
Even with him handling everything well, did you ever notice Julius showing frustration with the process?
Vitti: “He never showed me that. He did everything we asked him to do and not do. Well until right now. You saw the communication we had with each other over the minutes. If he needs to be angry at somebody, then it can be me. But this is the right way to handle it. Look at the progression. He was really frustrated after the first Summer League game. Then he was angry and frustrated the second game he played. Then by the third game, he adjusted. He played very well.
To me, that’s a very normal sequence of events. Right off the bat, he realized this is something harder than he thought it would be. The second game that he played, he felt he need more minutes to get into a rhythm. No, you don’t. You have to learn how to do it. Then he was forced to learn and he did. He adapted very well. That says something. It says something about him. Some guys can never adapt. He did. I then told him, ‘I’m proud of you.'”