Bob (Chopper) Travaglini used to cook spaghetti with his parents in a south New Jersey restaurant. One day, after what seemed to be his millionth order of spaghetti, he started a semipro football team, and for the last 23 of his 47 years he has been treating bruises, taping ankles and soothing egos. For the past six years he has been doing this, and many other things, for the NBA Denver Nuggets. Before that he worked for the Virginia Squires and Washington Caps of the ABA and knocked around in some minor league football bushes that the late Euell Gibbons could not have identified.
So this particular time, see—Travaglini is telling the story over cocktails late one night after a Nuggets game—one of Chopper's guys was doubled up on the ground, and he ran out with his bag. Only it wasn't the basketball season; Chopper was filling in as trainer for the Denver Stars of something called Major League Rodeo.
"Being from South Jersey, I'm unfamiliar with bulls and horses and things," says Chopper. "So I'm out there running across the dirt, and I hear somebody holler, 'Chopper, look out!' And I turn around," and not five feet away is a 2,000-pound piece of meat that wants to do nothing but kill me. So I throw the bag down and take off—thank goodness I had sneaks on—and climbed over the rail. So I learned a lesson. From then on I always look around before I run out. I don't care if it is basketball. There are big, angry guys running loose out there sometimes, too."
The most hazardous duty for a pro basketball trainer, of course, usually comes after hours on the road when he is chasing down a fun-loving player who has forgotten the location of his hotel. That is a big part of the job. As is consoling lonely rookies and endangered coaches, bribing airline agents and bus drivers, making nonexistent hotel rooms appear, washing uniforms, leaving wake-up calls and finding ways to get to games through weather that stops the U.S. mail. The trainer also does the things trainers are expected to do according to their job descriptions, like treat minor injuries, supervise rehabilitation programs for players who have suffered major ones, tape ankles and administer smelling salts. But, says Golden State's Dick D'Oliva, "That is only 25% of our job."
December 17, 1979
All but the two wealthiest NBA teams—New York and Los Angeles—require their trainers to act as traveling secretaries and equipment men on the road as well. "I'm a travel agent, laundress, mother, father, brother, shrink, banker and lawyer," says D'Oliva, who also has had to bail out more than one Warrior from jail. The trainer is generally one other thing, too—a court jester.
"You have to be a funny guy in this job," says Al Domenico, 51, now in his 17th year with the Philadelphia 76ers. "If you don't keep everyone up, get their minds off the bad games and the travel, throw things at them when they're getting on the bus at seven in the morning so they can laugh, then you're not worth a damn." It should be noted that in a recent article about the most important people in Philadelphia sports, Philadelphia magazine named Domenico, not Julius Erving or General Manager Pat Williams, as the most important person on the 76er roster, which says something about pro basketball trainers. For all their value, however, not one of them earns $30,000 per year, which is what the league's lowest-paid player draws.
D'Oliva and the Phoenix Suns' Joe Proski, 40, whose father was an assistant trainer, among other things, for the Green Bay Packers for 40 years, did time in baseball's rankest minor leagues, driving buses, catching batting practice, raking pitchers' mounds and sleeping in two-bit motel rooms. The Lakers' Jack Curran, 45, was a truck driver until he got his first trainer job with the Pensacola Dons of Class D baseball. Later he hooked up with the New Haven Blades, a team in the Eastern Hockey League.
"First thing they wanted to know was 'Can you sharpen skates?' " says Curran. "The second thing was 'Can you be the backup goaltender?' I said, 'Heck, yes.' Anything for a job, right? So every day I'd put on the pads and be a target in practice. Then on Thanksgiving night, 1959, against the Clinton Comets, one of our players skated across Normie DeFelice's arm. So I finished the game as their goalie. Clinton's winning 3-2 when I go in and I give up five goals to my own team. Ha! We win.... I mean New Haven wins, 7-3."
For his part, Domenico worked the Roller Derby, "which was really fun," he says. "They used to decide who would win before each game, but they really needed a trainer because they would go out and beat the hell out of each other. That sport had the one injury a trainer could really do nothing for—pulled-out hair. We had a lot of that."
Chopper Travaglini's early years were spent with some of the fabled roughneck football teams from the South Jersey-Philadelphia area, outfits like the Jersey Jays and Pottstown Firebirds. Things are so tough down there that Travaglini once tore ligaments in his elbows while taping ankles. "We had some tough tape," he says. "It was tough to get it off the roll. Then the guys would make me pull it so tight, I tore ligaments. I had 40 guys to tape one day, and they were in a bad pre-game mood. So I injected myself with novocaine so I could finish the job."
Of course, having been hurt himself makes it easier for a trainer to identify with an injured player. Last summer Travaglini was filling in for the baseball Denver Bears of the American Association. Enjoying the pace of the game, which is much easier on a trainer than basketball or rodeo, Chopper took a seat one sunny day in the stands. "I've got the best hands in the world," he was bragging to folks around him, "but in 30 years of going to baseball games I've never caught a foul ball." Sure enough, a perfectly catchable pop-up appeared instantly—and broke Chopper's little finger in two places.
The most common basketball injuries are to the feet, ankles and knees. But trainers often are called upon to diagnose other ailments. D'Oliva once rushed to the aid of Center Dale Schleuter, who seemed to be convulsing during a Warriors game at San Francisco's Cow Palace. Schleuter couldn't tell D'Oliva what was wrong, and there were some anxious moments before he finally coughed up a huge horsefly that had come to the Cow Palace for the Grand National Rodeo and Livestock Exhibition, then playing in the building.
Proski remembers being scared to death when Connie Hawkins crumpled to the floor during a Sunday afternoon game in Los Angeles. "Hawk! what is it? Are you O.K.?" Proski panted. "Hell, yeah," said Hawkins. "But all those folks back in Green Bay are just eating their hearts out seeing you live on national TV!"
Then there was the time Proski received a call from the Phoenix Suns' doctor, Paul Steingard, who told him that Stretch Howard, a seldom-used rookie, had broken his thumb during a game the previous night. "But that's impossible," said Proski. "Stretch didn't play." "I know," said Steingard, "but he got excited and sat on his thumb."
Last season Darryl Dawkins frequently complained to Domenico of a sore right shoulder. Domenico applied ultrasound and plunged Dawkins into the whirlpool, but the soreness kept coming back. Both player and trainer were mystified until Domenico saw Dawkins walking through an airport with his 40-pound cassette machine slung by a strap over his right shoulder. Domenico suggested he alternate shoulders, and the problem went away.
Domenico is the prince of practical jokers on the 76ers. When management got rid of several players last season, Domenico would cut each man's face out of the previous year's team picture. Understandably, the surviving players were on edge. One night the locker-room telephone rang as they were getting into uniform. "Wait a minute," Domenico yelled, putting his hand over the receiver. "Don't anyone get undressed yet." And for several minutes the players froze, watching him mumble into the phone. Sixers Coach Billy Cunningham also has learned to be wary of Domenico. During a game last season in Kansas City, Domenico yelled one of the "magic words" at a referee. "Who said that?" asked the ref. "He did," said Domenico. Cunningham got a technical foul and the $75 fine that goes with it.
At Golden State, D'Oliva had Jim Barnett, who was known to crawl along hotel ledges foraging for beer or food that players would leave on their windowsills. On one cold night in New York, Barnett gave his new rabbit coat to a wandering drunk. Stuck in a traffic jam on the way to a game on another night, Barnett abandoned his car and ran across the Bay Bridge. When he later played for the Knicks, Barnett literally ransacked the locker room, swearing a blue streak while looking for his Bible.
In the early years of the Suns, Center Neal Walk was on an iron-man streak, having started 228 consecutive games for Phoenix. At game time one night, Walk was nowhere to be found. Out on the court with the other players, Cotton Fitzsimmons, then the Suns' coach, was furious, and Proski was mystified. Finally Proski sent a ball boy into the locker room, and he found Walk. Proski had accidentally locked him in there.
Plenty of players have lost or forgotten all or parts of their uniforms while on the road, and this too is a problem for trainers. When he was a rookie, Coniel Norman of the 76ers showed up for a game in Portland without his uniform. Domenico told him it was no big deal; Portland was so strong he had no chance of getting into the game. Domenico told Norman just to put on an athletic supporter under his warmups. Then he told Coach Gene Shue about it, and Shue ended his pre-game meeting by telling the panic-stricken Norman, "You be ready, Coniel, because you'll be the first man off the bench tonight."
Domenico was party to a particularly dirty trick a few years back when the 76ers were making connections in Pittsburgh. Rookie Steve Courtin fell asleep during a card game, and the rest of the group took all his money and his shoes, boarded the plane and left him stranded.
More than once Proski had to dash back to the hotel to find Hawkins' sneakers, and once in Rochester, Domenico had to scour the stands to find a kid with a pair of size 12½ for Cunningham. In an exhibition game in Nova Scotia last year, Marvin Barnes, then with the Celtics, forgot one shoe. Trainer Frankie Challant found him another, and Marvin played in a green and a black shoe.
Travel seems to bring out the best—or worst—in trainers.
They tell many a hair-raising story about flights through stormy skies with notoriously bad travelers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar always wrapped himself in a blanket like a giant mummy. Curran, when he was with the Seattle SuperSonics, couldn't get Tom Meschery aboard one of the first 747s because Meschery was sure it would never fly. On a Knicks charter to Houston, Ray Williams became so frantic during a thunderstorm that he ran up the aisle and began pounding on the cockpit door. Trainer Danny Whelan had to hold Williams on his lap. When Travaglini thought he was going down in a plane with the Tidewater Tides, a New York Mets farm team, he bit Pitcher Jim Bibby on the shoulder.
"People who fly three or four times a year, for them it's a million-to-one shot," says Chopper. "Me, I figure I'm in the eight-to-five category."
NBA trainers are a fearless and dedicated lot. They might mess up now and then, as Travaglini did the other week when he had all the Nuggets arrive for a 10:25 a.m. flight only to learn that the flight wasn't scheduled to depart until 11:30. An extra hour in the sack is precious to professional basketball players.
But then there are times like the night in Pittsburgh a few years ago when Chopper's Virginia Squires risked their lives to get to the airport in a snowstorm to make the last plane to New York. When they got to the gate, the plane was taxiing down the runway. Chopper ran through the driving snow, got in front of the 727 and frantically waved his arms. The pilot stopped the plane and opened the door. "You're not leaving without us," Chopper said. And 15 Virginia Squires players and coaches made tracks for the plane, and loaded up the aisle with their luggage and equipment. The Squires got to New York for the game—which was snowed out.