A Man Called "Chopper"
By Leo Hirsch
There he was, standing on the runway of the Pittsburgh airport trying to flag a plane down (not a cab, a plane). What's a nice trainer doing in a place like this? Well, if you knew the subject in question was Bob Travaglini, you'd know there would be a good explanation.
"We (Washington Caps) were in the middle of a 23-day road trip and were booked on the last night flight out of Pittsburgh. Our game was running a little late and there were ten inches of snow on the ground. So I called our PR director and asked him to call the airline and have our plane held about 20 minutes after it was supposed to take off."
"Well, the game ended all right and we got to the airport at the original departure time, so I figured we had 20 minutes to spare. But I look out and the plane's starting to take off. I gave my bags to Frank Card and ran out on the runway, right in front of the plane, waving my hands like mad. I'm sure the pilot thought I was crazy, but he stopped the plane. And we got out of Pittsburgh that night. It turned out the PR guy never made the call."
The man called "Chopper" has been doing things like this, and gaining a reputation as one of the genuine characters in pro sports, since 1969.
Obviously, the man is not your ordinary trainer, one of those robotized guys in white shirt, white pants, white shoes and a medical school vocabulary. "The great thing about Chopper is that not only does he know injuries, but he's almost like a player. You can get mad at him, he'll get mad at you. I'll tell you this -- he loves the players and that's genuine. He was a big part of the team at Virginia," says George Irvine, who played on Travaglini-trained teams with the Caps and Squires for six years.
"Whenever we were in trouble of any kind, we'd have a meeting in his room. He's just a great personality. If a guy gets hurt, he'll stay up all night with him, watch over him and make sure he's comfortable. Some other guys might just give you a pill and see you in the morning," observed the injured sharpshooter.
As you might expect, Chopper didn't enter the training field in the orthodox manner. "It's really funny how I got into this. I had been involved in the restaurant business and then I started a semi-pro football team, the Pennsgrove Blue Raiders in New Jersey. At the time, though, I never really thought of training; I didn't even know what tape was back then.
"But around 1954 I got involved with Little League baseball and a doctor saw me taping some ankles and told me I did a good job. After that it hit me that I wasn't going anywhere in the restaurant business. So I got involved with the local high schools.The school doctor there was very helpful, showed me some very useful things.
"I found I had a knack for it. A few years later I went to buy some bats and the guy asked me if I'd like to work with the Philadelphia Bulldogs, a very good minor league football team. I went with them and then I got involved with the Eagles. I'd tape the incoming team when they came to Philly. But I just couldn't get a good shot at a fulltime position. I knew I knew my job, and it was frustrating.
"After the Firebirds I was with the Jersey Jays and then a short time with the Cleveland Browns. This was 1968 and I told myself, 'if you don't get a shot now, go back to the restaurant business.' Then I got a break.
"Al Domenico of the 76ers was a close friend, and I got a call from him that (Al) Bianchi needed a trainer with the Washington Caps."
Chopper (at left, restraining a furious Rick Barry) spent seven years with the team, moving to Virginia after the first season in D.C. Through good times and bad, he was there ministering to his players and keeping things on an even keel. The 1975-76 season, though, required the patience of Job. The Squires almost dissolved several times, went through three coaches and countless deadlines, but somehow completed the season in one piece. Much of the credit for that belongs to him.
"It was so bad you wouldn't believe it. Some of the problems were just impossible. But I had so much respect for the players and I could see I was the only one who could do anything. So I took the bull by the horns and tried to keep things together. The players were great, they stuck by their guns and did whatever they had to to keep the team going.
"We never got paid on time, sometimes not at all. We never knew if we had airline tickets for the next trip, we didn't have enough equipment, we were continually lied to, we didn't have a coach several times during the season, the players often didn't get their per diem (expenses). I used my own money to help out and they still owe me $6000.
He also has "never met a player I didn't like. There just haven't been any bad kids." And the feeling is mutual. "He's a genuine human being and he has the biggest heart I've ever seen. Most definitely, he's unique. I haven't run across anyone like him in my short lifetime," noted Willie Wise, another survivor of the 1975-76 Virginia fiasco. "He's really more of a player than trainer. He lives and dies with the individuals on the team."
"And he's got a story for everything. He can keep you attentive for hours on end. He's always awake and you can always go to him for anything. I remember the all-night card games and he wouldn't sleep for 24-36 hours. He doesn't take a back seat to anyone as a trainer, either."
Irvine concurs. "He was one of the first to diagnose one of my injuries correctly in 1975. He doesn't go past what he knows. Is he ever without a story? I'd say only when he's sleeping. You've got to love him."
Everyone around the ABA has their favorite Chopper stories. Here is a brief sample. "One time he got caught speeding by a cop and Chop told him that he had a fortune in money on him and that some guy had been following him to rob him. The cop let him go," recalled Irvine. "Another time, he and Al (Bianchi) were yelling at each other face-to-face when Chopper used his lighter on a cigarette. The flame shot up and burned his nose."
Then there was the time he sold penny gum to a Russian youngster for $1.50 a piece. "Russia's a tight organization, you know, but there are some small hustlers. I took some gum over to give the kids (on a basketball tour) but this one kid offered to buy it. I knew he was an operator when he agreed to pay that kind of money. Then the Russian authorities tried to hold us up for $1500 in excess baggage fees to fly our bags to Finland. I made such a scene they must have been worried about US-Russian relations. We didn't have to pay."
Oh, yes; about that nickname, the origin of which is unprintable. "I'm used to it by now," he says. And it's a good thing. Nobody calls him anything else.
When you say Chopper, you've said it all.