Robert "Chip" Schaefer isn't exactly a household name in Salt Lake City. At the University of Utah, where he graduated in 1983, no one compares his professional success to the likes of such basketball greats as Arnie Ferrin, Jerry Chambers, Danny Vranes or Keith Van Horn.
But the slender 37-year-old with the delicate touch has more NBA championship rings than all alums of his school combined. As an integral part of the Chicago Bulls, Schaefer has already earned five pieces of jewelry. He can make it six should Chicago go on to defeat the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.That's plenty.
"It's been a thrill. I'll always treasure the eight years here," said Schaefer, who has announced he is stepping down as Chicago's athletic trainer at season's end. "I think it's time to move on."
And time, he says, to spend more time at home. Schaefer and his wife, Andra, who is a former Ute gymnast, have two children - an 11-year-old son and a daughter who is 9.
"This is a very hectic lifestyle," Schaefer said of his time in the NBA. "It's been really rewarding, but it's been a grind none the less."
Tending to the needs of superstars like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen will do that to a guy. And one could only imagine what a working relationship with Dennis Rodman would be like.
"Growing up in Chicago as a Bulls fan, I would agree this has been a dream job," said Schaefer, who plans to relocate closer to his wife's family in Orange County, Calif. "But I get badgered a lot. I get calls all the time from people that need tickets or something signed. That's probably the downside of it - how my phone rings for favors. That's kind of a drag."
Not enough, however, to outweigh the rewards of working alongside Jordan, Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson. Schaefer refers to the experience as a privilege. After earning his undergraduate degree in physical education and sports medicine from Utah, Schaefer went to work with the U.S. Ski Team in Park City before becoming the head trainer at Loyola Marymount University, where he picked up a master's degree in counseling. A few months later, Schaefer found himself working for the Bulls. And his Utah connections had a lot to do with it.
Schaefer credits Lakers trainer Gary Vitti for helping him get the Chicago job. The two worked together for one season in Los Angeles (1986-87) but share even more in common. Each developed his skills under Bill Bean at the University of Utah. Atlanta Hawks trainer Chris Tucker is also a product of the system.
"Of the 29 teams, Bill's got three people in the NBA. That's kind of a nice thing for him," Schaefer said. "That reflects him. He's a great mentor."
Schaefer made his way up the hill, where his sister works at the nearby medical library, for a visit when the Bulls were in Salt Lake City for the first two games of the NBA Finals. Bean said the two talked for quite a while.
"He remains so professional about what he does," said Bean, who acknowledged that having Schaefer on the Chicago sideline makes his loyalties in the NBA Finals a little more difficult to direct.
Jazz basketball operations chief Scott Layden, who has known Schaefer through his involvement in Bean's program, wishes "we could meet like this every year." The two have become friends over the years.
"If you could get to the players, I'm sure they'd say he's an excellent trainer," Layden said. "I have only heard excellent things about him."
It's no accident, he added, that Schaefer and Utah trainer Mike Shimensky have teams in the NBA Finals.
"Those two guys are at the top of their profession," Layden said.
Thus, Schaefer's impending departure is all the more intriguing. The Chicago media has speculated it has something to do with the Bulls' plans to dump Jackson and the current coaching staff at season's end. One report says Iowa State's Tim Floyd will take over and wants to bring in a trainer of his choice. Schaefer calls such talk bizarre, strange and exhausting.
"This whole thing has become bigger than life. I think it's really weighed on me," he said. "I'm tired. I can't tell you I'm not tired. It's been eight years, and I'm tired."
Though he hasn't completely dismissed the possibility of one day returning to the NBA, Schaefer is content to try something else for a while.
"I've got a few irons in the fire. We'll just have to see what's the most promising," he said. "I may go back and work at a clinic again and coach my kids' Little League teams or something like that. That would be nice."
Layden, who is also raising a young family, wasn't surprised to hear it.
"Think about the jobs he's had. He's a very humble and modest guy," Layden said. "He's the same guy he's always been, which is refreshing."
Schaefer isn't the only Utah-educated member of the Bulls staff. Al Vermeil, who is the team's strength and conditioning consultant, is a former Utah State University football player. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1968 and has since worked with several athletic programs, including the 1982 Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. Vermeil was hired by the Bulls three years later.