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Inside NU alum Henry Ward’s experience inside the NBA bubble

Between him and Vic Law, NU practically runs the league at this point.

A basketball court at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.(Tim Reynolds / Associated Press)

Henry Ward, NU class of 2020 and a former basketball writer for Inside NU who helped us break down the emergence of Boo Buie and the peculiar NUMBB offense, spent his summer well, heading down to Orlando to work in the NBA bubble. Our Daniel Olinger chatted with Ward to see what it was like in Disney World.

Inside NU: Can you tell people what you do and why the NBA reached out to you specifically to come down and help in the bubble?

Henry Ward: I played at a D-III school called Grinnell College for one year before transferring to Northwestern, and the the summer I came back from Grinnell, there was an NBA trainer who was working out draft prospects with Wasserman, the agency. He was connected to my friend who I played in high school with, and we got asked if we’d be interested in helping with the pre-draft workouts. We’re both about 6-foot-5, so he wanted us because we’re big enough to jockey with the prospects.

That next summer, the trainer asked me to come back and do it again, and now I’ve been working with him for the past four years, every summer doing player development. I’ve worked my way up the point where I can now occasionally work out some guys on my own. Eventually, he got asked to be a core coach at a Team USA camp for high school prospects, and I came along as support staff and built up some relationships there.

INU: What were you there to do in the bubble?

Ward: I was a part of the basketball operations support staff down in the bubble, staying in the Gran Destino hotel on the Coronado Springs campus.

We got put into groups of eight, and from there groups were assigned to work a game, usually one per day. We would get there three hours before the game, help the equipment managers unpack and set up the locker room. Probably two hours or so before the game, once the locker room is set up, the second bus comes which is usually for the rookies, some of the younger guys, and they are the ones who shoot around first. So we would go and help rebound for them as they shot around with the assistant coaches. Half an hour later, the third bus would get there, and that’s usually when the veterans and stars got to the gym, so we could rebound for them.

Then during the game we were on the mops, and I actually caught a lot of flak for that at one point.

INU: Really? What happened?

Ward: I was working the Heat-Pacers game, and Derrick Jones Jr. was stretchered off [after suffering a neck injury]. The mop chairs are set up behind the hoop, so you can’t really see the opposite wing, so I was sitting on the left block and couldn’t see the right wing, couldn’t see him fall or get hit. I thought they were starting to play, and the guy next to me was running out there to mop, so I went out there to mop too and then we realized Jones was really hurt. But again, I didn’t see how hard he got hit or anything, so I thought he was going to get up in a second to be fine.

I’m just waiting there when the ref came over to me and , ‘Oh, he’s going to get up in a second, you should just mop around him so it’ll be quicker starting up again once he gets up. And now there’s a video of me on Sportcenter’s Instagram mopping around while he laid on the ground like a dead body. Terrible look for me, but obviously, it’s inconsequential in the end.

(Here is the video of Henry’s mopping misfortune. He’s the second mop boy to come onto the floor and, though we only see it for a brief moment, is clearly told to wipe up the area around Jones which he then proceeds to do. Just a rough scene all around)

(Jones did not sustain a serious and injury and returned to play in the bubble for the Miami Heat)

INU: Wow, that’s pretty rough, glad everything turned out okay. But speaking of games you worked, who did you enjoy rebounding for the most?

Ward: Since I’ve worked as a trainer with NBA players the last three or four summers, it’s not as jarring as it used to be. Sometimes you wish the awe was still there, but it’s good because you don’t want to be starstruck or nervous.

But still, the most fun I had rebounding for anyone in the bubble was for Luka, because he’s just a kid. I’m 22 years old. I’m older than him. He looks older because he’s 6-foot-8, has a beard and some tattoos, but he’s just a kid out there.

A lot of veterans have their warm-up routines and are super strict. I remember rebounding for Kawhi, and Kawhi was just as advertised. A lot of players will shoot with some of their friends out there. Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, for example, always shoot before games together. With Kawhi, it’s just him shooting by himself with two assistant coaches and us rebounding, and no one speaks the entire time.

With Luka, he’s running around and shooting half court shots, no structured routine or anything like that. He’s laughing the whole time and it’s just hilarious to me because that 21-year-old is also one of the best players in the world.

INU: I know you didn’t get a ton of time in the bubble to interact with the players, but do you have anything you can tell us about them?

Ward: Guys who get reputations as unpleasant guys from the media are some of the nicest people I’ve met. Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Pat Beverley particularly, were all great guys. The players usually don’t know us, so there’s not a lot of thank you’s or acknowledgements, which is fine of course, they don’t owe us anything. But Lowry always made sure to say please and thank you to us. Jimmy Butler would start small talk with us and after we were done rebounding asked us where we were from. One game, Pat Beverley wasn’t playing because he was injured, but he warmed up after they had gone back to the team meeting, so it was just me and him on the court. He was asked me where I was from, I told him I was from LA and grew up as a Clippers fan, and we had a great conversation about that.

INU: What were some of the most memorable games that you were on the court for?

Ward: I was working the Blazers-Clippers game when Damian Lillard missed the free throws at the end and the Clippers started heckling him from the sideline. I was at the Bucks-Wizards game when Giannis head butted Moritz Wagner and got ejected, and even though I wasn’t working the game when Luka Doncic hit the buzzer beater, I was on the court because I was working the game that was happening right after that one.

But all of those were topped by the “game” between Orlando and Milwaukee when the Bucks decided they weren’t playing.

INU: What happened that night and what was it like being in part of such a monumental moment in sports?

Ward: I was on the Orlando Magic’s side of the court, helping them. Usually teams come out about 20-to-25 minutes before the game, and the Bucks weren’t out there yet but I didn’t think too much of it. Then 15 minutes, 30 minutes passed and it hit me, ‘Oh, they might be going on strike here.’

I walked over to the attendant on the Bucks’ side who knows everyone on that team really well, and he told me that they’re not playing. It was the craziest day of my life. I was in the arena for three whole hours after the Bucks decided they weren’t playing, it was just all so weird.

INU: With all of the playoff games being postponed over the next few days, what did the NBA tell the you guys as the operations support staff? What were their instructions to you?

Ward: We were just kind of hanging out in the hotel together. We understood that there was a very important cultural moment going on right then. Basically they just told us they’d give us more information as soon as they could and that we weren’t working games until further notice.

INU: How did Northwestern help prepare you for what you want to do moving forward in professional basketball?

Ward: It’s a little tricky, because it’s helped me in a multitude of vague, nebulous ways rather than anything specific. When you’re trying to work in basketball, there’s not really a major, even sports management, that you can study in class that prepares you for the work you do in basketball. No one is teaching you about offensive principles in the classroom. I picked that stuff up from professional experiences and being around people in the business.

I was an LOC (Learning and Organizational Change) major, and that’s studying how people work together, and how to function within group and team dynamics. It’s a lot like social psychology. That’s given me a background of analyzing complicated work situations and making the most out of them.

So even if there wasn’t any specific preparation for what I’m hoping to do now, going to Northwestern did help me on a grander scale, knowing what I need to do for something as important as this.

Some more pictures of our man Henry on the job, during times when he did not have to mop around an injured 6-foot-7 human being.