Why this Tom Izzo equipment manager was the last man standing in the NBA bubble

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·13 min read

Hats were passed out, T-shirts pulled on. Champagne corks popped.

Andrew Henk was in the middle of it all, cradling the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.

As LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrated their NBA title earlier this month in Orlando, it was hard to miss Henk. The 29-year-old from Shelby Twp., in his first year as equipment manager, was handing out the championship gear on the court when the Lakers beat the Miami Heat on Oct. 11.

Equipment manager Andrew Henk holds the Larry O'Brien Trophy outside the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room in Orlando. The 29-year-old from Shelby Township was a team manager for Michigan State basketball and an assistant equipment manager with the PIstons before taking over his new job this season.
Equipment manager Andrew Henk holds the Larry O'Brien Trophy outside the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room in Orlando. The 29-year-old from Shelby Township was a team manager for Michigan State basketball and an assistant equipment manager with the PIstons before taking over his new job this season.

It was the culmination of a rapid journey from aspiring sportswriter to Michigan State basketball team manager to Detroit Pistons assistant equipment manager.

And soon, owner of an NBA championship ring himself.

“I'm extremely blessed to be a part of championship team my first year,” Henk told the Free Press by phone last week after he returned to Los Angeles. “A lot of equipment managers around the league, they work with their teams for years. They might have not won a title or never even been to the Finals or finally got there to the Finals or won the championship 20 years in. … You just never know when that opportunity is gonna come again. So I definitely didn't take that moment for granted. It was a definitely a special night.”

Learning curve

You can say the Lakers wouldn’t have gotten to where they did this season without Henk.

The NBA became the first league, college or pro, to shut games down in early March after a few players contracted the coronavirus. Teams were pulled off the court March 11, and the season was in limbo for months.

Equipment manager Andrew Henk helps load items into the Los Angeles Lakers' team bus in Orlando. The former Michigan State team manager and Pistons' assistant equipment manager finished his first year with the NBA champion Lakers.
Equipment manager Andrew Henk helps load items into the Los Angeles Lakers' team bus in Orlando. The former Michigan State team manager and Pistons' assistant equipment manager finished his first year with the NBA champion Lakers.

In June, teams reconvened to begin working out in preparation for what would become known as “the bubble,” hosted at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at the Walt Disney World Resort. The first players began arriving at the complex July 7.

Henk arrived July 9. Normal road trips would be one to six games, maybe two weeks in duration. “Nothing like this,” he said.

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He wouldn't leave until Oct. 13, 96 days in all. And he was in charge of making sure everything the team needed went from Staples Center in L.A. to Orlando. Essentially planning for a four-month stay, yet not knowing whether it would even last a week.

“Usually, our assistant equipment manager also comes on the road everywhere with me. Because the NBA brought the staff numbers of each travel party down, he couldn't go,” Henk said. “So it was just me out there handling all the equipment. Just the preparation going into this of packing everything: How many different uniform sets are we going to wear, how many shoes are we gonna need to bring out for this type of trip, how much extra gear are we gonna need? It was really, really tough to kind of wrap my head around that.”

Boxes of basketball shoes for the Los Angeles Lakers are stacked inside a hotel room bathroom in Orlando. Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk is the Lakers' equipment manager.
Boxes of basketball shoes for the Los Angeles Lakers are stacked inside a hotel room bathroom in Orlando. Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk is the Lakers' equipment manager.

Once Henk had everything inside the facility, the next challenge was: Where to put it all. Storage space was at a premium, particularly because the Lakers and other teams put an emphasis on making room for its medical staff, leaving Henk to improvise for all the boxes of uniforms, practice gear, shoes, socks and other gear.

“We had one bedroom for equipment,” he said. “I was using my own bedroom to store stuff, I was using the ice room on the floor, I was using secret rooms that I just found, just to store boxes and bags, the hallway had bags. I just had stuff everywhere. It was, at times, just a cluster keeping things organized, but we made it work the best I could.”

All before a single game in the NBA’s experiment even was played.

'Nonstop grind'

To get to that point, a number of health and safety protocols were put in place for the limited amount of people who were let into the bubble. That included daily screenings for COVID-19, temperature checks and wearing masks.

It took a while, but Henk said it became routine to everyone there.

“We were there for so long and finally got adjusted to it,” he said. “You got adjusted to always having your mask on and always carrying your credential around with you. Everyone had a magic band on their wrist that was your room key and also your check-in point to make sure that you took your temperature that day and whatnot. You had to get tested every single day, so it almost felt like, at times, we were just robots, just kind of going through the the daily checklist of what we had to do.”

The rows of washing machines Lakers team manager Andrew Henk had to use to get the team's uniforms and practice gear clean inside the NBA bubble.
The rows of washing machines Lakers team manager Andrew Henk had to use to get the team's uniforms and practice gear clean inside the NBA bubble.

Henk’s checklist was voluminous, his days long, his sleep time minimal. He had to deal with players’ needs before practices and shootarounds. He would help rebound and pass for guys getting up shots. After, he would take all of their gear and head to a makeshift laundry center with 60-plus machines, keeping clothes separated for each player by tying them in a bag and throwing them into their own washer.

Rise, repeat. Day after day. No time for golf, like Frank Vogel and the coaching staff. Little time to visit the open-air restaurant or play video games like the players.

“I had people reaching out to me while I was out there the whole time, like, ‘Man, you're living the dream. That's awesome.’ ” Henk said. “That's true, but it's not all fun and games. It was a nonstop grind every single day.”

All things that working two seasons for Tom Izzo and the Spartans prepared him for.

From MSU to NBA

Henk started at MSU in 2010. A former captain of Utica Eisenhower's basketball team, he knew he wanted to remain involved in sports. Though his 5-foot-8, 155-pound frame wasn’t exactly an NBA-ready body.

Twice he applied to be a student manager for Izzo’s men’s basketball team. Twice he was denied, both his freshman and sophomore years. Henk helped with East Lansing High’s basketball team. A journalism major, he also dabbled in sports writing for a few publications, including the Lansing State Journal for four months in 2012. That was when his future changed — the third time was a charm — and he finally became a team manager for the Spartans.

“It's been a very interesting journey,” said Henk, who held the role for two seasons and graduated in 2014. “(Being a student manager) was something that I really wanted to do. And I knew that if I got it, I would work real hard and make a lot of contacts and hopefully it would help me in my career.”

It did.

Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk, middle, gives coach Tom Izzo some Lakers gear and Kobe Bryant shoes by Nike in February as assistant Mike Garland watches. Henk, the equipment manager for the Lakers, visited Michigan over the NBA All-Star break.
Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk, middle, gives coach Tom Izzo some Lakers gear and Kobe Bryant shoes by Nike in February as assistant Mike Garland watches. Henk, the equipment manager for the Lakers, visited Michigan over the NBA All-Star break.

Henk — who earned his master’s in sports administration — stayed in East Lansing for 18 months with the Spartan Fund, then took a job in ticket sales with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Henk longed for something more, however. So he called Dylan Marinez, then MSU’s football equipment manager, and asked to job shadow him. He did that for nearly six months until the contacts he had built landed him his first stepping stone position.

“It was during that time where I told everybody 'Hey, this is something I really want to pursue. If you ever hear anything that's open, whatever it is, let me know.' Lo and behold in the fall of 2017," Henk said, "there was an internship open with the Pistons' equipment.”

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After eight months as an intern, Henk got hired full-time by the Pistons as an assistant to equipment manager John Coumoundouros.

In the spring of 2019, the head position with the Lakers opened unexpectedly. Henk “threw my name in the hat.”

“I had a lot of people pulling for me, saying good things, giving me good recommendations,” Henk said, “and I got the job.”

He left for Hollywood a few weeks after the Pistons got swept by the Bucks in the NBA playoffs. Little did he know how the script would play out next.

Up-close view

Henk saw the Lakers run out to a torrid 33-7 start. He got up close with the tragedy and emotions of the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in a helicopter crash in late January.

A few weeks later, during the All-Star break, he visited his family in Michigan for a few days and stopped in to see Izzo and the Spartans. He gave his old boss some Lakers gear and a pair of Nike’s Kobe shoes.

"He’s always been a hard worker," Izzo said. "He put his time in and came up through the ranks, going from a manager to working here in Spartan Fund and the ticket office before moving to the NBA. The job he has as the equipment manager is perfect for him because it fits his personality. He’s a grinder who will do anything he can for the coaches and players on his teams."

A few weeks after visiting Izzo, everything shut down.

Nearly five months after their last game, on July 10, the Lakers took to the court again. This time in Florida. And for the next few weeks, Henk adjusted to not only his new surroundings but also to his new view of the game he loves.

Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk had one of the best seats in the NBA's bubble. Here, the equipment manager sits courtside during the NBA finals just behind LeBron James' shoulder.
Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk had one of the best seats in the NBA's bubble. Here, the equipment manager sits courtside during the NBA finals just behind LeBron James' shoulder.

“The games, obviously, were a lot different. No fans, they added crowd noise in. Obviously, they had those virtual fans,” he said. “It was kind of weird, because I actually had my own assigned seat where I had space to sit. Usually, I'm just kind of crammed on the baseline, on the floor, just sitting right on the floor there. And now I had my own seat, because I had to be socially distanced away from other people. So that was kind of interesting, because I get a good view of most of the game.”

As well as the controversy at the outset of the playoffs. First, in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their game Aug. 26 with Orlando to protest police mistreatment of Black men and women. Others around the league and pro sports followed. Things got contentious among players at a union meeting, as James and the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard pushed for a league-wide stoppage of play.

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“We were going to have a game later that night, and I had everything packed on our floor ready to go down the elevators,” Henk said. “And all of a sudden I hear, 'Hey, just don't take this down yet. We might not be playing tonight.' ...

“I was like, 'Man, now we know we might be going home for a different reason than we initially thought.' There was always a thought of people testing positive and it being canceled, so that was a whole new a new thing that happened. But I'm happy that we got back got to work and we're able to finish it out.”

Once-in-a-lifetime experience

That’s exactly what the Lakers did when play resumed after a few days off, first closing out the series with Portland, then eliminating Houston and Denver — they lost just once in each series. They finished off the Heat in six games.

As the team flooded the court and confetti filled the arena, Henk already had his boxes of ceremonial championship hats and T-shirts ready. After James walked around hugging most of his teammates, finishing with J.R. Smith, Henk handed him his shirt.

A dream, albeit in surreal fashion, came true.

Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk, left, celebrates with Anthony Davis in the locker room after the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat for the NBA title on Oct. 11 in Orlando, Florida. Henk, a 29-year-old from Shelby Township, is the first-year equipment manager for the Lakers.
Former Michigan State basketball team manager Andrew Henk, left, celebrates with Anthony Davis in the locker room after the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat for the NBA title on Oct. 11 in Orlando, Florida. Henk, a 29-year-old from Shelby Township, is the first-year equipment manager for the Lakers.

“It was kind of cool thinking about it, because there weren't any fans, there wasn't a lot of media, there weren't a ton of people around like there usually would be. So the locker room celebration was just the support staff, the players, the coaches and just a handful of media people filming everything,” Henk said. “That type of celebration might not ever happening again.”

Said Izzo: "When the opportunity came up with the Lakers, we were excited for (Henk) and obviously had some Spartan ties there with Magic. But he has proven to be a valuable member of their team, especially in the bubble. And when you’re part of a championship, it’s pretty special and something he will remember for a long, long time."

After that night, he had to stick around as the rest of those in the organization returned to L.A. He had been designated the Lakers’ departing coordinator, the one person per team who stayed back and checked rooms to make sure nothing valuable was left behind.

Henk arranged for and helped load a 52-foot truck that would drive many of those items back to the West Coast. He boarded a plane and left Florida, both in need of a break and preparing for a return to the outside world.

The view inside the 52-foot truck loaded with items the Lakers left behind after winning the NBA title. The truck went from Orlando back to Los Angeles after the team returned.
The view inside the 52-foot truck loaded with items the Lakers left behind after winning the NBA title. The truck went from Orlando back to Los Angeles after the team returned.

“It's weird, because now I go outside and I don't know. Nobody here has probably been testing every day,” he said. “I felt safe in the bubble. Everybody was testing, you knew that everybody was healthy. And here, now you don't, so it's just kind of right back to normal.”

Normal outside the bubble means the Lakers’ practice facility remains shuttered due to California restrictions. Much of what Henk is doing to prepare for the quick-turn to whenever the next season begins is being done virtually. He plans to get back to Michigan to visit his family before it all begins again.

“Who knows if and when anything like that will ever happen again,” Henk said. “I've heard rumors about possible regional bubbles to start next season, but it doesn't sound like it's going to be a three-month-type deal again. But it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ex-Michigan State basketball manager Andrew Henk's view of NBA bubble