It was 11:11 a.m. on a Saturday in November, just under three hours before the Washington Wizards boarded one of their 65 chartered flights this season. On the whiteboard that hangs in the small equipment room tucked in a far corner of Entertainment and Sports Arena was a packing inventory for back-to-back games at Memphis and Charlotte detailing the color of compression undergarments the team needed for each game and a to-do list that included “refill socks” and “buy more candy.” Under a section titled “Player Needs,” another list — “KD,” “Giannis,” “LeBron.” Sneakers to pack.
It would all have to wait. For Royce Reed, the Wizards’ equipment manager, and Tom O’Connor and Jorge Robles, who round out the department, it is rare an hour goes by without interruption.
The team’s fourth-string center, Isaiah Todd, poked his head into the room with a shoe in each hand, exclaiming his rep had sent the wrong pair. Then O’Connor spotted Lacey Bruins, Monumental Sports’ facilities director, and pulled her aside. Kristaps Porzingis had expressed a concern earlier — he wanted to know whether the team could switch back to making glass water bottles available at practice.
“He doesn’t want too many microplastics in his system,” O’Connor said as Reed folded a jersey.
In professional sports, happy players are a competitive advantage. Rarely do fans see the people who make that a possibility.
Reed is part of the team behind the team in Washington. His name does not appear on the back of a jersey, but the Wizards wouldn’t get on the court every night without him. He is one of the group of nutritionists, security personnel, flight bookers, schedule setters and bottom-of-the-totem-pole coaches who make a basketball team go.
“No one thinks about: ‘How does a uniform get clean? How does a team get from Denver to Los Angeles?’ ” Reed said. “They just flip on the TV, and they think, ‘Oh, the Wizards are here.’ ”
Reed, 37, presides over equipment and sets the locker room before each game, lining toiletries neatly in a row and meticulously laying out jerseys, shorts, socks, armbands and tights with O’Connor and Robles. They pack and unpack a truck full of gear before each game, and Reed tends to a traveling party of, on average, 65 people, coordinating with bus drivers, truck drivers, bellhops and other teams’ equipment managers to make all 41 road games go smoothly.
“You’ll never notice a guy like him until something goes wrong,” Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “That’s their mind-set: ‘If you don’t hear about us, we’re doing our job.’ ”
Reed joined the Wizards’ staff full time last season and ascended to equipment manager in August, which meant he had to learn his players’ and coaches’ idiosyncrasies quickly.
The logistics are standard: He ordered hundreds of undershirts, socks and sleeves — most players wear each item only once — at the start of the season and filed them into floor-to-ceiling shelves in the equipment room. When he does laundry, he checks for tears and stains on uniforms so he can have a new jersey hanging in a player’s locker the next day before the player asks.
But for the upcoming back-to-back against the Grizzlies and Hornets, Reed also knew every player except Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma would be fine with just two pairs of sneakers. Beal has an extra pair of testers from Jordan Brand that Reed knew he would want to try out. Reed packed both a leopard-print pair and a rainbow-themed pair for Kuzma.
When the team plane landed in Memphis at 3:52 p.m., Reed and O’Connor rose from their seats in the back, and as the team shuffled off to two waiting buses, they unloaded the cargo and took it to the truck to drive to the hotel to stack trunk after trunk in the hotel ballroom before delivering suitcases to the players’ rooms. They were both sweating — conductors of a perfectly synchronized, silent symphony as players ambled into the hotel lobby to get snacks. Tomorrow, along with another opportunity for a win, would bring a different set of needs entirely: It’s game day.
Raising the bar with … shower mats
Efficiency is the goal on game days more than any others. And the fastest way to FedEx Forum from the Wizards’ hotel is as the crow flies, which happens to be down Beale Street.
Roughly six hours after Reed started his Sunday checking emails, he and O’Connor loaded a hotel baggage trolley with six black trunks. Reed toted another duffel bag by hand and slung one more over his shoulder, then off they walked for 15 minutes, past bartenders taking chairs off tables and neon signs promising “live music and fun,” hauling the contents of a locker room down cracked sidewalks.
There were five hours until tip-off when the Grizzlies’ equipment manager opened a back door to the arena. Setting up the locker room is the most important thing Reed would do that day.
“A lot of guys are very routine-centric, so when they walk in, I want their stuff to be perfect,” he said. “I want to be out of their equation as much as possible.”
Reed has been working in locker rooms for more than half his life.
The son of a ticket salesman for the Oakland Athletics, he spent his formative years at the ballpark before his family moved to Phoenix, where his parents worked as ushers for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns. They passed down lessons about dealing with people and an appreciation for the on-the-ground workers who make a sports franchise run.
Reed served as a locker room attendant in the majors and ran clubhouses on his own in the minors for 18 years and with six different clubs, picking up odd jobs during the offseason and working round-the-clock the rest of the time.
Getting an NBA equipment manager who came up through baseball is like hiring a cellist out of Juilliard. No professional athlete spends more hours of the day in the locker room than a baseball player, and no season has as many games.
Reed moved into basketball in 2017, when he took a part-time job as a locker room attendant with the Dallas Mavericks while double-dipping with the Texas Rangers.
He was folding towels in the Rangers’ Class AA clubhouse four years later when a phone number with the D.C. area code popped up on his phone. The Wizards, based on intel gathered through the NBA grapevine, asked whether Reed would be interested in a job as the No. 2 guy in their equipment room.
It was his first full-time job after nearly two decades working in sports.
“Looking back on some of those things, it’s like, ‘Okay, you’ve come a long way from where you’ve started off to where you are now,’ ” Reed said, pausing to smile. “It was a nice change of pace, not having a game every night.”
On the road with the Wizards, Reed has a precise system for setting up the locker room. As he convened with the Grizzlies’ equipment manager about the team’s needs, O’Connor counted lockers so he could space them out and began applying name tags.
They were aware of one adjustment they needed to make. Beal tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after the team touched down in Memphis. Practically, that meant Porzingis got his locker placed and labeled first, then Kuzma, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and the rest.
Reed and O’Connor’s work was steady and methodical, its purpose to help gloss over any disruptions. Name tags were applied, sneakers were placed, shower shoes were plopped in the corner, base layers were strung together on a laundry loop and then hung on the left-hand side. Warmups were laid carefully over chairs.
“It’s hard work,” said Avdija, Washington’s third-year forward who knows Reed will place a fresh wristband in his locker every game without him having to ask. “He has the hardest job, but he sets up everything perfect. He’s my guy.”
Reed’s pièce de résistance was in front of every locker: a Wizards-branded bath mat made of squishy, mouse-pad-like material for players to step on when they get out of the shower.
Last season, he noticed the Charlotte Hornets were the only team in the NBA with mats. This season, he made sure the Wizards joined them.
Memphis’s equipment manager noticed them and nodded appreciatively: Mats prevent players from laying multiple towels at their feet, save equipment managers laundry and help streamline a trip. These elements, however tiny, are the tricks of their trade.
“Slowly but surely, raising the bar a little bit,” Reed said.
‘I have to make sure we get tipped off’
A point of clarity: Being a head equipment manager in the NBA is no steppingstone job. This was Reed’s dream.
From his parents, he knows how someone working on the ground floor of an organization can affect a fan’s experience. Reed’s vision when he came to the Wizards was to help shape the franchise’s culture and influence from the bottom up.
When marketing develops a branding idea, he often speaks to Nike about implementing the plan. He provides input on uniforms and talks to managers throughout the league about what works.
“Outside of the front-office positions, the equipment room is a really good place where building that culture can start,” Reed said. “That’s what people see: They see the team. They identify them by not only the players but by their branding and their logo. When people like those things, they tend to pay attention a little bit more. Or it inspires memories — my cousin, she was a big Michael Jordan fan. And when she sees our classic uniforms this year, I know that’s going to be her first thought. And Michael Jordan makes a lot of people feel excited.”
Games are Reed’s quiet time, the brief moment after an exhale — full of relief that he got everyone on the court dressed correctly — before hetakes the next breath.
He uses those moments to get ahead on uniform orders or coordinate with the truck driver taking the team wherever it’s going next, watching the game on TV all the while in case someone runs back and needs something.
Players say thank you with gifts:Dallas’s Dwight Powell developed such a relationship with him that he gave Reed his lime-green pair of Kobe 6 Grinch sneakers from Bryant’s signature line, which resale online nowadays for anywhere from $700 to $2,000.
“I haven’t bought a pair of shoes in a decade,” Reed said.
He does the final uniform checks himself, standing on the court before every game in case anyone snaps a headband or needs fresh socks at the last minute.
“You see it: Sometimes a guy’s wearing the wrong-colored shirt or has the wrong name on his jersey,” Unseld said. “Then it’s pandemonium.”
After a loss in Memphis, Reed and O’Connor packed the truck, loaded suitcases on the plane, delivered suitcases upon landing just before midnight and took their dirty laundry to Charlotte’s arena, where the home equipment managers washed everything so Reed could set up the locker room all over again in the morning. When the Hornets come to Washington, Reed will return the favor.
The job of an equipment manager is cyclical, but to Reed, complacency is the same as failure. So after he checked and rechecked his to-do lists, made sure a dozen times throughout the day that he packed the correct color base layers to go with the Wizards’ uniforms and scanned the locker room in case something was left behind, he stood on the baseline in Charlotte. The Wizards won.
“I have to make sure we get tipped off. It’s just something that I do that makes me feel like I’m good,” Reed said. “They’re playing basketball — my job is complete for now. And then on to the next thing.”