MSU engineering department gives Nick Ward a hand with protective brace

By Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News

The annual Sweet 16 men’s basketball rite of spring is back at Michigan State after a three-year hiatus.

And while many fans in East Lansing and on campus feel a part of the excitement, a team at the College of Engineering can rightfully feel like it has a hand in the Spartans’ success.

As Nick Ward continues his return to form from a fractured left hand he suffered last month, the junior center was buoyed by a group of engineers who developed a custom brace for his hand, a carbon fiber creation built light and stiff to maintain through March.

When Tamara Reid Bush, a professor from MSU’s College of Engineering, first saw Ward wearing their brace during his return this month at the Big Ten tournament, she felt part of the team like never before.

Michigan State forward Nick Ward, wearing a protective brace on his left hand, takes a shot during practice

"I can’t tell you how excited, not only my lab team, but I teach a hundred students that I talk about this in my class,” Reid Bush said. “Having this be part of their education where they see professors actually walking through the process of going through a design and build, while teaching a class on the same topic … there’s a lot of excitement.”

But there was also a lot of getting used to for Ward.

In Chicago during Michigan State’s run to the conference tournament title, Ward struggled to catch the ball with the brace. Frustrated, the center threw the tape wrapping the brace to his hand into the crowd.

Comfort levels have risen, along with his production. After averaging 4.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in three conference tournament games, Ward averaged 8.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in a pair of weekend NCAA Tournament wins.

Nick Ward answers questions during an interview last week in Des Moines, Iowa.

“As far as catching the ball it is a bit of a challenge,” Ward said Friday before he had nine points in 20 minutes in Saturday’s 70-50 win against Minnesota. “Catching hard entry passes was my thing for a while, but since it's on my left hand it has made it challenging. But it's something I have to get used to.

“I'm just getting back in the swing of things. I'm was out four weeks, so I'm just excited to be on the court. I'm starting to feel like my regular self again.”

Ward missed five games and nearly a month of game action after the injury, which was suffered Feb. 17 against Ohio State.

Athletic trainer Nick Richey approached the engineering school, huddling with Reid Bush and colleagues Larry Drzal and Tom Pence, bringing Ward’s X-ray to them along with thoughts on what he thought the 6-foot-9 Ward needed.

Reid Bush specializes in hand research and biomechanics and Pence deals with analysis. Drzal and his team have a composite center in the materials department for chemical and material engineering where the brace was developed.

Nick Ward makes a move during MSU's win over Minnesota on Saturday.

The team also needed another player. With Ward sidelined, the group needed a simulation of Ward’s size and the stress his hand is put through by catching, dribbling and passing the ball.

So, Xavier Tillman, who replaced him in the starting lineup, also stood in for Ward at 7 a.m. on a Friday for testing.

About two-and-a-half weeks after the initial meeting with Richey, Ward was back on the court.

“It’s the first time that engineering and athletics have been involved together in something like this,” Reid Bush said. “I don’t know why it hasn’t happened sooner, it’s a logical connection, particularly in the biomechanics field.”

Reid Bush said she’d like biomechanics students to stay in the athletics game with future partnerships.

“Certainly right now we’re focused on hands, but I think there’s a wealth of opportunities for support systems, braces, even a discussion around human body modeling,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be part of this team, and I think it’s a win-win-win situation for engineering, athletics, students, the whole education community. 

“It makes me very proud to be a Spartan.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.