The final leg of a wonderful ride began this week for Tex Winter, although his son, Chris, didn’t see it as much of a journey. Flight delays and his background as a physicist had Chris seeing the world through a practical spectrum when I caught up with him by phone from Manhattan, Kan., on his way to Springfield, Mass.
“I don’t really care about museums,” Chris Winter said before heading back East with his dad, the legendary coach and innovator who will be enshrined Friday night in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I appreciate art and historical documents and collections of stuff. But I don’t really feel a mystical connection to it. To me, it’s not like a journey — though in a certain way, I’m forced to do that. I’m forced to kind of go back and retrace where he’s been. And he’s been a lot of places.”
Yes, it has been a journey — one that ends quietly now as Winter enters the twilight of his life with dignity and an honor that was long overdue. “It’s a place where they keep treasures,” Chris Winter said. “It’s flattering that they think dad’s a treasure that needs to be kept and documented.”
Chris speaks now for the old coach he calls, simply, “Dad.” At 89, the elder Winter has recovered as much as he’s going to recover from a stroke suffered in 2009. If ol’ Tex could draw up a play to beat it, he would. But this is an opponent no amount of grace or beauty can match up against.
“I read him pretty well, but this is not what’s on his mind all the time,” Chris said. “At a certain point, I just make things up. You’re getting it second hand. Sometimes it’s things he’s told me, sometimes it’s things I think he’s told me, and sometimes it might just be my opinion.”
Last we spoke, during the 2009 NBA Finals when Tex had flown to L.A. to receive the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award from the Basketball Coaches Association, Chris Winter’s opinion was that his father didn’t need the Hall of Fame to validate his career. If he got in, great; if not, so be it. He’s not sure how he’ll feel Friday night when he ascends the stage to see his father finally honored.
On the eve of that moment, Chris Winter was wearing his scientist’s cap and taking an academic view. He’d pored over his father’s accomplishments in preparation for presumably having to deliver the acceptance speech on behalf of the innovator of the triple-post/triangle offense — which he taught to Michael Jordan in Chicago to the tune of six NBA championships and later, with some Zen assistance from Phil Jackson, to Kobe Bryant to the tune of five more.
The Chicago days, for which most NBA fans know Winter, accounted for only about a third of his accomplishments, by his son’s estimation.
Winter’s Kansas State teams in the 1950s and ’60s advanced to the Sweet 16 six times, the Elite Eight four times and the Final Four twice — at a time when Wilt Chamberlain ruled the paint at rival Kansas and John Wooden was winning championships at UCLA. His K-State teams won or tied for eight Big Eight titles, although for the first two it was only the Big Seven. It got to the point where a former Kansas player named Dean Smith hired one of Winter’s assistants, Bill Guthridge, because, “He just wanted to know what the secrets were,” Chris Winter said.
If the stroke had not robbed most of his speech, Tex Winter would probably tell you that his best years in coaching were at the University of Washington, where only a pair of broken legs suffered by Steve Hawes and Rafael Stone kept the Huskies from stopping UCLA’s title run, and also at Northwestern. Chris Winter marvels now at how his dad is regarded as a founding father of basketball in Chicago. When Tex was coaching at Northwestern in the ’70s, it was as though nobody knew he was there. One Chicago native after another — Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Dave Corzine, Glenn “Doc” Rivers — passed up chances to play for one of the most refined basketball minds ever molded by the hands of God.
“I know those Northwestern guys,” Chris Winter said. “They get together and have this reunion and stare at each other and say, ‘Who would’ve known we were playing for a genius?’”
The voice has been robbed, but the legacy cannot be — will never be — now that Winter takes his rightful place in the Hall. And it isn’t so much the championships that gained him admission, but rather the influence he had over the game.
Other than an inauspicious stint as the Houston Rockets head coach from 1972-74, Winter’s entire body of NBA work came as an assistant. Now, a quarter century after Jerry Krause hired Winter to serve as Jackson’s right-hand man and teach Jordan the triangle, nearly every NBA head coach has an offensive or defensive guru at his side.
“He was an assistant, but he was a very high-profile assistant,” Chris Winter said. “He didn’t do interviews with the press and he didn’t write books. He did clinics and stuff, and they sort of made him keep quiet about their strategies, but he really changed the way people think about assistant coaches in basketball. All of these coaches started bringing in these graybeards or just people who knew more about coaching than they did and started listening to them.”
Chris Winter said his father received more than a few head coaching offers during his time with the Bulls; the nature and origin of those offers shall remain a secret. “Sort of like what goes on in Vegas,” the son said.
Tex stayed in Chicago, in part because his wife, Nancy — still by his side in the home of their youngest son, Brian, in Manhattan, Kan., — didn’t want to leave. He stayed, too, because of enormous loyalty to Jackson, who will be his presenter at the Hall Friday night. Jackson may say a few words, and Chris said he’ll be prepared to speak, too, with one eye on his dad and the other on his idol, Hall of Famer Julius Erving.
“If Dr. J yawns,” Chris Winter said, “I’m stopping.”
He’s hoping he goes on about an old coach named Tex, whose basketball mind was damaged by stroke but not deprived of its genius. He’s hoping Chris Winter leaves his scientist hat in the hotel room and speaks from the heart about a treasure — an 89-year-old man who may not mean much to this generation of players but whose influence shaped the game they play.
The canvas his dad started painting six decades ago finally arrives in Springfield on Friday, to be displayed with the other relics. Chris Winter knows these will be the final brushstrokes — the final words.
“He’s intermittently excited about going,” Chris said. “He knows he’s going to see some of his friends. … He’s gotten pretty old and he’s reached a certain point in his rehab and it hasn’t seemed to have progressed very far. Sometimes it takes years and years, and he doesn’t have years and years.”
But the years he’s already put in speak for themselves. And on Friday night, the son channels the voice of the father and tries to draw up one more play.