Dennis Marek: A toast to Tex Winter

October 21, 2018

Prominently featured in the national press, and even in a rather large article in the Daily Journal, was the news of the death of a basketball icon.

No, he didn’t score 100 points. No, he never made an NBA team as a player, but Tex Winter, of Manhattan, Kan., did almost everything else in the world of sports.

A child of the Depression, he needed to get a scholarship to be able to afford college. As a very small sophomore in high school, Tex had turned to track and field. While he was fast, it was learned he had an enlarged heart and was prevented from much distance running. He then turned to my favorite event, pole vaulting.

He was a natural. But that career ended, and Winter went on to Oregon State on a basketball scholarship, giving up vaulting. After playing college basketball for Oregon State, USC and Kansas State, Tex went to war.

Before he could reach his goal of becoming a basketball coach, the Korean War had broken out, and Tex enlisted in the Navy and became a fighter pilot. After the war, he even spent time as a test pilot for early jet aircraft. Winters then turned to being a flight instructor in Texas before being recruited into college coaching. Tex Winter was first and foremost a teacher, mostly of basketball, but of life as well.

Money was not the end reward for Winter. In fact, as he traveled with his various sports teams, it is said he always wondered why the players went out on the road for meals when there were pressroom meals of meat and potatoes for free. When he later was sent by the Chicago Bulls to scout, he traveled tourist class and got the senior citizen discount. He was known to take a bus to the airport rather than a taxi that would have been paid for by the team. Perhaps those Dust Bowl years never went away.

Winters started his successful coaching career at Marquette University and then moved to Kansas State. From 1953-68, his KSU team won eight conference titles. He was voted coach of the year four times and was elected president of the college coaches’ association. Then, he tried the more difficult approach by accepting the head coaching job at Northwestern. While his career there had a record of only 44-87, he did find a way for his Wildcats to beat Michigan State and Magic Johnson. Tex used to joke, “There are a lot of teams we can beat. They just aren’t on our schedule.”

Winter has been called the pioneer of the “triangle offense” in basketball. He called it the triple post and was using it as early as 1962. But its use was going to become nationally famous when he joined head coach Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls. As an assistant coach, he worked alongside Jackson and Michael Jordan, winning six NBA championships. But he was not finished and later rejoined Jackson with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers for another five rings.

While coaching the Bulls, Winter was a prime mover in getting Jordan more in the post to fire up the offense. That gave Jordan more of a chance to rest. At L.A., he got Bryant to get with the system and be less of a showboat as he had been in the first years under Coach Jackson.

Winter was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 after about 60 years of coaching. The accolades never stopped coming. His high moral standards and ethics often set him apart from many working in the professional athletic field.

But I ran across an even better story in the early life of this 96-year-old dean of basketball. After leaving high school, Winter continued pole vaulting and actually qualified for the Olympics in 1948. That season, his best height had been 14-4, and he was the leading vaulter for the USA team. Unfortunately, he was injured in a preliminary event the day before his Olympic event and was not at his best. The winning height was only 14-1, and third place was won at 13-9 by none other than Bob Richards.

While Winter turned to college and basketball, Richards continued on with his vaulting and won the Olympic event in 1952 and 1956. These victories earned Richards a new place in American advertising. He was the first athlete to don the front of a Wheaties box. Perhaps if Winter had continued jumping, he might have graced that first box instead.

So, as we lose another 90-plus senior citizen, no one can say he didn’t have a heck of a run. Perhaps he didn’t make the Wheaties box, but he has 11 NBA Championship rings, and I can’t think of anyone else who is ahead of that number. A toast to your good and fulfilling life, Tex. A toast, not only to your victories and rings, but to your humanity as well.