Winter in L.A.
Can Wellington native Tex Winter bring the magic back to the Lakers?
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On a chilly spring night in 1985 Tex Winter decided to call it quits. After nearly forty years of coaching basketball, the 63-year-old Wellington native had had enough. He and his wife, Nancy, were moving from Louisiana to Oregon, where they had bought a house and planned to retire, and he had rolled up his black socks, folded his T-shirts, and packed his suitcases. Then he heard a familiar voice. On ESPN he saw the face of Jerry Krause, who had just been promoted to general manager for the Chicago Bulls, which boasted a green-yet-talented guard named Michael Jordan and little else. Winter instantly remembered what Krause had said to him during a steak dinner years earlier. “Krause told me, ‘I expect to be a general manager one day, and when I am, you’ve got to come help me,’” Winter recalls.
Sure enough, at seven-thirty the next morning, the phone rang, and Krause offered Winter a job. “I told Jerry, ‘Make me an offer I can’t refuse,’ and I guess he did,” he says. For the next fourteen years Winter sat on the Bulls’ bench and taught the team his trademark triple-post, or triangle, offense. With head coach Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen, he helped build one of sport’s greatest dynasties, one that would win six championships between 1991 and 1998. And now, at 78, the man with the longest tenure of any active coach in the game is back with Jackson, coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has become the NBA’s most dominating squad. Previously seen as an underachieving group that couldn’t get its two stars, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, to work together, the Lakers went into the playoffs this April with the league’s best record, coming within three games of being only the second team in history to notch seventy wins in a season. Who was the first? The 1996 Bulls, coached by Jackson and Winter.
Many NBA insiders say that the success behind the Bulls, and now the Lakers, can be traced not to the star players but to the kind-eyed man from the Panhandle who speaks with an easy Texas twang. “Without Tex, we don’t win the six championships,” says Krause. Jerry West, the Lakers’ vice president, believes that Winter has been an integral part of his team’s emergence. “We now have a disciplined offense, and he plays a big part in that,” West says. “He’s done a phenomenal job.”
Still, the man who now patiently teaches free-throw shooting to O’Neal—who has a $120 million contract—grew up during the Great Depression, a world away from the bright lights and big money of the NBA. When Morice Fredrick Winter and his twin sister, Mona, were two, the family moved from Wellington to Memphis and then to Lubbock. Eight years later, in 1932, his father died, and his mother struggled to keep her four children fed. Tex and his older brother, Ernest, pitched in by scavenging through the garbage for old boxes, which they traded for day-old bread. “It was really something back then to get that nice-smelling bread,” recalls Winter. “Those were hard times for us.” The family later moved to Huntington Park, California, to live with Tex’s older sister, Elizabeth. With his drawl, Winter soon earned the nickname “Tex,” and it has stuck ever since. “With a name like ‘Morice Fredrick,’ you’d choose ‘Tex’ too,” he says. He immersed himself in athletics, becoming one of the best pole vaulters in the state. Basketball, though, captivated him, and despite being just five-seven, he served as the captain of his high school team for three years.
When he graduated, in 1940, Tex had to turn down a pole-vaulting scholarship to the University of Southern California because he lacked a foreign-language requirement, and instead played basketball at Compton Junior College and later Oregon State University. After serving in World War II, Tex headed back to California and enrolled at USC, where he played basketball and recorded the best collegiate pole vault in the country with a fourteen-foot-four-inch leap. “Remember, it was a bamboo pole,” he says proudly. “I always emphasize that.” In 1947 he took a job as an assistant coach at Kansas State, and soon afterward Milwaukee’s Marquette University made the 28-year-old the country’s youngest head coach at a major college. But Winter would make his mark three years later, when he returned to Kansas State as a head coach. Over fifteen seasons he compiled a 262-117 mark for the Wildcats, winning eight Big Eight championships and earning a number one ranking during the 1957-58 season. In 1959 Tex was named National Coach of the Year.
Eventually the NBA took notice. He took over the San Diego Rockets in 1971, and just before the season started, the team moved to Houston. He taught his complicated triangle offense to his players, but it didn’t click. The Rockets had fledgling talent—including Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy, and Elvin Hayes—but for whatever reason, they couldn’t put it together. After one and a half seasons, Winter headed back to the college ranks. “I guess you could say I was relieved of my duties,” he says.
He took the reins at Northwestern University, in Illinois, but the program didn’t help his reputation. “I went to Northwestern the third-winningest coach in college,” he notes dryly. “When I left, I was fourteenth.” He bounced back to California, coaching at Long Beach State College, and then agreed to help Dale Brown, who was the head coach at Louisiana State University. During his two years there, the Tigers won two Southeastern Conference championships. Finally, Winter decided to hang it up, and that’s when he got the phone call from Jerry Krause. At a time when most people are looking forward to retirement, Tex headed back to the big leagues.
Unfortunately, his second round in the NBA started as poorly as his first. Jordan was injured, the stands were half empty, and head coach Stan Albeck didn’t run the triangle offense. Krause replaced Albeck with the fiery Doug Collins, but Collins used his own system as well. Frustrated, Tex once again considered retirement. All that changed in 1989, when Phil Jackson took over as head coach of the Bulls and gave Tex the freedom to run the offense. “Tex is officially the God of Basketball,” says Jackson. “I find him, as a mentor or a teacher, a wonderful guy to have around.” With the two coaches working together, the Bulls became a dynasty using Winter’s offense, and Jordan became perhaps the most storied athlete in history. But it didn’t last forever. Jordan retired, Jackson rode off on a motorcycle, and Pippen signed with the Houston Rockets. Tex stuck around Chicago for a year, when the Bulls were one of the worst teams in the league. In one game they scored just 49 points, an NBA record for futility since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock. (Ironically, the previous record was set less than a year earlier, when the Bulls held the Utah Jazz to just 54 points in the NBA finals.)
If Tex was ready to retire (again), yet another phone call would change his mind. Jackson came out of retirement to take the top job with the Lakers, and he asked Tex to help him put a talented team over the top. Tex headed west. The Lakers started this season 8-4 but lost only eleven games after that. Sure, they have O’Neal and Bryant, but the team lacks depth. Glen Rice is the only other consistent scorer, but he shot a career low of 40 percent from the field. So how has this team suddenly become so much better, when it was swept out of the playoffs by the Utah Jazz in 1998 and the San Antonio Spurs in 1999? Well, there’s Jackson, of course. And then there’s Tex. “Tex has had a great hand in this team’s improvement from last year,” says Ron Harper, who played for the Bulls for five seasons before joining the Lakers. “He’s a large part of our success.” Kobe Bryant agrees. “He has so much knowledge stored up that you can’t help but learn from him,” he says. “Tex has definitely had a major influence on me.”
As for Shaq, Tex hasn’t always found it easy to work with the undeniably gifted player who also fancies himself a rapper (he has three albums) and a movie star (with roles in forgettable films like Steel, Kazaam, and Blue Chips) but whose desire to win it all has been questioned. O’Neal acknowledges Winter’s influence in his own unique way. “Tex is cool,” he says in his trademark gravelly whisper. “He’s an LSU guy. I listen to what he says . . . most of the time.” Jackson says Winter has gotten through to his star center—who is a favorite to win the league’s most valuable player award—by not backing down. “Tex knows what’s right or wrong in basketball, and he doesn’t have any trouble telling you, whether you’re Michael Jordan or Dickey Simpkins,” says Jackson.
But what is this triangle offense exactly, about which Tex literally wrote the book, a 228-page work called The Triple-Post Offense that only a hardcore basketball fan could love? With all the talk of “ping passes” and “pinch posts” and “dribble weave options,” the triangle offense comes down to spacing the floor and reacting to what the defense does. Rather than run set plays, like Utah’s endless pick-and-rolls, the Lakers constantly pass the ball to find the best shot. Tex says that players have up to 24 options off one pass. Jordan has hesitated to say whether the Bulls would have won six championships without the triangle. “We’ll never know,” he once said. “That’s a big if.” But, he added, “The triangle stabilizes this team as a system, so it has its place in our success.” And Jackson, who occasionally led team meditations and decorated the locker room in Native American totems, describes the triple-post in typically enigmatic terms: “It’s the tai chi of basketball,” he says. Okay, that’s fine. But let’s be honest: It didn’t hurt to have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. “Sure, it helps to have Jordan on your team,” Winter says. “But I think the triangle helped him too. It helped him get open so he could get his shots.” (NBA success aside, Tex says his triple-post offense has received attention from other disciplines too. “A farmer in Kansas wrote me and asked for my book on triple-post fences,” Winter recalls with a smile. “True story.”)
Despite the Bulls’ and Lakers’ accomplishments, few will remember the triangle offense. Everyone, however, will remember Jordan. And as Jordan’s legend grew, the credit for the Bulls’ success was placed squarely on his shoulders. “The reason [the triangle] worked is simple: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen,” said Bulls guard B. J. Armstrong. So what if the skeptics are right? Maybe, as former UT coach Abe Lemons once said, “There are two plays: South Pacific and put the ball in the basket.” Maybe Tex, after all these years, was finally in the right place at the right time with the Bulls. Other professional coaches, including Cotton Fitzsimmons, with Phoenix, and Quinn Buckner and Jim Cleamons, with Dallas, tried to use the triangle. Not one lasted two seasons. So why didn’t those coaches win? “I wasn’t there to help them,” Winter says simply.
And there are some pretty strong arguments for Winter’s position. Jordan may be the greatest player ever, but that never guaranteed the Bulls a championship, much less six. “I know a lot of coaches who’d screw it up, even with Jordan,” says Utah Jazz president Frank Layden. “The thing is, it’s an excellent offense, it was excellent for the players, and it fit them perfectly.” But Layden adds, “They also happened to have the greatest player of all time, in my opinion.” For his part, Tex says he doesn’t care if people give all the credit for the Bulls’ success to Jordan. “It doesn’t bother me a bit,” he says. “If someone says it was all Jordan, well, it just shows they don’t understand the importance of the team concept in basketball.”
His own words may have to be enough for Winter, who is again mulling retirement. Though he received the John Bunn Award in 1998, which only 25 other people have won in the history of the NBA, he has been rejected in three bids for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Still, he is optimistic that the Hall of Fame will ultimately call. “I think I’ll eventually have the chance to get in,” he says. “They might be waiting until I retire.” To many, Tex’s legacy is already set. “Tex is a legend. No doubt about it,” says Layden. “This man has a long history of being a winning coach, an innovator. You don’t stick around this long if you’re a phony. You don’t think Michael Jordan would see through a phony? Tex should be in the Hall of Fame.”
And, of course, Tex has the championships, which he undeniably played a major part in winning. That may be the greatest testament to his legacy: That a man who lived through the Depression and played in canvas shoes made such a mark in today’s NBA. “Texans want to know what I’ve done to live up to being from Texas,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Well, this could be what I’ve done to live up to it.” And with that, clipboard in his hand, Tex ambles off to the court. There’s at least one more title to be won before he retires.