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.