LAHAINA, HI – Cassius Winston’s voice, already measured and low-key, has been tinged with melancholy these past weeks. A glint of sadness has been evident behind droopy eyelids. His game, until a recent outburst at the Maui Invitational, lacked the usual rhythm, high level of production.
The Michigan State star lost his brother and best friend to a tragic accident less than three weeks ago.
The grieving has been incomprehensible, the steps in the healing process nearly infinitesimal.
Winston, his family and his basketball family are trying to find a way to wade through it.
“We always try to make games or events in our life, life and death,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “This was life and death. And it's hard.”
Winston was an All-American last season, a preseason All-American this year and a popular pick for national player of the year in 2019-20 after deciding the NBA could wait.
Winston’s return and a loaded roster led the Spartans to a No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press preseason poll.
Michigan State took a hit before the ball went in the air for the first time, losing starting shooting guard Joshua Langford until at least January to another foot injury.
Then the unfathomable happened.
According to police, on Nov. 9, Zachary Winston took his own life by stepping in front of a train in Albion, Michigan. The 19-year-old known as “Smoothie” was a son, a brother, a friend, seemingly a beacon of joy to everyone who came into his orbit.
Zachary’s death rocked the foundation of the Winston family, sent shockwaves across the Michigan State basketball program and campus.
The next day, Cassius Winston, one of college basketball’s most respected leaders, took the floor with his teammates to face Binghamton. A moment of silence was held before tipoff to honor Zachary. Cassius had the game’s first assist, sank his first shot, finished with 17 points and 11 assists in the Spartans’ rout.
Winston and his two families grieved quietly until he broke his public silence on Nov. 18. Speaking after a blowout win over Charleston Southern, he took the microphone and thanked Breslin Center crowd for all the flowers, messages and cards with a short, heartfelt speech.
“I really appreciated it from the bottom of my heart,” Winston said, tapping his chest. “I lost a piece of my heart, but you guys are keeping me going.”
Winston’s heart will never fully heal. A basketball player at Division III Albion College, Zachary was not just Cassius’ younger brother. He was his best friend.
The death of an immediate family member, like the birth of a child, is experiential; only someone who has gone through can understand. Even then, it’s different for everyone.
Winston has spent the days since his brother’s death trying to navigate a world he never wanted to understand. His coach has helped man the rudder, trying to decipher when to push, when to lay back, when to provide a hug, all with the Izzo blend of intensity and compassion.
“I've been told by the people that there's going to be these ups and downs,” Izzo said. “So somewhere, if one guy says I'm making an excuse, there's going to be a fistfight, because the facts do matter. They matter. And the fact is the best friend in his life lost his life. And we're struggling, as a team, but he is struggling as a human being.”
Just as he has labored emotionally, Cassius has suffered a physical toll since Zachary’s death. Izzo allowed Winston to take a few practices off to support his family, and it’s taken him some time to get back into a rhythm.
Winston rose to the occasion when the Spartans went to New Jersey and knocked off then-No. 12 Seton Hall on Nov. 14, finishing with 21 points and five assists.
Once in Maui, Winston began to feel grief’s weight bear down.
In the Spartans’ opener against Virginia Tech, Izzo called Winston “a shell of himself.” Playing like a passenger instead of his usual role of conductor, Winston had seven points on 2-of-7 shooting. Virginia Tech knocked off the third-ranked Spartans 71-66.
Holiday tournaments are not like any other portion of the schedule, so instead of having a day if not more between games, the Spartans had to play Georgia the next afternoon.
With his team warming up on the Lahaina Civic Center court for a game against Georgia, Izzo was summoned to the locker room by freshman guard Rocket Watts.
When Izzo arrived at the upstairs locker room of the rec center turned epicenter of holiday hoops, he found his senior guard sitting on a bench, head down, a puddle of tears growing at his feet.
“We’ve got an All-American that's probably gone through one of the toughest things that any human being would go through,” Izzo said. “We're just going to have to keep working him day-to-day through that.”
Through some coaxing by his coach, Winston took the floor with his teammates. Once he had a ball in hand, Winston felt at least a sense of normalcy, found the rhythm in his game that had been missing since tragedy struck.
Winston scored 28 points, had eight assists and made huge plays down the stretch to help the Spartans overcome Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards’ 37-point night for a 93-85 win.
“Once I got out there, I was able to find my rhythm, find my peace out there on the court and that was really good for me, getting up and down, just having that rhythm that I usually play with,” Winston said. “I feel like this is the first time I kind of had it in a while.”
Winston was in his element the next day, too, scoring 20 points while orchestrating Michigan State’s offense in a 75-62 win over UCLA to take third at the Maui Invitational.
Is Winston back, at least on the court? Maybe. Grieving has a way of hitting when you least expect it, so there could be a few more downs to go with the ups.
No matter what happens, Winston will have plenty of help to get him through it.