Commentary

Triangle mastermind coached from heart

Tex Winter's exemplary six-decade basketball career earns him an overdue spot in Hall

Updated: April 5, 2011, 11:05 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Perhaps the one blessing in an otherwise frustrating recovery from the stroke he suffered two years ago this month is that Tex Winter can still watch the game he loves. And still dissect it.

He can't talk about it much. Nor can he write down what he is thinking. "But you give him a piece of paper and tell him to draw out what they're doing in the game on TV, and he'll diagram the play," said Winter's son, Brian.

The arcs and lines, X's and O's, form a sort of basketball poetry that the 89-year-old created and immersed himself in throughout a storied coaching career, earning him a well-deserved, if tardy, induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this summer.

In his typical unassuming way, Winter, who served on the Bulls coaching staff under Phil Jackson that won six NBA titles, reacted to the official news Monday that he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame with a "Yep, that's me."

"It's not like it was a big relief for him," Brian Winter said. "He has never been the kind of person to put an emphasis on awards and accolades. It was always about just doing his job. He was a workaholic coach and he put all of his energy into that. So it was just something that came along."

[+] EnlargeTex Winter
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesTex Winter, the guru of the Triangle offense, will enter the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this summer.

Considering the six decades in which he dedicated his life to basketball, Winter's 14 years with the Bulls -- his second foray in the NBA after coaching the Houston Rockets in the 1970s -- could have been considered a mere blip if not for the fact that his triple-post offense, nicknamed "the Triangle," was instrumental during the Bulls' dynasty.

"I don't see us winning many championships without that offense because it was so complicated for our opponents," former Bulls forward Horace Grant said. "You had so many options to score, you could shut 50 down and still have 50 more."

Of course the primary option was always Michael Jordan, and while it may have been somewhat overstated that he completely bought into Winter's system -- Jordan was still the best bailout in the business -- it was also not entirely appreciated that Winter appreciated that as well.

"I think he saw it when the result was good, and I think he even came to accept the importance of having players improvise and go one-on-one because the defense doesn't have time to adjust to that," Brian Winter said.

In fact, at the very heart of his offense was improvisation. And where Winter's genius lay, said his fellow Bulls assistant Johnny Bach, was instilling in every player the knowledge to operate from any place on the floor.

"It's historic for coaches in the NBA to stand up and yell '45 Down' or '23 Up,' but Tex didn't believe in that at all," Bach said. "He believed a team had its destiny in its own hands and had to recognize this system of movement he called a series of actions, not verbal cues that he thought would give opponents a huge advantage."

While former players fondly recall -- and certainly every Bulls fan in the '90s can remember -- the sight of Winter perched at Jackson's left ear, urging him to have the team run the offense properly and particularly to instruct Jordan that it's not a one-man game, Winter was a gentle soul.

"He is a very nice man and he had a way of trying to sell it," Bach said.

Also to share it.

No coach ran more clinics, both in the U.S. and abroad, generously sharing his knowledge with young coaches from Bobby Knight to Dale Brown to Tom Thibodeau to scores of coaches who would never go on to high-profile careers.

"He was stopped by every high school coach in every hotel lobby and scribbled notes on napkins for hours," Bach said of Winter's cult-like following. "That's him. He didn't feel he had any secrets. He wanted to talk about it."

And yet his past was still something of a secret to the millionaires he would coach later in life, many of whom never knew he was this country's top pole vaulter (using a bamboo pole) in the late '40s, sure to compete in the Olympics before an injury dashed that hope. Or that he was a Navy pilot in World War II. That he played basketball at USC against baseball's Jackie Robinson. Or that his Kansas State teams won eight conference championships and played in two Final Fours in his 15 years there. That he once coached Shaq.

Bulls players, who cultivated a humorous but sharply acerbic climate, laughed as Winter packed sandwiches from the team plane to take home or mailed in sweepstakes entries. But there was also a deep respect that was undeniable.

"Johnny Bach was my father figure and I guess you could say Tex was my grandfather figure," Grant said. "I used to tease Tex all the time. I'd say, 'I know you have money buried in the backyard,' but that's what I loved about him. What you saw is what you got. There was no fakeness, no Armani suits, no slicked-back hair. That stuff was not in the same universe as Tex."

He urged Grant to "Be you," both on the court and off, simple yet solid advice for a player who had yet to emerge from the shadows cast by Jordan and Scottie Pippen. And while demanding, Winter exuded great patience with those who listened and who appreciated fundamental basketball.

"At the time, I remember, we sometimes referred to him as a grumpy old man," said Will Perdue, "but he just had such high expectations. It was like, 'Hey, if you just listen to me and allow me to share my knowledge with you, you'll really get better.' And he was right.

"In [the NBA's] inner circles, people would say, 'Wow, you guys have Tex Winter and Johnny Bach on your staff.' They knew all about how good they were. But I don't think they ever really got the credit they deserved."

After Winter rehabbed in a retirement facility near his home in Oregon, he and his wife Nancy moved in with their youngest son, Brian, and his wife in Manhattan, Kansas -- Tex also has sons Russ and Chris -- near the campus of Kansas State last summer.

It is there where Winter, celebrating his 1958-59 K-State team's reunion, suffered the stroke. It is where Johnny Bach's weekly letters sit in a neat pile next to him; where Chris first got him to diagram a play and where Brian took him the two-minute drive to about eight K-State basketball games this season; where fans formed a receiving line of well-wishes each time they saw him.

"When he's in his element, he really perks up," Brian said. "I think it's too loud but it never seems to bother him and his hearing is good. People know him there and he smiles and says 'Hello,' and pats them on the back."

And then he watches the games. "And he'll still get that look and grumble when they're not doing well," Brian laughs. "He still understands the game. He watches games every day on the NBA channel, all the Lakers games, and he still has a love for it.

"It's probably the one thing he still enjoys doing and can do."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.