Commentary

Winters shines on field, not court

Updated: October 27, 2009, 9:06 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Keelin Winters is far from the only college soccer player who has received this particular call from home. Separated from a sport learned solely through a daughter's childhood exploits, a dad tunes in to watch a random game on television and soon dials his progeny at school with some question about strategy or tactics.

As father-daughter conversations go, it's almost as standard as small talk about the weather.

But Winters may be the only one who takes that call from someone who once scanned the screen in search of strategic insights on Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

[+] EnlargeKeelin Winters
Will Crew Keelin Winters (right) has had success in captaining Portland soccer and the U-20 national team.

"It's funny because my whole life, when I was playing basketball, he was always the coach for me," Winters said of her dad, former NBA and WNBA head coach Brian Winters, who also played in the NBA for nine years. "But once I started to focus more on soccer, he became a little more interested in the game of soccer. So the roles kind of flipped a little bit; he gets to ask me questions about soccer. Sometimes he'll call me and tell me he's watching a game on ESPN or something, and he'll ask me a question about something that happened. So that part's kind of cool, that the roles have kind of flipped in that sense."

Now a junior midfielder for the University of Portland, Winters is already one of college soccer's accomplished leaders. She's a co-captain for the presumptive second-ranked Pilots, a distinction that comes on the heels of wearing the armband as one of three co-captains for the United States in last fall's Under-20 World Cup, where she helped lead the American side to its first championship in the biennial event since 2002.

And yet, even as she makes her own name on the soccer field, there's a lot to learn from her surname about how she got here.

"Keelin's one of those kids who you could tell grew up in an athletic family; she's a player," Portland coach Garrett Smith said. "From probably being beat up on the basketball court by all her brothers and sisters to kind of being the lone-sheep soccer player in the family takes a lot of character. And I think growing up in that family attributes a lot to who she is on the field and off the field and the leader she is for us and for the U-20 national team."

Growing up as an NBA brat -- she was born in Cleveland while her dad was an assistant with the Cavaliers, learned to play roller hockey in Vancouver while he coached the Grizzlies and split her high school years between the Bay Area and Denver -- she realized early on that the family business attracted its share of attention. It's the kind of thing that's hard to miss when you show for first grade in a new city and find out all of your classmates may not know you, but they know your dad.

But to Winters, basketball was just a part of everyday life, a routine that included going to games or finding ways to pass time at practices the way other kids might as a parent put in hours at an empty office on the weekend.

As she recalled, "Playing hide-and-go-seek in the arena -- who gets to do that, right?"

Perhaps not surprisingly, all six of the Winters children -- Keelin comes fourth from oldest to youngest -- grew up playing basketball. Given the competitive atmosphere that fostered, it was her three older siblings, and not the more famous athletes who were on the court while she was hiding in NBA arenas, whom she looked up to. And like each of her siblings, Keelin eventually narrowed her focus to a single sport in high school.

The only difference was she chose something other than basketball.

"Basketball to me was just something I grew up around, and soccer was something I had to learn and figure out on my own, without any of my family's help," Winters said. "I think part of the reason [for choosing soccer] is I didn't want to just be another Winters kid playing basketball -- a very small part of the reason -- but definitely, I think I wanted to make soccer my own."

It's an independent streak that serves Winters well as a defensive midfielder, a position that demands much but offers little in the way of tangible reward. As the dreadlocks she alone wears similarly suggest, she is comfortable being herself. But it's confidence without pretense.

[+] EnlargeBrian Winters
Tom Hauck/Icon SMIKeelin's father, Brian Winters (left), carried his NBA playing career into coaching.

Questions she's heard a dozen times about growing up with a famous father elicit answers that are either unscripted or recycled stump material so convincing it would make a politician envious. She still grins in admitting she'd rather watch hockey than basketball, her family's sport essentially too soft for her tastes. And there is still a frankness to her words when she talks about learning from her father's example that criticism is a fact of life, the only variable being how one deals with it.

So it was that after an early practice this spring, Smith told Winters she had missed an opportunity to speak up. Still unsure of what was expected, she went to his office and expressed concern about her ability to fill a vocal role. Smith told her to start by coming up with a paragraph explaining how she defined leadership.

"A lot of the stuff I came up with wasn't necessarily somebody who is a vocal leader," Winters said. "And so I think that was part of Garrett's point, is I don't necessarily have to be as vocal as I thought I had to be. Because I was thinking at the time that I needed to be talking the full 90 minutes, I needed to be yelling, and I just wasn't comfortable with that. But I think his point in all of that discussion was I needed to be the leader I'm comfortable being."

That was the message her dad echoed when she called for advice -- just as he told her during the recruiting process, when she couldn't decide between Portland and Texas -- to put everything aside for three days and see what her gut said after the break. She said she doesn't seek his input quite as often as people might assume, but it's there when she needs it, even if he's still learning the intricacies of a 4-3-3 formation.

"My dad has always told me that whatever is going to make me happy is what I should do," Winters said. "And I think he's always known it was soccer."

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.