Tex Winter's enshrinement a gift for everyone
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I was saying to Tex Winter Friday morning that it must be a great thrill to finally be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Not yet,” Tex said with a sly smile.
Technically, that’s correct, and that was perhaps the most encouraging moment for me this weekend at the Class of 2011 Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend.
The Hall of Fame inductees, including Tex, Artis Gilmore and Dennis Rodman, will be officially immortalized Friday night in a televised ceremony at the Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Tex’s complete incapacity are very much exaggerated.
Yes, when Tex went on stage in Springfield Thursday to receive his Hall of Fame blazer—basketball’s version on the green jacket—he had difficulty stringing together complete sentences and his son, Chris, did much of the speaking for him.
It was clear being there that Tex was very emotional, and frustrated, as he seemingly had words spinning around in his head. He wanted to get them out and they just seemed to be coming too fast. That, mixed with the choking emotion of the setting, obviously limited him. Tex, as we know, suffered a severe stroke two years ago at a Kansas State reunion.
But when I met Tex and several family members Friday morning at his hotel, in intimate conversation he displayed the droll wit and gentle sarcasm that I had seen for years.
Although I’d been in contact with Chris and his wife after they’d asked me to write Tex’s biography for the Hall of Fame program—for which I was honored and found humbling—I hadn’t spoken with Tex since the stroke and had the impression he wasn’t able to communicate well.
Obviously, sometimes you cannot after a stroke of that sort when you are in your late 80’s. But we had a wonderful conversation one on one.
One of his nieces asked if I was the writer whom he said needed to learn more about basketball. Tex nodded and said, “Yes, that’s him.”
We’d often argued about the triangle offense, especially in the Doug Collins coaching years. I’ll admit I wasn’t a student of the offense, and, as I’ve written, Tex even gave me to borrow his personal copy he’d inscribed for his mother. He said I needed it more.
I leaned toward the traditional NBA offenses and Michael Jordan had persuaded many of us that the idea of equal opportunity when Cliff Levingston or Will Perdue was shooting wasn’t such a good idea.
So over the years, Tex has chided me after six titles in Chicago and three more in Los Angeles and nine top 10 finishes at Kansas State when Bob Boozer was your best player and you were facing Wilt and Oscar that perhaps there was something to the offense.
So, yes, Tex remembered the debates.
But it also wasn’t like his past life was all. We talked some about his recovery and I remarked that I was impressed how well he was doing. He didn’t need any escort when walking or climbing steps, though he could be unsteady and slow at times (he also is 89).
Tex also said it was too late for him to have enough recovery at his age.
It is sad to hear someone say something like that, yet also encouraging that he can piece together the complexities of the situation. Some might say people who reach that age with physical problems are better off not knowing.
Frankly, in our conversation, I found Tex interested and entertaining.
Look, it’s not like he’s going back to work, as when I’d mentioned about a college Hall of Fame induction a year ago or so, his niece mentioned him speaking better at that occasion and he could not recall.
He did say he still watches a lot of games, but added it was more difficult to write so he wasn’t able to chart plays like he loved to do all those years with the Bulls and Lakers.
Tex’s entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was long overdue according to his friends and admirers.
Being elected to a hall of fame isn’t an exact science. People debated Rodman for years, as well as Gilmore. It was classic Tex that he was likely overlooked. When he was at Kansas State at the top of the profession he took jobs for family reasons—to be closer to his wife’s family—and for evangelical reasons, like bringing his teachings to places that would never get them, like Long Beach State and Northwestern.
So his win/loss record suffered in comparison to the many college Hall of Fame coaches who load their schedules with cupcake games and to get 20 wins in a season probably have two or three tough games to play all year.
And, in the end, because there are no standards, fame is generally judged by statistics. Tex could have stayed at winning programs where great players walk in and he’d been in basketball’s Hall of Fame years ago. But he went to the NBA, and as an assistant, and there isn’t even a category for assistant coaches, although there have been discussions toward that end.
Actually, there’s a built in bias against NBA coaches for the Hall of Fame, because of what they have to do. They can’t make up their schedules. So coaches like Bill Fitch get almost 1,000 losses put on their resumes and don’t get consideration, because in the NBA, you often are stuck with bad teams and they still make you play 82 games. Rarely do they allow you to schedule your own games.
But Tex didn’t seek publicity or personal attention, and given the Bulls and Lakers teams were awash in major sports celebrities, the finer points of the game can get overlooked.
Tex has been inducted into five hall of fames. But the one in Springfield is the big one, and even though it comes late, it is happening—it really is, Tex—and it’s still happening at a time when Tex can fully appreciate it and revel in the celebration of his career.
And that is a great gift for the rest of us.