Tex Winter and the pursuit of perfection

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By Adam Fluck | 08.12.2011 | @ChicagoBulls

When talking with former players who were coached by Tex Winter, naturally you hear a lot about his famed triangle offense that helped the Bulls of the 1990s and Lakers of the 2000s win a combined nine world championships.

But one other common theme seems to come up without exception—the fact that Winter was as hardnosed of a coach as one could be. Simply put, he didn’t hold back.

Tex Winter

Pippen on Winter: "If Tex ever caught Michael reverting back to what he would call his showboating habits, Tex would tell him, ‘You need to pass the ball! There’s no ‘I’ in team!’ Michael would always say, ‘But there is in win.’ Tex never held back."
(Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images)

Whether you were Michael Jordan or Bill Wennington, Winter was quick to criticize if you made a mistake on the basketball court. And that’s exactly why players across the board respected him.

Winter demanded greatness and expected perfection from every player on the roster. Anything less simply wasn’t good enough. It was that mentality, coupled with his vast knowledge surrounding the game and the triangle offense, which helped land him among those set for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2011.

“Tex had the ability to get under your skin a little bit,” recalled John Paxson. “He didn’t mince words. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, when a coach says something, players can get a little testy. It happens. But at the end of the day, everyone always knew Tex’s intentions were in your best interests as an individual and in the team’s best interests. That’s what we all understood.”

When Scottie Pippen came to the Bulls in the fall of 1987 as a 22-year old rookie out of Central Arkansas, it didn’t take him long to realize it was going to be a tough relationship between him and Winter.

“Anyone who knows Tex knows that he is going to be your biggest critic,” recalled Pippen.

It took time for Pippen to adjust to the professional ranks, as well as Winter’s strong emphasis on ball movement and player movement—two key elements to the triangle offense, though it would not be fully implemented until Phil Jackson took over as head coach in 1989.

“Tex didn’t believe in any individual having the talent to dribble penetrate or beat anyone, because that was like you were showboating, to use his words,” said Pippen. “But all in all, Tex made me a lot better player. He taught me and other guys how to allow your teammates to be a part of the success of winning through sharing the basketball.”

It’s likely Winter saw Pippen as somewhat of a project, having played at a small NAIA school and not facing the levels of competition, say, Michael Jordan had at the University of North Carolina. Also, as a basketball purist, surely Winter wanted to instill a greater sense of the fundamentals on Pippen.

Tex Winter

"We all take our hats off to Tex," said Pippen of Winter, shown above during his time at Kansas State. "We’ve got so much respect for him and the triangle offense and what they both have meant to us. The success that we enjoyed was truly in part because of Tex."
(Courtesy of Kansas State University)

But as Pippen points out, Winter also had the big picture in mind and a goal to pair one future Hall of Famer with another for the long-term.

“He wanted me to be different than Michael,” said Pippen. “He wanted me to follow his path instead of playing the type of basketball Michael played, and looking back, I was in between those styles. I wasn’t a great one-on-one player and fit better as a team player, but Tex tried to break me down even more to be just a ball mover. We bumped heads a few times about that, but it was the nature of a player to try things out there at times. If you succeed, great; if you don’t succeed, you have to be willing to be coached. Tex was always willing to coach me any time I made poor decisions.”

As for the triangle offense itself, Jackson was sold on it without even truly knowing the ins and outs of it when he earned the job as head coach in 1989, according to Pippen.

“He was willing to take his first opportunity as a head coach in the NBA and rely on Tex’s triangle offense,” said Pippen. “That’s amazing, because Phil was learning the offense as he was teaching it.

“A lot of times in practice, Tex would have to step in and correct Phil,” added Pippen. “Don’t get me wrong, Phil was a great student who didn’t make too many mistakes, but Tex was so overwhelmingly happy about it. He felt like he had gotten new life because he had a coach that was really going to make us work at it.”

It wasn’t easy in the beginning, but following practice after practice of Jackson selling the triangle offense and Winter drilling it, things eventually began to come together for the Bulls. As part of that process, Jordan transformed from the game’s best scorer to an incredible all-around player, one that also trusted and believed in his teammates.

Pippen and Paxson agree that both Jackson and Winter played significant roles in getting Jordan to that point, which was essentially a byproduct of the triangle. It also signified the leap in which Jordan went from a player who averaged a remarkable 37.1 points per game during the 1986-87 season to a six-time world champion.

“Michael was having these huge scoring years, but the team didn’t win championships that way,” said Paxson. “Phil and Tex believed you weren’t going to win championships with one player dominating the ball all of the time. In the triangle, it was five players moving in sync and the ball moving. That was the selling point. Personnel mattered and the Bulls had to scout personnel that would fit the triangle—smart players, shooters and post players like Bill Cartwright, who was very important. It was more about the team game than anything else.”

“Individuals don’t win; great teams win,” agreed Pippen. “[Jordan] would have had to somehow change his game to become the winner he became. The triangle offense was great because it was something that practically made for a guy like Michael. In the triangle, you can move the ball and it will find its way back to you. That’s what helped Michael believe in it. Once he was sold on it, I think Tex felt like he had conquered the greatest player in basketball in terms of helping him believe in his teammates.”

Along the way, of course, healthy banter between Jordan and Winter occurred with great regularity. Jordan even recalled one of those times during Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009, when Winter was trying to convey the need to trust his teammates and share the responsibility.

“That was said a lot on our sidelines,” laughed Pippen. “If Tex ever caught Michael reverting back to what he would call his showboating habits, Tex would tell him, ‘You need to pass the ball! There’s no ‘I’ in team!’ Michael would always say, ‘But there is in win.’ Tex never held back. We were all human and we were going to make mistakes on the court. But Tex didn’t live with too many mistakes and he would let you know it.”

Paxson, who along with Winter came to the Bulls in 1985, also remembers some back and forth between Jordan and Winter. In fact, Winter never believed Jordan threw a great two-handed chest pass.

“It’s one of the most basic, fundamental things you can do,” said Paxson. “When you’re a kid growing up and you go to camp, you learn to extend your arms and point your thumbs down and get backspin on the ball. But Tex never thought Michael threw a precise, two-handed chest pass and he’d let him know that.”

Tex Winter

“Tex endeared himself to you right away because you could tell that he had this unbelievable knowledge about the game, and a remarkable passion for it, too,” said Paxson of Winter, both of whom were assistant coaches when the Bulls went 72-10 and claimed their fourth world championship in 1995-96.
(Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls)

While Paxson played for Winter, among others, until 1994, it was his one year on the coaching staff during the 1995-96 campaign in which his appreciation for Winter grew the most.

“I sat in every day on the meetings and I had the opportunity to listen to Phil and Tex, who had great banter,” recalled Paxson. “It was a unique relationship. But Tex’s knowledge, understanding, and his ability to teach were things that I’ve never forgotten. In many ways, those are lost arts among coaches today. I have great fondness for Tex Winter.”

As so many others do, Paxson feels Winter has been underappreciated over the years and his entry into basketball’s Hall of Fame is long overdue. He cites that numerous other coaches have tried to implement the triangle offense, but very few have enjoyed much success as a result.

And while perhaps one can argue those teams didn’t have Michael Jordan, they didn’t have Tex Winter either. There has to be a lot of elements that work together, and Paxson’s hope is that coaches of the pro and collegiate ranks will study Winter’s teachings.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever see the triangle in the format that we used it, because Tex basically created it through knowledge he got from other coaches,” said Paxson. “But at the end of the day, it was his in the way he refined it.”

Paxson also views Winter’s enshrinement as different the players, who are so often measured by statistics, and coaches, whose success is commonly gauged by wins or championships, who have preceded him.

“To me, this recognizes the contribution of teaching the game,” said Paxson. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone better than Tex at teaching the fundamental aspects of the game.

“When you breakdown his triangle offense, he had seven principles of a sound offense that were his that were his mantra,” Paxson continued. “All of them had a specific purpose to them. That’s the teaching component of it. Tex’s legacy, at least in my mind, and I hope that people understand this when he’s inducted, is that it’s not about his wins and losses as a head coach. It’s about his ability to teach the game.”

2011 Hall of Fame