Cassius Winston hopes kids can see fun in sports, as Spartans hope to find it in hoops

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Point guard Cassius Winston (5) returns to lead Michigan State, the potential preseason No. 1 team in the country.

Detroit — The video on the screen was striking.

A young boy, maybe 10 years old, announcing he was retiring from sports. He’d had enough of the pressure from parents, the pressure from coaches, the pressure to succeed. It all had taken away the one reason he had for playing in the first place.

It was fun.

“I said I would play this game as long as I was having fun,” the boy in the video said. “But now, it’s time to call it quits.”

The lights came up at the Fisher Music Center on Thursday. A panel on participation in youth sports was about to begin and Cassius Winston was on the stage. The Detroit native and current star at Michigan State was struck by what the boy had said.

“What hit me as him saying he wasn’t having any fun,” Winston said. “As a kid, it’s easy to quit when you’re not having fun.”

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year understands what kids are dealing with playing sports these days. Just playing for fun has started to disappear.

Over the course of two days, the Aspen Institute held its "Project Play Summit" in downtown Detroit. The event was designed to bring together leaders across youth, sports, and health from all over the country to focus on building healthy communities through sports. On Thursday, as part of “Detroit Homecoming IV,” Winston was on a panel with Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons, Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute, Diane Dietz of the Big Ten and Dave Beachnau of the Detroit Sports Commission.

The group talked about what it is that is keeping kids from youth sports and what needs to change. Winston was able to bring the perspective of someone not that far removed from youth sports.

“For a lot of kids sometimes now, there’s the pressure of playing a sport, parents paying all this money for you to play, you can’t quit, you have to put in this, have to do that,” Winston said. “It’s not what sport is about. Sports is about building relationships, building that confidence, enjoying yourself. You need to have that part. The time you stop enjoying something, that’s the time you give it up.

“But we need to find a way to keep the game pure, keep enjoying yourself and having a good time and that will grow as you grow. If you have that happiness, it will never leave you.”

And if sports remain fun for kids and they never leave, the benefits are immeasurable.

“I’m pretty sure everyone in this room can think about a lesson they learned,” Winston said. “Whether it’s how to fail, how to get back on your feet, how to help a teammate and not just yourself, how to work as a group. All these things start at a young age and if you don’t have that structure in that sport, whatever it is to help with those life lessons, where do you learn those things from? One of the easiest places to learn them is from is sports.”

Even with his senior season on the horizon — Michigan State begins practice next week — Winston wasn’t missing the chance to be a part of something in his hometown.

“I want to put it in a good light,” the former Mr. Basketball from U-D Jesuit said. “I feel like now I'm in a situation where I can help a lot of people.”

But soon the focus turns to the court.

Michigan State is the likely preseason No. 1 team in the country after reaching the Final Four last season before losing to Texas Tech in the national semifinals. And many expect Winston to repeat as player of the year in the Big Ten while pushing for his share of national awards after earning second-team All-American honors last season.

It all has Winston eager for his final season with the Spartans.

“I’m excited. I'm ready,” he said. “We’ve been working a lot this summer. We know what the expectation is, we know what the goal is, but we just know the opportunity we have ahead of us. So we’ve just been working on trying to try to get there, and now it's time to play. That's the best part.”

When Michigan State does get to play, it won’t be easy.

In the first month of the season the Spartans will play Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Nov. 5 and Duke at home in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 3. In between there’s a potential matchup with Kansas in the Maui Invitational and a trip to Seton Hall on Nov. 14 as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Kentucky, Kansas and Duke likely will round up the top four in the rankings with Michigan State, while Seton Hall isn’t far behind as potentially a top-10 team.

“That's why you go to Michigan State,” Winston said. “You want to play the best. You want to beat the best, and in order to be the best you got to beat the best. We're looking forward to it.”

Winston said fellow senior Joshua Langford is continuing to work his way back after foot surgery cost him most of last season.

“You’re starting to see his confidence grow a little bit in his movements and things like that,” Winston said. “So that's a good sign.”

Winston also will get the chance to face his brothers, Zach and Khy, when Michigan State hosts Albion in an exhibition game before things become real with the opener against Kentucky on Nov. 5.

From there, the quest to get back to the Final Four begins with the hope that this time it comes with a different ending.

“We have a really good team, a lot of good players, a lot of good pieces,” Winston said. “We have everything you really need and all you can ask for is an opportunity, and we’ve got an opportunity. We’ll do everything we can to execute, not get too ahead of ourselves and focus on one game at time and hopefully at end of year have a different conversation.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau