Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about supporting Cassius Winston, who is dealing with the death of his brother Zachary. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — There was a basketball game at the Breslin Center on Sunday night, and while the blowout victory was nice for top-ranked Michigan State, it was hardly the focus for nearly everyone in the building.
Instead of worrying about wins or 3-pointers and slam dunks, the roughly 14,000 in attendance were there to support one player — Cassius Winston.
The Spartans senior decided being on the basketball court was where he needed to be less than a day after learning that his 19-year-old brother, Zachary, had been killed on Saturday night when he was struck by a train in Albion. Chief of Public Safety Scott Kipp confirmed Zachary Winston’s death and said the investigation, which included interviews with the train’s engineer, indicated Winston intentionally stepped in front of the Amtrak train.
“My message to the team tonight was play with a broken heart,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the 100-47 victory. “You always look at it that you want to play for somebody and this and that and you know, these guys’ hearts were broken. I've coached a lot of games in my career, but this was by far my most difficult day. It really was.”
Zachary Winston was a sophomore guard at Division III Albion and had just joined Khy, the youngest of the three Winston brothers and a freshman at Albion, some two weeks prior when Michigan State hosted Albion in an exhibition game. A bad hamstring kept Zach Winston out that night while Khy and Cassius went head-to-head for stretches in the second half.
It was an amazing night for a tight-knit family. All three brothers part of the same college game as mom and dad — Reg and Wendi — watched from the stands.
“As many of you know, for Cassius, his brothers are the world to him,” Izzo said. “I've never seen a kid over my years that was as close with his brothers. And Zachary grew up around the team, so much that he grew close to all the guys and so what happened is they are trying to be strong for Cassius but they're all friends with Zachary, too.
“He spent a lot of the summers here. I mean, he's just kind of like a member of our team. There's a bond there. We all could say that our brothers and sisters are important and our parents are important. But if you saw those three guys, it was a bond that was closer than close.”
Michigan State's Kyle Ahrens and Xavier Tillman talk about teammate Cassius Winston and the death of his brother Zachary. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
On Sunday, with Reg and Khy both in the stands, Cassius Winston played what might have been the toughest game of life.
Izzo called it "spectacular" as Winston recorded his 13th career double-double as he scored 17 points and dished out 11 assists.
“Some of those assists had me saying, ‘Wow,’” Izzo said.
Before there were any assists, Winton had to decide to play. When he did, he arrived for warm-ups along with Khy and the two sat courtside as warm-ups began. Khy draped his arm around Cassius as the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year had his hood pulled over head and stared at the ground. Then Cassuis jumped up, kissed Khy on the top of the head and hit the court to get ready to play.
As the clock wound down toward tip-off, the teams gathered on the court for a moment of silence. Tears were already flowing for Izzo and many in the stands. Cassius Winston stood between Kyle Ahrens and Joshua Langford. During the moment of silence, Winston kept his head down as Ahrens wrapped his arm around his longtime teammate. Later, during the national anthem, it was Langford, Winston’s partner from the 2016 class, that put his hand on Winston’s shoulder.
“He started breaking down a little bit and he needs to know that he's not alone,” Ahrens said. “We're there for him each and every way. He's our brother. He's family.”
Once the game started, Winston was typical Winston, hitting his first 3-pointer from the top of the key then firing a one-handed, half-court bounce pass to a streaking Thomas Kithier for a slam dunk. It was part of a one-sided half for Michigan State, which led 54-23 at the break.
By the time the second half rolled around, Winston continued to spark a balanced Michigan State attack. Five Michigan State players scored in double figures, led by junior Xavier Tillman’s 17 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore Aaron Henry scored 16 points on 5-for-6 shooting, sophomore Marcus Bingham scored a career-high 13 points while Kithier chipped in 10 points, also a career high.
Sophomore Sam Sessoms scored 12 to lead Binghamton (0-2) while senior Richard Caldwell Jr. added 11 points for the Bearcats.
Michigan State now prepares to head to Newark, New Jersey, on Thursday for a matchup with No. 12 Seton Hall in the Gavitt Games. And that’s when things will likey get tougher for Winston and the entire team.
The adrenaline was flowing on Sunday and the famous Winston smile even appeared late in the game. But as that wears off, the healing will continue for Winston and his family, as well as the entire Spartans program.
That’s the point he’ll truly be able to lean on all of his brothers.
“The only thing that we can do is just be there for him,” Tillman said. “If he wants to laugh, laugh with him. If he wants to cry, cry with him. If he needs a hug, hug him. Anything and everything that they need, we’ll give it to him.”