'A tough time': MSU's Cassius Winston finds haven from heartache
East Lansing — For two hours on Monday night, Cassius Winston was back in his safe place.
The Michigan State senior was back on the basketball court, helping lead the third-ranked Spartans to fairly ordinary 94-46 victory over Charleston Southern at the Breslin Center.
But, virtually nothing has been ordinary for Winston, not since the night of Nov. 9 when his world came crashing down with the news that his 19-year-old brother, Zachary, had been killed after being struck by a train near the campus of Albion College, where Zachary was a sophomore on the basketball team. Authorities said he appeared to intentionally step in front of the train.
The next night, Winston took the court, his hood pulled over his head during warm-ups and tears flowing down his cheeks as the Breslin Center crowd observed a moment of silence to remember Zachary.
From that moment, Winston has been grieving out in the open for all to see. From that first game back on the court to last week’s trip to Seton Hall where he left the rest of his family back home to Monday night when Winston addressed the crowd, thanking the community for all the love and support he and his family have received over the last week.
“It's tough, but I just got to do it,” Winston said after the game. “Basketball is one of the places where there's kind of a safe haven. So, actually playing basketball isn't the most difficult part. It’s pretty decent. It’s just kind of trying to remember what you enjoy most about it, finding the joy in it and finding the joy in everything you do you.
“(Addressing the crowd was) really important. I love this place. I love everything about it. I love the fans, the support, you know, is unmatched and I just wanted the people to have a chance to hear from me and that I appreciate everything they've done. I appreciate all the prayers, the flowers, the cards — from me and my family.”
It was the first time Winston has spoken publicly since his brother’s death. He’s kept playing, but he’s done so with mom and dad by his side in East Lansing, as well as his youngest brother, Khy, a freshman at Albion. They’ve always been a tight family and that bond has carried them through the last few days.
Winston’s dad, Reg, and Khy have been with him at practices and they’ve immediately returned to be with mom, Wendi. Other family members have been here, too, as well as close friends. When Michigan State traveled to Newark last week for the Seton Hall game, it was agony for Cassius.
“Horrible. Horrible, just because I was away from family,” Winston said. “When I’m here it’s kind of go to practice and then when I'm done, I'll go back to my mom. When I was there it was like they were gone, they weren't there. So, you kind of worry about them, what they're going through, all type of stuff like that.
“It’s a tough time, but once you get out on the court, you just kind get distracted, a little bit distracted in basketball. It’s a huge distraction from the world right now, and sometimes you need that.”
The distraction has helped, Winston admitted. He and his family are doing their best to find some normalcy, though that will take far longer than anyone can guess.
Last weekend, Khy returned to the court with his Albion teammates for the first time, and instead of staying back in East Lansing and practicing, coach Tom Izzo told his star player to be with his brother.
“It was pretty good for him, like I said, just to have that distraction,” Winston said. “A game probably lasts about two hours, two hours of just something else, you know. Getting your mind away from it …”
Winston trailed off for just a moment.
“It’s just tough,” he said. “It hits you at random times, but if you have that distraction for you, that's always been good for us.”
As the family continues to navigate their sorrow, Winston is doing his best to continue to be everything his team needs and everything the Michigan State community does, as well. A true ambassador for the program, Winston is grieving out in the open.
That, he admitted, is hard. Not as much for him, but certainly for his parents.
“It sucks for me, but (more) for my parents and stuff like that because there's some times you want to be sad in private,” Winston said. “Sometimes you want to be able to just walk somewhere and just put your hood on to be sad, because it is a sad thing. It’s a tough time but you really don't get that chance, because somebody wants to reach out to you. It comes from a good place. Honestly, it comes from a good place because you see someone is I hurting, you see somebody going through a tough time, you want to tell them that you love them and that you care for them.
“But sometimes you just want to be alone. I want to be able to go somewhere, not be 1,000 people kind of reaching out to you. It’s different and you just got to get used to it. It’s not all bad, just different.”
With that, things began to wrap up for Winston in the Michigan State locker room. He steered some of the talk to getting back in a routine this week and helping his game as the Spartans prepare for next week’s Maui Invitational.
But Winston knows it won’t be easy. He’ll always have Zachary on his mind — Smoothie, as everyone called him.
“It’s gonna be tough times,” Winston said. “It’s not supposed to be easy and it's not supposed to be like it didn't happen. It’s never going to be that, it’s just we don’t want to let his name go in vain. In the things that we do, we want to make him proud and make our families feel proud. I think that's where we are as a family.”