Lahaina, Hawaii — On Tuesday morning at the Lahaina Civic Center, Michigan State was getting ready to head out of the locker room and start warming up for its game against Georgia in the Maui Invitational.
As most of the team had made its way to the court, Rocket Watts summoned Tom Izzo.
“Coach,” the freshman guard said.
Watts needed Izzo to come back to the locker room because Cassius Winston was still in there, sitting on the bench with his head down.
“I look over and there was a puddle under his chair,” Izzo said after Michigan State beat Georgia, 93-85, on Tuesday. “A puddle.”
It’s been about two-and-a-half weeks since Winston’s life crumbled around him. On Nov. 9, his 19-year-old brother, Zachary, was killed by a train near the Albion campus where he was a sophomore on the basketball team. Police say Zach took his own life, intentionally walking in front of the train.
For any family, it’s a difficult blow. For the Winstons, it was devastating. Cassius, Zachary and Khy, the youngest of the three brothers and a freshman at Albion, were as tight as any group of brothers can be. All three spent countless hours together on the basketball court, and ever since Cassius arrived on campus before his freshman season in 2016, Zachary and Khy were there, too.
That part has made Zach’s death tough on the entire team, many of whom were close friends with Zach.
But how this has impacted Cassius Winston, a preseason All-American that many believe could end the season as the national player of the year, is difficult to describe. Winston hasn’t missed a game, fighting through tears to play a day after his brother’s death while all the while trying to be strong for the rest of the family while coping in the public spotlight.
When he’s on the court, the familiar smile still flashes. But deep down, Cassius Winston is a man doing his best, and on Tuesday before the Spartans attempted to bounce back from a frustrating loss to Virginia Tech, it was one of those moments in time that had started to overwhelm the young star.
“It was a tough day,” Winston admitted after the game. “I think I cried before the game and things like that, but once I got out there, I was able to find my rhythm, find my peace out there on the court and that was really good for me, getting up-and-down, just having that rhythm that I usually play with.
“I feel like this is the first time I kind of had it in a while.”
While on the court, Cassius Winston looked like, well, Cassius Winston. He scored 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting and handed out eight assists. And as Georgia stormed back from a 28-point deficit to cut the Michigan State lead to two with two minutes to play, Winston was the calming force.
He fed Aaron Henry for a 3-pointer then calmly nailed two free throws. He then dished to Xavier Tillman for a 3, found Malik Hall for a layup and scored on a jumper in the paint to thwart the Georgia comeback.
It was quintessential Cassius Winston, putting the team on his back and willing them to a victory. He did it for the Spartans countless times last season as they won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles then beat Duke to reach the Final Four. It was all on the shoulders of Winston, the conference’s player of the year and second-team All-American.
The fact he managed to do that on Tuesday was nothing short of remarkable.
“We got beat by a good team (Monday) that played well and they deserve all the credit,” Izzo said. “But that even wasn't half my player out there. He didn't even play the first half because of the foul trouble, but when he was back it was just a wicked day.
“I've been told by the people that there's going to be these ups and downs, so somewhere if one guy says I'm making an excuse, there's going to be a fistfight, because the facts do matter. They matter. And the fact is the best friend in his life lost his life, and we're struggling as a team, but he is struggling as a human being.”
The struggle is lessened at times by the presence of his family. Winston’s parents — Reg and Wendi — were in the stands this week in Maui, as was his brother, Khy. This tournament is the first time Wendi has been to a game since Zachary’s death and Cassius Winston spent the first two games in Maui often glancing up in the stands after a play, checking on his mom.
However, Izzo is helping Winston’s parents do their best to check on Cassius, too, trying to help him through the most difficult time in his life.
“We’ve got an All-American that's probably gone through one of the toughest things that any human being would go through,” Izzo said. “We're just going to have to keep working him day-to-day through that.”
It’s not a simple task. Izzo struggles every day with how much to push. Does he back off or does he coach as he’s always coached, being emotional and challenging his players. After the loss to Virginia Tech on Monday, Izzo said Winston told him not to let up.
“You better keep grinding on me, coach, don't change one thing,” Izzo recalled Winston telling him. “Well, I got to tell you, that's hard for me and it's hard for him.”
A day later, after Winston broke down in the locker room, Izzo was still battling.
“I'm going to try my hardest to coach him back to normalcy, which means I have to be normal, too,” Izzo said. “It's the most difficult thing I've done.”