Tex Winter, the Hall of Fame coach whose teachings of the triangle offense helped spearhead six Bulls championships in the 1990s, died Wednesday, the Bulls confirmed. Winter, 96, had been in declining health since suffering a debilitating stroke in April 2009.
“Tex Winter was a basketball legend and perhaps the finest fundamental teacher in the history of our game,” Bulls executive vice president John Paxson, a guard on the first three title teams, said Wednesday night in a statement. “He was an innovator who had high standards for how basketball should be played and approached every day. Those of us who were lucky enough to play for him will always respect his devotion to the game.”
Jerry Krause hired Winter in July 1985 as one of his first moves as Bulls general manager, and Winter teamed with defensive-minded Johnny Bach to form a potent pairing of assistant coaches for both Doug Collins and Phil Jackson. A noted perfectionist, Winter spent most games scribbling notes to take to the next day’s practice.
“To him it doesn’t matter if it’s Michael Jordan or Keith Booth,” Jackson told the Tribune in a 1998 interview. “If you don’t play according to the rules of the ‘basketball gods,’ you are destroying the credibility of the game. Tex thinks there is a way to play the game, and if you don’t abide by those things, then it’s not right.”
Born Morice Fredrick Winter near Wellington, Texas, Winter assisted Jackson on nine NBA championship teams: six with the Bulls and three with the Lakers. His six-decade coaching career also featured 454 victories as a college head coach, mainly at Kansas State but also in stints at Northwestern, Marquette, Washington and Long Beach State. He entered the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
At Kansas State, Winter guided the Wildcats to four Final Fours, won eight Big Eight championships and was voted national coach of the year for the 1958-59 season. He also went 51-78 as coach of the Houston Rockets from 1972 to ’74.
But Winter gained his greatest fame integrating the triangle offense he learned playing for Sam Barry at USC into the NBA, where players such as Jordan and Kobe Bryant learned to revel in its spacing and instinctive reads.
“I’ve always regarded Tex more as teacher than coach and believe that’s why he had the respect of so many players,” Paxson said in a 2011 interview with the Tribune when Winter entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “He really did approach the practice court as if it were a classroom. Tex was meticulous in having us pay attention to the small details and would drill them religiously. I can honestly say I learned more basketball being around Tex than at any other time.”
Winter loved the triangle offense so much, he would talk about it with anyone, even janitors at the arena. Humble from his roots growing up in West Texas during the Depression years, Winter possessed a self-effacing humor. He would get teased consistently for not letting food go to waste and wearing out-of-date sport coats with pockets typically stuffed with plays drawn on paper.
“The triangle was predicated on spacing, ball movement, player movement and reading the defense,” Paxson said in 2011. “And it was essential to our success. I still remember he would be critical when it came to fundamentals, even with Michael. He used to always say MJ didn’t throw a precise enough chest pass. That’s how he analyzed the game, with an unbelievably educated and well-trained eye.”
In 1947, Winter was close to accepting a position at Ventura (Calif.) Junior College as an assistant track and basketball coach. He had just graduated from USC, where he was a better pole vaulter than basketball player.
But Kansas State coach Jack Gardner called Barry, for whom Gardner and Winter had played, and asked for help in finding an assistant. Winter spent 19 seasons in Manhattan, Kan.
Winter was even closer to retiring — had the car packed and all — and moving to an Oregon vacation home in 1985 with Nancy, his wife of more than seven decades. But Krause called and practically begged his longtime friend to give him two, maybe three seasons.
Winter stayed 14.
“He’s a teacher, first and foremost,” Krause said in 2011. “He was so critical to our championships. And he gave so much to the game.”
In fact, Krause once resigned from the Naismith Hall of Fame selection committee because he was so bothered by Winter’s exclusion. Krause didn’t return to the Hall of Fame until 2011, when Winter got inducted and surprised people by pushing through his health issues to attend.
That was Winter’s competitiveness, which was as legendary as his pursuit of unattainable perfection. During a 1993 regular-season game against the Jazz, Winter kept complaining about illegal screens the sculpted Karl Malone kept setting. The 6-foot-9, 256-pound Malone barked at Winter to “suit up or shut up.”
Asked about that incident during the Bulls’ final championship season in 1998, Winter joked about how quickly that fight would’ve ended.
“I don’t take myself too seriously, but I take the game of basketball seriously,” Winter said in that interview with the Tribune. “I do get very involved in the game. And if I don’t think it’s being played right or officiated right, it’s hard for me not to speak up.”