EAST LANSING – Cassius Winston’s career as a Michigan State Spartan ended on Thursday after the NCAA announced its decision to cancel all winter and spring seasons for all sports due to growing concerns over the spreading of COVID-19. Thus, as if with the snap of a finger, Winston’s career as a Spartan is over.
Although his career at Michigan State is over, albeit much too soon, the legacy Winston left behind, not only as a basketball player but as a student and as a human being, will live on for years past his departure from East Lansing.
It all started back in 2015 during a fall pep rally at Winston’s U of D Jesuit high school. It was then that Winston donned a Spartan hat and announced his intentions to continue his athletic and academic careers at Michigan State University.
Winston, who ranked as the No. 31 recruit in the nation by ESPN, would finish his senior season at U of D a state champion. Fittingly, he had one of the best games of his entire high school career on the Breslin floor. In the state championship game, Winston shot 14-for-16 from the floor for 31 points in a 20-point victory that secured the school’s first basketball state championship in its history.
There was a buzz around Michigan State basketball upon Winston’s arrival. He rounded out a dominating recruiting class that included Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward.
In Winston’s freshman year he immediately made an impact for the Spartans. Averaging 6.7 points and 5.2 assists in just 20.7 minutes per game, he finished the season first in the Big Ten in assists and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio. Winston was quickly making a name for himself in East Lansing.
Perhaps Winston’s best performance that year, and his coming out party for Michigan State, was his first-ever game against rival Michigan. In East Lansing, Winston came off the bench for the Spartans and tallied 16 points with three assists. He went 10-for-11 from the free-throw line and helped Michigan State to an eight-point victory.
It was a microcosm of the dominant and enthusiastic career Winston would have against the in-state rival. He finished with a record of 5-4 while averaging 17.4 points and 5.2 assists against the Wolverines in four years.
Four years that were bookended by two marvelous games from Winston against his bitter rival. On the front end, the best game of his freshman year and a win in his first game against Michigan. On the back end, an unbelievable 32-point performance in a dominating win in East Lansing on a day that, for Winston, it seemed like the basket was 10 feet wide.
Two marquee games for Winston, one during his freshman season and one during his senior season, came against the Wolverines. In a rivalry that has been as competitive and bitter as any rivalry in college basketball throughout history, Winston stood up to the challenge and played his best basketball when it mattered most.
As the Winston name spread rapidly through East Lansing, it wasn’t long before it was known across America. In his sophomore season, Winston nearly doubled his points per game total at 12.6 and also led the Big Ten in passing with 6.8 assists per game. In a starting five that was stacked with NBA-level talent (i.e. Jaren Jackson, Miles Bridges, Nick Ward), Winston was the leader.
He was the quarterback of an offense that was one of the most potent offenses anyone had seen in college basketball in a long time. On a starting rotation that featured ALL FIVE starters averaging double-digit scoring, Winston managed to find 12 points and seven assists per game for himself in there. He was the backbone of the offense, the facilitator. Sure… Bridges, Jackson and Ward make plays on their own, but Winston elevates the play of everyone around him, and when he’s put around pieces like those, big things happen.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the team during Winston’s sophomore year did not win a national championship. It’s even harder to believe they did not make it past the second round, as they were upset by a sneaky Syracuse team that would find itself in the Final Four as an eleven seed that year.
Winston stood out in his second year on campus, but without a Big Ten conference title or any substantive play in the NCAA Tournament, he was still searching for more.
The 2018-19 basketball season arrived, and so did Cassius Winston. Without the likes of Bridges and Jackson on Tom Izzo’s squad, everyone, including Winston, knew he was going to have to handle more of the scoring load for Michigan State.
Winston and company tore up the NCAA and Big Ten. Winston would finish the season as the Big Ten player of the year and led Michigan State to a regular season and Big Ten tournament championship. With a 28-6 record, the Spartans entered the NCAA tournament as a two seed.
Winston would lead the Spartans in scoring and assists throughout the tournament and had his best game against a star-studded Duke team that many analysts and fans had picked to run the table that year. Against Duke, Winston had 20 points, 10 rebounds and just one turnover. The upset win ignited Michigan State fans, propelled Winston into stardom and, more importantly, gave Izzo his eighth appearance in the Final Four.
In the Final Four, Winston led the way against Texas Tech with 16 points for Michigan State, but with just two assists and four turnovers, not to mention zero points coming from Michigan State’s hero against Duke, Kenny Goins, the Spartans fell short to the Red Raiders 61-51.
Then came the 2019-20 season. Here it is. One more go ‘round for Winston. A senior season that would solidify him as one of the greatest Spartan basketball players to ever live. And before the season could even kick into gear, tragedy struck.
Winston’s younger brother, Zachary, took his own life. The communities that knew Zach and the rest of the Winston family were devastated. It was a feeling that even I, a personal friend of Zach’s from high school, have trouble describing. The sorrow and pain felt for the entire Winston family was indescribable.
But Winston has the blood of champions, and one of the greatest measures of a true champion is how hard they can get hit and keep moving forward. Winston did more than just stumble forward, he soared to unimaginable heights.
Winston has been a role model in a multitude of facets in East Lansing for a while now. As a student, he graduated in three years and currently continues to strive for his master’s degree. As a friend, he has become the preferred babysitter, and bestfriend, to Xavier Tillman Sr.’s daughter, Ayanna (he will even tell you that he potty trained “Yanni”).
As a player, he’s been the unquestioned leader in the locker room and on the court of his team during the hardest time period in his life. As cliche as it sounds, he embodies everything that a Spartan is.
Winston’s best basketball trait might be his passing ability and his vision. The way he can find an open teammate and get them the ball to make a play is uncanny and unmatched. He is the same way in life. Looking for ways to make sure everyone around him is ok before he takes care of himself.
The list of accolades and accomplishments Winston obtained over the course of his senior season and career is a long one. The only one that truly matters is the one that came on March 8, 2020… Winston led the Spartans to a share of the Big Ten championship.
If Winston had to end his career prematurely, there’s not a better way he could have done it. In a game, for Winston, that was full of emotions, he did what he does best. He just went out there and played.
It was masterful to watch. Every shot Winston took felt like it was going in, it just had to. Any time he rose over a defender, the air in Breslin Center became a little thin and a hush ran through the crowd as they all gazed at the ball to see whether it would go in. It was almost as if every shot he took was in slow motion, to save time for just a little bit more enjoyment and gratitude for the four-year Spartan who would never again wear the green and white in East Lansing.
I personally have gotten to know Winston over the past eight years. I, too, went to U of D Jesuit and was immediately entrapped in the attraction and affinity that Winston received from his fans. Playing basketball there, I naturally became close friends with his brother Khy, who I am proud to call one of my best friends to this day.
For those that have only seen Winston on the court and in media interviews, he’s an even better person “in real life.” Chris Solari from the Detroit Free Press released an article that highlighted Winston’s character and how he went out of his way to ask about Solari’s kids. It’s a great read and I encourage everyone to read it. This is just who Winston is, a caring person who puts others before himself.
Winston has gone out of his way to ask me about my personal life too. With how many people he has met and how popular he has become since arriving at Michigan State I was surprised that he still even knew my name when I came to East Lansing this past summer for freshman orientation. He remembered much more than that. He knew that I was a journalism student and was interested in sports broadcasting and he took an interest in my plans for myself. He was asking me questions about being a sports announcer and what sports I liked, asked if it was what I wanted to do as a career.
He remembered all of this about me from all the way back in high school when I used to announce the varsity basketball games on our high school’s radio website. U of D Jesuit’s motto is “Men for Others” and Winston is a man for everyone.
It’s unfortunate that Winston did not get to finish his entire senior year, but he, more than anyone, knows that basketball is simply basketball and that there are more things in life than sports. This is real life, and we endure enough loss and tragedy in our world every day even without a deadly pandemic. And I think we can all agree that despite our affection for March Madness, the love we have for the people in our lives is far greater.
Winston’s career at Michigan State ends swiftly and tragically at the hands of something nobody could’ve seen coming. But perhaps Winston’s description of his exit, as told by himself on SportsCenter on Friday morning, is so simple that it’s absolutely perfect. “I went out a champion,” said Winston.
A champion. The image of Winston’s final bucket as a Spartan will live in infamy in Michigan State history forever. Winston, all alone at the top of the key. A helpless defender being lulled to sleep. Hesitation dribble and a drive to the left that leads to a step-back 3-pointer. Up by 17 points, it didn’t matter whether that shot went in or not for Winston. It was not going to change the course of the season or the Big Ten championship, but gosh darn it he drilled it. Because why not? Before Winston even landed from his leap he knew it was good.
Turning and smiling to the fans, Winston was happy and content. And so were they. Cheers rang out amongst the Breslin Center crowd, and, one last time, Winston grinned ear-to-ear, and raised both of his arms to receive the love.
Thank you, Cassius Winston. For everything you gave us on the court, and everything you taught us off of it. You are a true champion, not only in basketball, but in life.