How Cassius Winston Greets His Late Brother Before Every Michigan State Game
The quiet gesture from Cassius Winston goes largely unnoticed amid the hysteria at the start of another Michigan State basketball game.
Just before tipoff, Winston greets his teammates at midcourt. Then he turns away, slaps his right hand toward the air in front of him, slides it near his left shoulder and leans forward, hopping into a shoulder bump.
The new pregame routine for Winston, the all-American point guard and team captain, isn’t to pump himself up. It’s a greeting he developed in high school, one he used almost daily. It is a handshake, and one of the many examples of how his habits — and the Spartans’ — have changed after the suicide of his brother Zachary in November.
“He’s out there with me,” Cassius Winston said, recounting how he and his younger brother developed the handshake. The shoulder bump was their third option for the finish. They were going to snap, but Zachary didn’t know how. They were going to clap, but Cassius had a broken left wrist at the time. “He’s out there with me on the floor, and we’re going to make it through together.”
Adjusting to the grief has not been easy for Winston or the team, which started the season ranked No. 1 and had regarded Zachary Winston, who played at Division III Albion College, as family. It has taken a toll, as well, on Tom Izzo, the Hall of Fame coach who has led Michigan State since 1995.
Izzo’s tenure includes the highs of an N.C.A.A. championship and eight Final Four appearances, but no interpersonal challenge quite like the suicide of a player’s family member.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve gone through,” Izzo said, adding: “It has been way worse than I have let on.”
Izzo has been slow at times to chastise Winston for on-court mistakes, fearful that it might be too much for the player to handle. Sometimes, when the team is celebrating a win in the locker room, the mood changes when Winston enters because, as Izzo said, “You don’t feel good about feeling good.”
Winston is aware of these moments, the sudden shifts. He tries his best not to allow the grief he is working through to dictate his team’s feelings. When it happens anyway, he feels guilty for letting his sadness become too evident in front of teammates and coaches who mean well and are trying to help him heal. The university has assigned the team a grief counselor.
Izzo asks Winston to give him signs when things are O.K., or when they aren’t. Sometimes, during practice, Winston’s mind will wander and he will think of his brother. Those are the times he struggles the most, he said.
He wants to be upfront with Izzo and his teammates, whose jerseys include a patch bearing Zachary Winston’s nickname, Smoothie, which Winston also writes on his sneakers and in occasional Instagram posts. Sometimes being upfront is not possible because Winston doesn’t know himself how he feels.
“It’s really confusing, and it’s hard to really focus on one thing because your mind is just jumping all over the place,” Winston said. “Usually you know yourself, you know when you’re ready, you know when you’re not ready. But when you’re confused and when everything’s happening so fast, it’s kind of hard to stay focused.”
Izzo said he has often felt devoid of good answers. In the past, he would turn to his former boss and mentor, Jud Heathcote, who led the program before he did. But the death by suicide has demanded a different level of understanding, Izzo said, because close family members sometimes blame themselves.
“I have no book for this. I’ll look up at Jud and say, ‘Where’s the chapter?’” Izzo said, adding an expletive directed at Heathcote, who died in 2017, to punctuate his frustration. “There’s no chapter on suicide.”
Izzo tells Winston to call him any time, if he needs someone to listen. But because he hasn’t personally coped with the suicide of a loved one, he feels that he can only do so much.
Izzo sought advice from the former N.F.L. coach Tony Dungy, whose son killed himself in 2005. The former coach is among a number of people who have told Izzo that at some point, he needs to establish some normalcy for the team, whatever that may look like moving forward. (When contacted for this article, Dungy said he preferred to keep his communication with Izzo between them.)
Izzo checks in with Winston each night with calls or texts, knowing that those are the times when Winston is likely to be alone in his apartment. Sometimes their conversations turn to basketball. Mostly, they are not about wins and losses on the court.
“You lose and there’s people mad at you and it’s death to people and we try to make games life and death, and they’re not,” Izzo said. “Even some of those things, as traumatic as they can be, they’re not life and death. And this — what makes it different — is life and death.”
Winston has pushed to maintain his leadership role with the team, while continuing to learn about himself with patience and persistence.
Time and his teammates have helped him heal. The process requires daily attention. Winston has learned to direct his sadness toward something positive. Some days are easier than others, but the process has allowed him to look at his life, basketball and his relationship with his late brother in a completely new way. And in the moments when he needs reminding that he isn’t alone, Winston, who graduated from Michigan State in three years with a bachelor’s degree in advertising management and is pursuing a master’s degree in sport coaching and leadership, remembers the elements of his new game day routine. In addition to the handshake, he also calls his parents, Wendi and Reg, and his other brother, Khy, before each game to make sure they are in a good space emotionally.
“The more that you see him play, the more that you realize that even if he’s not back to normal, that it’s getting there,” Khy Winston, a freshman at Albion College, told The Lansing State Journal on Sunday after his brother had a career-high 32 points against Michigan. “Every day is a different day. For today to be a good day is a good day for everyone. Just to see him finally get the groove back brings a smile to my face.”
Winston said speaking with them gave him peace of mind before stepping on the floor. Still, his thoughts are never far from Zachary.
“All the memories I have of him are good memories, and that’s all you can really ask,” Winston said. “There’s no bad memories. There’s nothing I regret. I appreciate what he did in my life, and I appreciate our relationship, so that’s my way of showing that I’m still out here, I’m still going hard for him and one day we’re going to see him again.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.