Over the last four years in college basketball, Cassius Winston of Michigan State has risen from role-playing point guard to one of the biggest names in the sport. The All American basketball player might have had his final year cut short before achieving his ultimate goal as an NCAA champion, but that pales in comparison to the tragedy that affected his life in the early parts of the season.
Winston’s brother, Zachary, took his own life in November of 2019, and as such, Cassius dedicated his season to his fallen brother and made sure to pay tribute at each game.
Cassius Winston’s early college years
Cassius Winston began playing in Tom Izzo’s program in 2016, where he came off the bench as the team’s backup point guard. Although giving the Spartans just under seven points per game and five assists, Winston was not the team’s most valuable player, he provided the team with valuable minutes off the bench and learned behind Izzo, star guard Mikal Bridges, and the rest of the team as they went two rounds deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Winston made his way into Michigan State’s starting lineup by his sophomore, where he, Bridges, and incoming freshman and current Memphis Grizzlies up-and-comer Jaren Jackson led the team to an impressive 30-5 record to go with 16-2 versus the Big Ten conference.
However, despite the better showing in the regular season, the team once again fell in the second round. Winston averaged 12 points per game and six assists but shot nearly 50-percent from behind the three-point line.
He showed improvement during his second season, but it was his junior year that showed people what he was truly made of. With Jackson and Bridges both in the NBA, Winston ended up as the definitive leader of the team, and they hadn’t looked better in years. He had a career season, averaging just under 19 points and over seven assists per game.
Tragedy struck in November when it was announced that Zachary Winston was killed when he was struck by an Amtrak train. Zachary, who was just 19 years at the time of his death, was playing for the Division III Albion men’s basketball team along with the youngest brother, Khy. The death was ruled an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Understandably, the death of his brother rocked Cassius’ world. He did not use it to shut down, however. Instead, Winston went out and had another star-making year in what would be his final season at Michigan State. He once again helped led the team to a winning record at 22-9, and despite a fall in the record, the team looked poised for postseason success.
Unfortunately, the Coronavirus outbreak cut the NCAA season short before a champion could be named. However, with the death of his brother still a recent memory, Zachary ensured throughout the year that his legacy would live on.
Before each game following the death of his brother, those who watched Michigan State may have noticed Winston slapping the air in front of him then sliding it to his left shoulder and bumping somebody who isn’t there.
This is a tribute to his brother, as it was a handshake that the two had exchanged for years upon meeting each other. It is his way of letting people know that his brother’s memory is still here.
“He’s out there with me,” Cassius said to The New York Times. “He’s out there with me on the floor, and we’re going to make it through together.”
The brothers were close throughout their lives, and Winston was candid with how much the death affected him throughout the year. With the season over in an anticlimactic twist, however, Winston isn’t worried about the lack of another opportunity to hoist the trophy. He believes that he proved he has the heart of a champion. He battled on and off the court to make sure that he did his family proud.
“I went out a champion,” Cassius Winston told ESPN (per The Detroit News).
“It was not the season that we wanted, not the season that we kind of expected, but at the end we fought through a lot. We battled and we had a chance to hoist up a trophy. So my senior year, I feel like we did end it with a championship.”
Now, Winston can look forward to his professional dreams, as he is projected to go in the first round of a deep NBA draft. If his college career taught us anything, it is that he will fight for everything he wants. Whatever happens from here on out, however, Winston is helping to keep his brother’s memory alive and will likely do so at the next level.