Tex Winter, the innovator who pioneered the triangle offense and was an assistant coach on nine NBA championship teams, died Wednesday at the age of 96.
Winter’s death was announced by Kansas State University, where he was an assistant coach from 1947-51 and head coach from 1953-68. He died in Manhattan, Kansas where he lived since becoming incapacitated by a stroke in April 2009.
Morice Fredrick Winter was born Feb. 25, 1922 in Wellington, Tex. He grew up in Huntington Park, Calif., where he got the nickname “Tex”. After serving in the Navy in World War II, Winter played basketball at USC for legendary coach Sam Barry. He was also a standout as a pole vaulter.
Barry emphasized spacing of players, cutting, and brisk passes as head coach of the Trojans. Winter used the concepts he learned under Barry to devise the triangle offense during his time as a Kansas State assistant coach under Hall of Famer Jack Gardner.
Winter’s triangle offense involved three players: the center down low, a player in a corner, and third player on at the top of the 3-point line. These three players formed a triangle on one side of the court with the two remaining players on the opposite side.
The triangle offense called for constant player movement and sharp passing. It allowed the team’s most prolific scorer to take advantage of a confused defense to get the best possible shot. Winter’s system called for new triangles to constantly form. It emphasized fundamentals in place of the individual moves developed on playgrounds and gymnasiums.
“This day and age, these players don’t have any idea of team concepts,” Winter said in a 2005 interview with The (Riverside, Cal.) Press-Enterprise. “As far as they are concerned, it’s an individual game: ‘Give me the ball and let me go’.”
Winter became the nation’s youngest head coach when he took over Marquette in 1952. After a two-year stint with the Golden Eagles, he returned to Kansas State to succeed Gardner. Winter led the Wildcats eight conference championships, six NCAA Tournament appearances, and two Final Fours (1958, 1964).
Winter also coached at the University of Washington, Northwestern, and Long Beach State. In 30 seasons as a college coach, his record was 453-334. He was also the head coach of the Houston Rockets for two seasons (1971-73) with a record of 51-78.
Winter joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach in 1985. It wasn’t until Phil Jackson, a forward on the New York Knicks’ most recent championship teams (1970, 1973), was hired as Bulls head coach in 1989 that the triangle offense saw its greatest application.
“I wasn’t a very good coach and didn’t have a lot of knowledge, and he had a lot of knowledge,” Jackson once said when reflecting on Winter’s teachings during his early years with the Bulls. “He’s the mind of the basketball gods.”
Winter’s triangle offense helped Jackson’s Bulls (led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen) win six NBA titles in the 1990s (1991-93, 1996-98). He served as a mentor to Jackson and a teacher to Jordan.
“I learned so much from Coach Winter,” Jordan said in a statement issued through The Chicago Tribune. “He was a pioneer and a true student of the game of basketball. He was a tireless worker, always focused on details and preparations, and a great teacher.”
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Bryant remembered how much a basketball purist Winter was.
“After we won our second championship, he came in here right before we had a parade,” Bryant said. “We were all sitting around, and he talked about is not making fundamentally correct chest passes. He was serious. We all started laughing, and he couldn’t understand why. That’s just Tex.”
O’Neal credited Winter for some of his success.
“We used to argue a lot. He was a master of the triangle,” O’Neal said Wednesday. “I liked to go out of the triangle every now and then, but he would convey the message that it works and we’d sit and watch film and he had to say, ‘Sometimes you have to be not Shaq the dominant guy, you got to be like a decoy, get others involved. I think when I did that, especially in the playoffs, everybody was able to be comfortable and step up. But again, he definitely helped me get to that next level.”
O’Neal referred to Winter’s offense as “perfect” if it’s done properly.
Former Laker Derek Fisher remembered Winter as a coach who was “always able to manage his ego to do what was best for the team and best for the players.”
“It’s hard to argue that there’s any assistant coach at the pro level that was more impactful than Tex Winter,” Fisher said. “And, beyond professionally, just personally was a great human being. So even though he lived a long, full life, he’s still going to be missed.”
Winter was a consultant on the Lakers’ 2008-09 championship team. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 on his final ballot and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
“What he did for me and the path he put me on and the chance he gave me in Chicago along with Phil Jackson changed my whole life,” Kerr, who won three titles (1996-98) as a Bulls player, said. “I learned so much about basketball from Tex. (Warriors assistant coach) Ron Adams told me Tex knew more about the history of the game and the fundamentals of the game than anybody he’d ever met in his life. And I was lucky enough to play for Tex for five years and learn from him, A lot of what I do here with the Warriors is patterned after things I learned from Tex.”
“Tex Winter was a basketball legend and perhaps the finest fundamental teacher in the history of our game,” Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, another former Bulls player under Winter. “He was an innovator who had high standards for how basketball should be played and approached each day. Those of us who were lucky enough to play for him will always respect his devotion to the game of basketball. His contributions to the Bulls organization will always be remembered.”
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss released a statement.
“On behalf of the entire Lakers organization, I’d like to express our sadness at the passing of Tex Winter. Tex helped lead the team to four NBA Championships and was a mentor to many of our coaches and players. In addition to his numerous contributions to the game of basketball, Tex was a wonderful man and he will be dearly missed.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement as well.
“Like James Naismith, Tex Winter was an educator at heart who deeply believed in the values of the game of basketball—teamwork, discipline, and selflessness. A pioneering Hall of Famer with 10 NBA Championships, he taught those values to generations of players and coaches, leaving a legacy that will forever be part of our history.”
Winter is survived by his wife, Nancy; three sons, Chris, Brian, and Russ; and three grandchildren.
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.