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Sport 'Nobody knows what I’m going through': Michigan State star Cassius Winston's overwhelming grief

21:20  15 december  2019
21:20  15 december  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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EAST LANSING, Michigan — The call came in after midnight. Tom Izzo didn’t hear it. But when he saw a few minutes later that it was Milt Barnes, he figured the former Eastern Michigan University basketball coach wanted tickets to that day’s game against Binghamton.

“I’ll call him back in the morning,” Izzo thought.

Five minutes later, his phone rang again. It was David Thomas, Michigan State’s director of basketball operations.

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“Milt Barnes is trying to get a hold of you,” Thomas told Izzo. “He says it’s important.”

Izzo took a deep breath.

He called Barnes back.

Barnes had grown up in Saginaw and played college basketball at Albion. He coached at Albion High School after a long career at the college level. His son, MJ, plays for Albion College, with Cassius Winston’s two younger brothers, Zachary and Khy.

“Zachary is gone,” Barnes told Izzo. “He was hit by a train.”

a man holding a basketball in front of a crowd: Michigan State guard Cassius Winston dribble the ball during MSU's 72-49 win over Oakland on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at Little Caesars Arena.© Anntaninna Biondo, Detroit Free Michigan State guard Cassius Winston dribble the ball during MSU's 72-49 win over Oakland on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at Little Caesars Arena. He didn’t have any other details.

Izzo got off the phone and called his assistant coach, Mike Garland, who was staying with MSU’s basketball team at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center on campus, as he and the team always do on weekends the night before a home game.

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He told him the news. Asked where Cassius was, and jumped in his car.

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As soon as Garland hung up, he bolted for the hallway to head for Winston’s room. He took a few steps before spotting the team’s star point guard walking toward him from the other end of the hallway. He picked up his pace. A few seconds later Winston collapsed into his arms, sobbing.

“There was nothing to say,” Garland said.

He guided Winston back to his room, where they sat for the next 15 minutes. Eventually, Winston said he needed to see his teammates. Garland told him to sit tight, and he left to gather the team.

When he opened his door to step out, the players were spilling into the hallway. He motioned them to come in. They tried to console Winston, unsure what to say. There was mostly silence.

A few minutes later, Izzo arrived. He embraced Winston and they headed for the lobby to wait for Winston’s parents, Wendi and Reg. Garland joined them. A half-hour later, Winston’s youngest brother, Khy, arrived from Albion with an assistant basketball coach. The parents got there shortly after that.

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For the next few hours, Izzo, Winston, his family, his girlfriend and Garland sat on the floor and talked. Izzo finally left around 4:30 a.m. There was a team breakfast at 10 a.m. Shootaround was scheduled for 2 p.m. The game against Binghamton tipped at 7 p.m.

Before he left, Izzo told Winston he didn’t need to play. Maybe shouldn’t play. That if it were him, he probably wouldn’t play. But he left it up to Winston.

The game that night was a blur for everyone. It has been a blur ever since.

Worrying about everyone else

Winston is an All-American because of his eyes. He sees angles and space. Slivers of room. The movement of bodies as they dart and collide and change direction. He finds order in that chaos and anticipates where openings will appear. At his best, he can orchestrate the movement himself.

Right now, Winston can’t see. Not the way he has since he first learned to dribble a basketball. Grief is blocking his vision. So is his lack of desire to play.

All his life, outside of his family, the court is where he found joy. Since that night of Nov. 9, when his younger brother stepped in front of a train just outside Albion College’s campus, the court has offered little refuge.

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“Playing basketball doesn’t bring the same joy, the same freedom, the same kind of outlet,” he said last week. “Usually on the court, you feel free. You feel open. Like you can make anything happen. (But now), at certain times I don’t even want to be out there. I would rather go talk to my brother, be somewhere with my family. That's where it gets tough.

"It's some long days. Long nights. I can’t sleep … It’s been the longest month of my life.”

Take the Duke game a couple of weeks ago.  His father told him right before the national anthem that his mother couldn’t be there. The news knocked the wind out of him.

She couldn’t stomach another night of forced small talk and strangers offering condolences. Winston understood. But he’d counted on her presence. And he worried.

“I almost cried during the anthem,” he said.

a man standing in front of a crowd: Michigan State's Cassius Winston leaves the court after the Spartans game against Duke on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The Spartans lost to the Blue Devils 87-75.© Nick King/Lansing State Journal Michigan State's Cassius Winston leaves the court after the Spartans game against Duke on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The Spartans lost to the Blue Devils 87-75.

Then he spent the game thinking about his mom. Looking into the stands at her empty seat during stoppages in play, or timeouts, in the middle of the game, the ball in his hands.

“That was tough because there is so much you gotta worry about,” Winston said. “Like, make sure they’re OK. There are so many people to make sure are OK. And my mom is one of my backbone pieces. It sucked. It was awful. But it wasn’t for me. It was for her. Coming to the games is a constant reminder she lost her son.”

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Winston struggled against Duke. He might have struggled under normal circumstances; every player has off nights. But he couldn’t focus. He couldn’t feel anything but her absence, her pain. Not even the basketball in the palm of his hand.

He talked to his mom after the game. She apologized.

“You gotta tell me before the game,” he told her. “Tell me early. If you can’t be there, I understand.”

He understands everything, really. Why rooms go silent when he enters. Why he can’t eat. Or lift weights. Or take extra shots in the gym.

Why his teammates don’t know what to say. Why his coaches often don’t, either. Why he lays in bed at night awake. All night. Sometimes until the light pours through the window.

Why his brother stepped in front of the train.

“He had one bad day,” Winston said. “The pain was too much.”

Why he is angry, even though that’s hard to admit. Why he feels regret. That he could’ve done more. That he should’ve done more.

“Like I had more power (to keep this from happening),” he said. “Like I gave him too much freedom to make his own decisions. I feel like I had the power to take him out of school and move him here with me. Like all type of things.”

Winston and his family knew Zachary struggled. They knew he had found himself in dark places. It wasn’t a secret.

“We were all pretty much open. We had conversations,” he said. “We took almost every step possible that we could. His pain was too much for him to bear on his own.”

He knows that in his brain. Even in his soul.

But in his heart?

He is the oldest. The leader. The one who always made everything better. Made everyone better. That’s easy to see on the court. That’s the skill that helped MSU get to the Final Four last season. He has always been that way off the court, too.

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“That’s been my role my whole life,” he said. “I’ve been the guy that carries a lot of people. Not because that’s what people expect, but because that’s what I enjoy doing. I enjoy being able to make people better than what they are, or what they think they can be.”

In the end, he couldn’t make his brother better. No matter how much or how hard he tried. And that loss, that pain, is preventing him from making his team better at the moment.

He feels that weight.

“This is my team,” he said. “I know I’m a very important piece. But you can only spread your energy, your heart, your mind (so far). To be responsible for the guys on the team is very difficult because I don’t even know what I’m doing with myself. I’m trying to pull myself together to get through the day.”

He’s also trying to get his brother Khy through the day, and his mom through the day, and his dad through the day.

“Right now, I’m spread so thin that it’s hard to do it all,” he said.

a basketball player jumping up to hit the ball: Michigan State's Cassius Winston wears an Albion College basketball camp while warming up before the game against Duke on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.© Nick King/Lansing State Journal Michigan State's Cassius Winston wears an Albion College basketball camp while warming up before the game against Duke on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

His focus has changed

Izzo and the coaching staff are desperate to ease his burden. Some days are more successful than others. But as Izzo said last week, there is no film study to fix what’s broken, no manual or clinic or playbook.

There is just grief and its ripples.

“I go to bed every night wondering what I can do differently,” Izzo said, “wondering who I can call, what I can say, how I can change or not change our routine.”

Izzo sought advice from a psychiatrist. He talked to Tony Dungy, the former NFL coach who lost a son to suicide, and he asked Dungy to call Winston’s parents.

“He was incredible,” Izzo said.

He talks to Winston as much or as little as Winston wants. He calls the family. He meets with his coaches daily to figure out what to do next.

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Yet as long as he has coached, as much as he has seen, he has never navigated through anything like this. Winston didn’t just lose a brother. He lost a brother to suicide. Winston isn’t just a regular player on the team. He's the point guard who directs the team, the center of the locker room, the source from which everything flows on the court.

A few days after the team returned from the Maui Invitational Tournament in Hawaii, Izzo asked Winston if he wanted to come over to his house and maybe watch a little film, have a bite to eat, and talk. About whatever he wanted to talk about.

Winston agreed. Then called his coach later in the afternoon to cancel. He had to join his parents in Albion to clean out Zachary’s room.

Izzo was in his office when he called.

“And the color left my face, and I about fell out of my chair,” he said.

Not that he forgets, but because he couldn’t imagine what that must be like. And he almost felt guilty for thinking he could ask Winston to do something as normal as watching extra film.

Yet at some point he has to. And he has to figure out how to coach his team. And Winston wants him to push him … in theory.

Tom Izzo wearing a suit and tie: Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo talks with guard Cassius Winston during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)© The Associated Press Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo talks with guard Cassius Winston during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Even though he’d rather be anywhere but on the court.

“It changes your focus,” Winston said. “I’m trying to focus on the game, but I still feel something in the back of my mind. Something is missing. My whole time here (at MSU), basketball has been the biggest thing. Coming in spending time, getting in the gym, that’s been the biggest part of my life. And now something has happened that destroyed my world, turned it upside down.

"Now I would rather check on my brother. I would rather spend time with my mom than come to practice. That's just where I’m at.”

'I don’t want people to pity me'

But there are moments. Moments of light. Moments were the ache subsides and he can feel the basketball on his fingertips, and he can take off down the court and actually see.

He’s had a few more of those moments in the past week. The past couple of practices have been better. He’s learning how to change his vibe when he enters the film room, the dining room, the huddle to begin practice.

“Even if I have to fake it,” he said. “My team needs me.”

It has been a month since that night he walked down the hall and fell into Garland’s arms. The shock is throttling back slightly. And while he still toggles between heartache and anger, still rolls all those what-ifs as he lies awake at night, still wants to tell his brother, Zachary, a thing or two when he meets him again in the afterlife, he is finding a way to be who he is supposed to be.

To be who he is.

“I want to accomplish a lot of things through basketball because that’s what like my family, my brother, that’s what everybody would want me to do,” he said.

a man holding a basketball: Michigan State guard Cassius Winston celebrates a 3-pointer against Rutgers, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.© Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press Michigan State guard Cassius Winston celebrates a 3-pointer against Rutgers, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

The season isn’t finished. The NBA is out there. He’s grateful for all the condolences and sympathy and love he has felt these past several weeks.

“It comes from a good place,” he said. “But I don’t want people to pity me. I don’t want to walk into a room and feel people get down or sad. Like, they’re connected to (Zachary), they knew him, but that’s not their world. You don’t know it until you lose someone that is a part of you. You can know somebody, and they can go away but you won’t feel it in your heart, in your body because that’s not your actual connection. Like they feel bad for me, but they don’t know what I’m going through.

"Nobody knows what I’m going through.”

This is what Izzo tells himself. Every day. All day.

That he can try to put himself in Winston’s shoes. But he can’t truly relate.

He can make sure he and his staff and the rest of his team don't forget, and they keep Zachary’s memory alive, but also that he can’t dwell. Because Winston doesn’t want that, either.

“It’s hard (for anyone in the program to be happy), hard to show much emotion,” he said.

And for a program built on joy and tough love and family connection, this is the hardest of all. The soul of the team is wounded. Whatever basketball issues remain — finding consistency at the power forward spot; Aaron Henry navigating self-imposed pressure to impress NBA scouts; replacing Joshua Langford’s shooting and perimeter defense — the team won’t find itself until Winston does.

He knows this. It may not be fair. But it’s life. His life.

“I’ve got to figure out how to bring energy, to have a release,” he said. “For the team. (But) I do it to try to help myself, too.”

Last week, he went to the gym to shoot. He got back in the weight room. He forced himself to eat, at least a little.

For a month, nothing felt right. Being on the court didn’t feel like it was where he belonged.

“I needed to be somewhere else,” he said.

Yet he is beginning to breathe again. Beginning to see. Beginning to talk. Beginning to hope.

“I’m getting (closer) to the point where basketball is my safe place,” he said, “where I can break away from the world.”

Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 'Nobody knows what I’m going through': Michigan State star Cassius Winston's overwhelming grief

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