Cassius Winston suited up on Sunday night.
He didn’t have to. He wasn’t expected to. After staying with the Winston family until 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo let Cassius know that it was up to him. If he wanted to play, his teammates had his back. If he decided that taking the court just 24 hours after his younger brother died was too much, then his team had his back then, too.
Zachary Winston, who was a sophomore on the Albion College (Division III) basketball team, died when he was struck by a train around 8:30 p.m. on Saturday night. Police said that they believe he stepped in front of the train intentionally.
Cassius ultimately made the decision to take the court, which led to some heart-wrenching but beautiful moments.
Like this one, between Cassius and Khy, the younger Winston brother who was a teammate of Zach’s at Albion:
Or this one, when the entire building stood silent for 30 seconds to honor the memory of a member of the Michigan State basketball family:
Or this one, a subtle arm around the shoulder from a teammate that’s hurting, too:
Or this one, where Winston knocks down his first shot of the game:
Winston would on to score 17 points and hand out 11 assists in a blowout win, but the outcome game didn’t really matter. The Spartans were playing Binghamton. They weren’t losing this game, regardless of who was on the floor.
No, this was about the game itself.
This was about making sure Cassius was surrounded by teammates and family and people he knows love him. As one person in the Michigan State program told me, “I’ve never seen three brothers closer than Cash was with his.” And since they were local, that meant that everyone in the Michigan State program knew Zach as well.
Cassius was hurting the most, but everyone on that team and in that program was and is hurting, too.
The cliche is to say that getting on the court can make you forget, if even for just an hour or two, what you’re dealing, but that’s not really true. Cassius Winston is not stepping on that floor and forgetting about the pain that he’s in and the loss he suffered.
I know more about what Cassius Winston is going through now that I want to, and all I’ll say is this: There’s a comfort that comes with normalcy. There’s a comfort that comes with being around your friends, your teammates, your peers. It’s not about distracting yourself, or finding ways to let you ignore your grief, it’s about being around the people who will put their arm around your shoulder when you need to cry and will lift you back up when you’re done.
What stuck out to me was the final moments.
The game had been over since it started. Winston had been taken out with about five minutes left. He was sitting on the bench as the walk-ons got put into the game. His teammates were standing and celebrating the way teammates do when their walk-ons have a chance to score, and after one possession where the Spartans grabbed four straight offensive rebounds before drawing a foul, Winston was up there with them.
A smile on his face.