By Dan Jones
For The Observer
Eighty two-year-old basketball legend Tex Winter still speaks with as much confidence and clarity as the audacious 28-year-old Marquette head coach he once was.
The former Oregon State University student has been coaching in collegiate or professional basketball for 57 consecutive years longer than anyone else.
Winter has seen it all, and has met or known many greats of the basketball world from the last six decades. One of his best and most bonding relationships began in college as a student, and has continued years later with trips back to a place he has grown to love ... La Grande.
California is where Winter lived at times in his youth. He came to OSU from Compton Junior College on a basketball scholarship and ultimately graduated from USC. After transferring sometime in the early '40s, he met two Oregon kids, David Baum and his friend's eventual wife Jeanette, both who were La Grande residents.
At OSU, Winter was convinced by David to join the Sigma Nu fraternity, of which he was president. Winter can remember those years as if they happened yesterday.
"Dave was quite an operator," Winter said.
Tex also pole vaulted and set a national record using a bamboo pole. He also jumped into a relationship with a young lady who would be his wife.
La Grande ties
Nancy Bohnenkamp was a friend and Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sister of Jeanette at OSU. She grew up in La Grande and went to what was then Eastern Oregon State College for a year. She and Winter met in Corvallis and the two were married at the La Grande Presbyterian Church. They have been together for nearly 60 years.
Many years and one great comrade, in David, have passed, but the countless accolades, including championship rings and memories attached to them, are frequent reminders to Tex of why he is so fortunate. From the Chicago Bulls' championship run in the '90s to the Lakers' three-peat, Winter's knowledge and abilities have always put him in a winning position.
"Timing is everything in life. You have to win people's respect," Winter said. "These pro players are not going to hand you respect on a silver platter, you have to earn it. Being involved in nine championships gives you a little credibility, though."
The long-time coach will be the first to tell you, though, that he has always treated superstars as the humans many forget they are. He does understand that what he calls the "superstar syndrome" is what fans want and what sells.
"I am never star-struck. I think much of the adulation of these players is undeserved," he said.
Jeanette Baum and her late husband knew Winter as a friend, not as a famous coach.
"I look at him as a good friend. My husband and Tex commiserated all throughout their lives," Jeanette said jokingly.
Basketball immortals Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were never exceptions to Winter's theory. He was an assistant coach for Chicago during the good and bad years, and has amassed six championship rings with the Bulls organization.
"Phil (Jackson) was an assistant coach with me when he came to the Bulls. It was '85 when I first arrived, Jordan's second year. For the first two or three years we didn't win," Winter said.
Extreme competitiveness was what kept Jordan motivated, according to Winter. He said Jordan had the following, of a rock star, but always looked to improve, even with his tremendous natural ability. MJ also wanted his teammates to be on the same level.
"Jordan's competitiveness was a lesson to everyone. He expected an awful lot from players. He did that to motivate himself just as much as anyone else," Winter said. "If he is going to be that critical of his teammates then he better be pretty darn good. He loved challenges.
"Jordan has to have competition," Winter added. "He has to have those challenges. It is just his life. He thinks he is going to be the best at whatever he does."
Winter, who got to know Hollywood celebrities such as actress Dyan Cannon while sitting behind the bench in L.A., said former Bull and Laker Dennis Rodman preferred life as an introvert, but acted differently while in the spotlight.
"I would play games to keep him motivated, I was kind of his personal coach. He was a hard worker, but his life off the floor is what I worried about," Winter said of Rodman.
One of Winter's squads disarmed "Pistol" Pete Maravich and the East in an all-star game, while another defeated Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain's Kansas team when Winter was the coach for Kansas State in the 1950s. Winter has worked alongside some of the most famous athletes, and has won over many of them with his simplicity and sincerity.
"As a coach in basketball you have to teach what you know and what you really understand and believe in," he said.
The winning system that has been used in Chicago and L.A. was the innovation of Winter. It is called the "triangle offense," and is undoubtedly a reason why most teams he coached triumphed. Head coach Phil Jackson and Winter sold the idea to the Bulls first, and later to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the resulting championship teams. He may be the reason many of his athletes are sporting NBA jewelry.
"It has been our landmark, our system, our school of basketball. Winning championships, Jackson has established a lot of credibility," he said.
Winter added that Jackson has always been a good friend. He has served as a mentor to Jackson through the years.
The roots of the complex offensive system began at USC.
"I went to USC and played basketball, and played for Sam Barry. He ran our offense there, what he called center opposite, and the concepts and spacing and some of the principles were sort of the beginning of it," Winter said.
Winter's first coaching job was at Kansas State, where he spent 19 years at assistant and head coach positions.
"I graduated from USC and got my first coaching job at Kansas State as their first full-time assistant coach. That would have been about '47. I was 23 or 24 years old and I have been coaching ever since," he said.
He played in national championships with the team, and even earned NCAA Coach of the Year in the '50s. Winter was only 28 when he became head coach of Marquette University; he was the youngest Division I coach in the nation.
Winter has used his strategy and theory of coaching at the University of Washington, Long Beach State and Louisiana State University. He landed in San Diego to coach an NBA team, but didn't stay long.
"I worked for the San Diego Rockets in the NBA. Pete Newell, a Hall of Famer, hired me, but just 10 days later the franchise was sold to Houston so I became Houston's first head coach. I was there two years and it really wasn't what I bargained for, so I got the job at Northwestern," he said.
The basketball professor has received five NBA Hall of Fame nominations, and most believe it is only a matter of time before he is inducted.
Winter has earned a reputation for himself as a great contributor to the game, but the Lone Star State is where his nickname originated.
"I was raised in Lubbock, Texas. That is where I get the name Tex. At 11 or 12 years old, we moved to California. You've got to leave Texas to be called Tex, and the kids called me Tex in California. I haven't been able to live it down," Winter joked.
Aside from basketball, he is a World War II veteran. Winter was in the service for two and a half years as a Navy carrier pilot. Last season for the Lakers, the long flights to the East coast were just too much. Winter still made the last road trip to Minnesota, Chicago and Boston for the team.
"Six road games in eight days can be hard," he said.
Retirement has always been an option for Winter, who has three sons, but he just has never been able to stop.
"I have been trying to retire for about the last five years," he said.
At 63, Winter retired from coaching, but was persuaded to come to LSU. He retired again, but could not resist working for Bulls general manager Jerry Krause.
"He called and said he needed me, and I said you've got to make it worth my while and he did," Winter said.
After winning a third championship with the Lakers in 2002, the organization made rings for players and the coaching staff, valued at around $10,000, in honor of Winter. The jewel-encrusted piece has several triangle designs on the front.
The three-peat is his favorite ring.
"I told them I was retiring with full intentions of doing so. I am the innovator of the triangle offense, so they sort of dedicated that ring to me. I didn't retire ... maybe they want to take it back," he kidded.
Winter retired midway through the 2004-05 Lakers season, but said he may do some consulting for NBA teams. He is not sure what he will do with the extra free time, but has investments and plenty of friends to keep him busy.
Oregon looks to be the permanent home for the Winters, as they recently purchased a site that looks over the Pacific Ocean in Newport.
"This is the first time in 57 years as of July 1 that I have not been on somebody's payroll," Winter said.
Winter, sitting at Baum's home in front of nine glimmering championship rings, said he and his wife enjoy going to Wallowa Lake and spending time in La Grande.
He makes the trip to visit friends like Jeanette who he shares a love and appreciation of Oregon's land with and many binding memories of years and games past.
"We have always loved La Grande, Oregon. I have been back several times, especially when Nancy's parents were alive. I have missed a couple of summers, but try to get back every year," he said.