It was a big night for Cassius Winston.
Not because of his 11 points, not because of his eight assists, but because Winston walked off the court to a standing ovation after addressing the public for the first time since his brother Zachary’s death.
“I lost a piece of my heart, but you guys you keep me going,“ Winston said to the Breslin Center crowd following the Spartans 94-46 win over Charleston Southern Monday night. “I love everything about this place and I really appreciate you guys, so thank you.”
Cassius’ brother, Zachary Winston, was a sophomore guard at Division III Albion College. Zachary died Nov. 9 after he was struck by a westbound Amtrak train, turning the Winston family’s lives upside down.
But Cassius Winston didn’t slow down from the pain. The Detroit native played less than 24 hours after hearing the news of his brother's death against Binghamton on Nov. 10. Winston said being in East Lansing and playing the sport he loves has always been a “safe haven” and a distraction from reality for him.
“I told myself that if I could play at my lowest, at the most difficult time to play that the next time it hits me, the next time it's hard to get out there, it won't be as hard as that first time,” Winston said. “The next time it's probably going to hurt, it's going to be tough, but I did it at my lowest, so any other thing I could probably do too.”
On the night of Zachary’s death and the days that followed, coach Tom Izzo spent lots of time with the Winston family. In each of the team’s last games, Izzo has been seen taking a seat next to Winston, appearing to be offering support to his mourning player.
“It's love there. It’s genuine care for each other and he shows that,” Winston said regarding his relationship with Izzo. “He's been there every step of the way helping me through a tough time.”
Last weekend, Izzo let Cassius miss practice to support his brother Khy, a freshman guard at Albion, for his first game back with his team.
Aside from last weekend, since Nov. 9 Winston has spent every possible moment with his family. When the team traveled to Newark, New Jersey to play No. 13 Seton Hall last week, Winston described it as “horrible” to be away from his mom, dad and brother since when he is in East Lansing, it's a constant back and forth between Winston's safe haven and his family.
“After I leave here, I'm going with my family, wherever it is," Winston said. "I come to the gym and then I'll go back to my family. That's really what it's been. We all been together through a tough time. ... A lot of tears, a lot of emotions and just a lot of laughs. It’s all over the place, but we’re in it together and we are going to stick through it together.”
When asked if Winston would be dedicating this season in his brother Zachary’s honor, Winston responded, “Definitely.”
“If you know me, that's who I am from the beginning. I'm not doing anything for myself, it’s always been for my family,” Winston said before tearing up a bit. “With Smoothie (Zachary) gone it just makes it a little tough, going out there (and) playing. It hits you every now and then, but to know he wants the best for me, he wants me to do my best, that's enough motivation to go out there and just make him proud.”
As for his season, Winston said he is trying to get back in a normal routine in a world that is still abnormal for him and his family. Winston has missed some recent practices to spend time with family but says he wants to focus this week on getting his head back in the game.
“I can’t quit the game of basketball. I’ve came too far to stop now,” Winston said. “I'm not playing my best right now. I'm playing pretty good. ... But there’s still a better player that I can be and that just comes from getting back to mind.”
The Spartans begin the Maui Jim Maui Invitational Nov. 25 against Virginia Tech (5 p.m./ESPN2).