Tex Winter, a pioneer in the NBA world who brought the triangle offense to the pros, was far more than the man who helped Michael Jordan to six championships and the Lakers to a three-peat at the turn of the century.
In the early days of the Bulls’ run in Chicago, Michael Jordan was as likely to offer a compliment about Duke as he was to concede that the triangle offense had anything to do with the team’s success. But from the moment in 1985 that they were together in Chicago, Jordan, like most everyone else, loved Tex Winter, the man most associated with that set offense employed by Phil Jackson. “It’s important that people like Tex is around here,” Jordan told me once, “just for his sense of history and general knowledge of the game.”
But, gradually, as the Bulls grew into a powerhouse, Jordan came around to the fact that mixing in the triangle, an offense that stresses team play, movement and floor balance, was endemic to the Bulls’ success. When Winter died Wednesday at age 96, Jordan released a statement that said, in part: “His triangle offense was a huge part of our six championships.”
After the run in Chicago was over, Winter went with Jackson to Los Angeles, where the triangle offense was a big factor in the Lakers’ three-peat at the beginning of the century. As was the case with Jordan, some of the Lakers players, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in particular, would grumble from time to time about the restrictions of the offense. But that is the nature of superstars, who believe that systems serve them, not vice versa. Both O’Neal (“Tex definitely helped me get to the next level”) and Bryant (“Tex taught me how to study every detail”) were effusive in their praise of Winter, whose given name was Morice Fredrick, the “Tex” a nod to his birthplace in a small Texas town called Wellington.
In his Chicago years, Winter and his fellow assistant, Johnny Bach, were delightful to be around, invariably together, a grounded patch of earth in the heady celebrity atmosphere that swirled around Jordan. I used to joke to them that they looked like a two-man high school discipline team, roaming the halls. Bach, dashing and silver-haired, would grab the offenders and read them the riot act, while Winter, rumpled and bookish, would pull out a tattered violations codebook and hand down the punishment.
Winter and Bach were always available to proffer wisdom and, more importantly for a reporter, a few background tidbits. Their roles were clear. Bach, who died in 2016 at age 91, was the defensive technician, Winter the steadying force, behind the triangle offense. He was often credited with being the creator of the triangle, but that honor belongs to Sam Barry, who coached Winter at USC. But Winter was the man who literally wrote the book on it (“The Triple-Post Offense” in 1962), spread it to the masses at every stop along the way (Kansas State, Marquette, Washington, Northwestern, Long Beach State, LSU and the Houston Rockets before the Bulls and the Lakers), explained it to reporters and defended it to everyone.
Winter never pushed his way into the spotlight—admittedly that would’ve been nearly impossible on those Bulls and Lakers teams—but he always wore a huge smile on those nights when the triangle produced a batch of points. “You’d be an idiot to say that the triangle created Michael Jordan,” Winter said. “But it certainly helped him get to where he got.”
Because Tex had been so many places and had all that accrued wisdom, there always seemed to be something ancient about him. But even in the midst of all that star power in Chicago and L.A., he never seemed irrelevant.