Maurice Frederick "Tex" Winter came to Italy for the first time: In Montecatini and Turin, the greatest NBA assistant coach held two clinics along with defensive "guru," Bob Kloppenburg, another former NBA assistant coach famous for his defense. In this interview, Winter, the man who developed the famous "triangle offense" that brought nine titles to Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998) and Los Angeles Lakers (2000, 2001 and 2002), talks about the NBA game and how the international game is getting better year-by-year. But, also how stars like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant adjusted to his offensive system. During his Montecatini's clinic, the 85-year old Winter, who has an incredible vitality, reads without glasses, and signs his autograph with a triangle, his life-long trademark, revealed that the season which just ended was his last as an assistant coach. Some tears fell from his eyes with this admission. But the years spent training and improving his triple post offense didn't affect his enthusiasm. He did everything possible to get to Italy after missing a connecting flight in Ireland: he took a three-hour taxi ride to change airports and take a morning flight for Italy. In this interview with Giorgio Gandolfi, editor-in-chief of FIBA Assist magazine (with the collaboration of Mirco Melloni of the editorial staff), Winter shares his memories of the most successful basketball career ever.
FIBA: Mr. Winter, where does your nickname "Tex" come from?
WINTER: "I lived in Texas. When I moved to California to study and play basketball at the University of Southern California, my teammates called me Tex, and the name stuck with me ever since."
FIBA: Where does your world-famous triangle offense come from?
WINTER: "I wasn't the inventor of the triple-post offense. I actually learned it from the University of Southern California coach, Sam Berry. Another legendary coach, Pete Newell, used it also. Through the years, this offensive system became part of me. Look at my ring celebrating one of the NBA titles won with the Los Angeles Lakers: It has a triangle on it."
FIBA: Can you tell us about your coaching career?
WINTER: "After an experience as a carrier pilot during the Second World War, I started as an assistant coach at Kansas State University, and later I became head coach of the team. I then moved to the NBA when the Houston Rockets offered me their head coach spot. I stayed there for two years, from 1971 to 1973. I didn't like the type of basketball being played in the NBA, so I came back to college basketball. I retired from coaching in 1985."
FIBA: So, how did you get to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls?
WINTER: "One day, I was watching TV, and I saw that the Bulls were introducing their new general manager, Jerry Krause, who, some years before, as a young NBA scout, had come many times to Kansas State. And he used to tell me: "When I become an NBA executive, I will hire you, because I want to use your offensive system." I told my wife, Nancy: "Look at this man. He's going to call me within 24 hours." And he did! He called me the following morning, at about 7:30."
FIBA: How did your relationship with Phil Jackson begin and develop?
WINTER: "Phil was an assistant coach under Doug Collins at Chicago, and when he watched my offensive system, he convinced himself very quickly that it was a very efficient style of play. He told me that it reminded him of the offensive system used by Red Holzman's New York Knicks, a team that won two NBA titles in the early '70s, when Jackson had been a backup player on the team. Jackson watched the game from the bench, and could see how this style of play could allow his team to dominate. So, in 1989 when he became head coach of the Chicago Bulls, he adopted the triangle offense".
FIBA:Was it difficult to convince the players that a system based on unselfishness could work in the NBA?
WINTER: "I just can tell you that once the Chicago players became convinced of the system, they started a dynasty. I remember the first title, won in 1991, when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, had first accepted the system. In previous years, Jordan didn't like the triangle offense because he thought that his scoring would suffer, considering that all five players would have to share the ball on the floor."
FIBA: When did MJ become a fan of the triangle offense?
WINTER: "The turning point was in the 1986 playoffs: Jordan scored 63 points in Boston, but that wasn't enough to win the game at the Boston Garden. And we lost the series 0-3. At that moment, Jordan changed his mind about the triangle offense. It was such a tremendous satisfaction for me to watch two superstars like Jordan and Pippen finally accepting my offensive system and making it work."
FIBA: Was Jackson important in introducing Jordan and Pippen into the triangle offense? WINTER: "Phil was the perfect coach for this team, not only for technical part of the job, but also for the mental one. He's a particular coach, really like no one in the past. He totally believes in team play, but at the same time he gives big responsibilities to his players. They don't need to be guided like school kids. He wants his players to grow up and find the solution to problems by themselves during a game. For example, Jackson was often criticized because he used to call few timeouts during the regular season games, even when I went to him and told something like, "Phil, we're struggling at rebounding, or we're not moving the ball enough. Call a timeout and tell them." But Phil would say, "The players need to understand by themselves how to solve the problem." Phil would often call timeouts and not say a single word to anyone. Instead, he would look the players in their eyes. Then, he sent them back on the court".
FIBA: Other particular features of coach Jackson?
WINTER: "During the training sessions, if the players didn't pass the ball well, he used to turn down the arena lights, so the players had to pay more attention to their passes. In the last few seasons, I didn't sit beside him on the bench, but would sit just behind him. I still talked to him throughout the game, however, passing on advice. Sometimes, though, Phil would turn around and say, "Tex, please, be quiet just for a moment." We have a great relationship, trading ideas and opinions. Jackson has been a real innovator, introducing yoga and meditation into the training sessions. I thought it wouldn't work, with all these big, hyperactive athletes, who never stop talking, even during games. Instead, all the players accepted these relaxing moments. This helped us win all the NBA championships with Chicago and Los Angeles".
FIBA: Please compare Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant?
WINTER: "Both have the competitive drive in their blood, more than anyone I have ever seen. But Jordan was able to reach even deeper. I've never seen such a big and ferocious will to win, in every way: shooting drills, athletic sessions, and every aspect of his life that put him in comparison with other people. Michael Jordan wants to win at everything that he does. It's this incredible drive to succeed that makes Jordan superior to Bryant, and to every other NBA player. Both are incredible athletes, with superior leaping skills, and body control. The difference is that Jordan's hands are bigger, so he could control the ball with only a hand. When it came time to play the game, Jordan took less important shots than Bryant, but that's because he had more trust in his teammates. When it comes to talent, I think Jordan's teammates were better Kobe's."
FIBA: What's your opinion about the quality of the current NBA game?
WINTER: "There are many problems. Let's talk about fundamentals, the basis of the game. Outside shooting percentages have decreased because the players, coming right out of high school or with only one or two years of college experience, didn't spend enough time practicing to improve this part of the game. Shooting skills need constant practice, correction, and hours of work. Passing the ball is another problem area. The simple chest pass, a three-meter (9 feet) pass is something we rarely see anymore because the game is becoming one-on-one, with penetration, and kicking the ball out, or else pick-and-roll out of the lane. This is what prevents the growth of good post players like we had in the past, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Kevin McHale. In the NBA today, after two passes, the play ends with a shot."
FIBA: How do the NBA teams play offense these days?
WINTER: "There is no proper spacing on the floor and no team concept. The emphasis is on the superstar. This has negatively affected the quality of the game. I think that NBA teams should seriously take into consideration the chance of signing European coaches. I say that because their philosophy is based on unselfishness and team play, something the NBA seriously lacks. I think it will take much time, but it could be the right solution to improve the quality of the NBA game. A clear example is Mike D'Antoni who, despite being born in the United States, grew up as a coach in Europe, and brought new air into the NBA when he came to coach. "