In the first 85 years of the Detroit Catholic League, U-D Jesuit won a grand total of three basketball championships.
The Cubs won titles in the 1971-72, ’74-75 and ’91-92 seasons.
For most of the rest of the seasons, though the Cubs were often competitive, they were mostly innocent bystanders as schools like Detroit Catholic Central, Birmingham Brother Rice and Detroit DePorres dominated the league’s highest division.
In the first 87 years of the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s boys basketball state tournament, U-D won zero regional titles. Forget about state championships, the Cubs couldn’t get past the regionals.
A basketball state championship was an afterthought at U-D.
Pat Donnelly became U-D’s basketball coach eight years ago and was surprised at the way basketball was viewed in the school, by the students and the staff.
“When I first got there,” he said, “it was tough to get an open gym together.”
But all of that occurred B.C. — Before Cassius.
Four years ago this fall, a freshman named Cassius Winston walked into U-D Jesuit and everything changed.
In his four years as a Cub, Winston was the main reason U-D transformed into a basketball school.
Despite being only a 6-foot-1 guard, Winston dominated the league over four years like no player in history.
He became the first player to start on four league championship teams in the Catholic League’s highest division and capped his brilliant career in March by leading the Cubs to the school’s first Class A state championship.
This season he averaged 22.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists, and was the runaway winner of the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball award.
Over the last four years, basketball at U-D Jesuit went from just another athletic activity to a must-attend social event, which is why Winston has been named the 2016 Free Press Prep Person of the Year.
When he first enrolled at U-D, Winston, who signed with Michigan State and last week was named one of 18 finalists for one of 12 roster spots on USA Basketball’s U-18 national team, did not appear a likely candidate to lead a basketball revolution at the school.
“Cassius, going in, I’d say was only 5-11, 6-foot in freshman year,” said Matt Schearer, who was also a freshman with Winston and played on the varsity the last three years. “He wasn’t that strong, he wasn’t that quick.”
But Winston was special. He knew how to play the game … the right way.
That much was apparent when Donnelly saw Winston’s AAU team practice at U-D when Winston was only a sixth grader.
“My initial impression,” Donnelly said, “was: ‘Boy, this kid is pretty good, he could play for us right now.’ ”
How Winston landed at U-D is more about his parents — Wendi and Reggie — and their goals for the eldest of three sons than the wants of a young basketball protégé.
That is why Winston enrolled in the U-D Jesuit Academy as a seventh grader.
“My personal philosophy is that middle school is where you become the student you’re going to be,” said Wendi, a librarian at Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at its DMC campus. “You kind of figure out girls, your social times, your studies. You figure out all of that in middle school and then you be that student in high school. I wanted him to have a pretty rigorous program for middle school.”
Academics was the sole reason Winston enrolled in the Academy. His parents told him after two years he could choose his high school, but they wanted him to be pushed academically in middle school, because that clearly was not the case in elementary school.
“He carried his homework in his pocket,” Wendi said with a tone of disdain. “It came easy to him. At U-D his first complaint was: ‘Mommy, I’m not smart like them. I don’t belong at this school.’ By the end of eighth grade he was at the top of the middle school. Not only did he belong, he felt he belonged here.”
He arrived at that feeling after becoming a genuine student, one who carried a flashlight so he could study in the car on the way back from practices and games.
After two years at the Academy, Winston said he wanted to attend the high school at U-D. Considering their two younger sons — Zack (who will be a junior) and Khy (sophomore) — would follow their older brother there, it was a significant financial sacrifice for Reggie, who works for Detroit’s recreation department, and Wendi.
“My husband and I are working class, we have three sons,” Wendi said. “So the decision to send them there was something.”
Winston made an immediate impact on the basketball team, earning a spot in the starting lineup early in his freshman season and winning the Cubs’ first league title in over a decade.
“When I first came in we had great group of guys, everybody on that team wanted to change it around,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to start winning. We had guys who just wanted to win and I came in and helped out a little bit.”
The more the Cubs won, the more important basketball became. And the more Winston worked.
Since he was younger, Winston didn’t say a lot to the other players, but he found a way to become a leader nonetheless. Not only did he spend a lot of time on the court improving his individual skills, he was a tireless worker in the weight room, going from a 160-pound freshman to a 193-pound senior.
“One thing about Cassius is you don’t look at him and say: ‘I can’t get there,’ ” Schearer said. “He really leads by example and he shows you that hard work really propels you into the position he’s in. He showed guys you had to be in the weight room during high school, you couldn’t just go to open gym and skip weight room. He was on the track working on conditioning. From that our program just keeps skyrocketing.”
Winston’s work ethic is the reason turnouts for open gyms at U-D now attract 50 kids instead of six or seven, like they did when Donnelly first got the job.
“He was a gym rat,” Donnelly said. “Kids watched him and saw the success he was having and it wasn’t God-given. It was hard work, it was this kid spent hours of gym time just working on his individual skills trying to get better and other kids kind of took the lead and followed that model.”
Slowly but surely, Winston changed the basketball culture at U-D. Eventually there was a certain swag to U-D’s game.
“You could see him as a freshman when he first got into the lineup and played with these upperclassmen,” Schearer said. “He sort of revolutionized how we played — the intensity we played with, just the all-around mind-set to win every game and not go into it like underdogs.”
The Cubs won the school’s first regional championship in Winston’s sophomore season and advanced to the state semifinals, losing to Bloomfield Hills.
Winston enjoyed a marvelous junior season, earning Free Press Dream Team All-State honors as the team followed a similar tournament path and lost to eventual champ Detroit Western in the semifinals.
Though Winston had developed into a terrific player, he wasn’t satisfied. He had set two goals for himself when he enrolled at U-D: Win four Catholic League championships and a Class A state championship.
The Cubs were destined to win a fourth Catholic League title this past winter, even had Winston or his teammates not improved an iota from his junior season — but a state title was a different matter.
“In junior year it was basically me carrying us by myself,” he said. “In the summer we realized that wasn’t going to work. The teams out there were too good for me to just carry us, so in the summer we made everyone put a lot of work in, a lot of effort toward this and make sure everyone knew our goal, so come the season everyone was ready.”
That is when Winston began to exert himself as more than just a leader by example, because that wasn’t working, either.
“What I do is I go out there and I work hard and I expect everyone to watch and follow,” he said. “A lot of people can just watch and follow. But sometimes you have to say something to somebody or encourage somebody. I really got better at that over time.”
By nature, Winston is a quiet kid. He is not loud and boisterous, so it took something for him to develop into a vocal leader, which he did last summer when he made it clear to his teammates what was about to happen.
“I didn’t threaten anybody,” he said, laughing, “but I made sure everyone knew we’re not coming up short this year. We’re going to get the job done so everyone should be prepared.”
Winston got them prepared by going through a bit of a metamorphosis in the leadership department. One of his targets was his brother, Zack.
“You have to learn how you can talk to people, that’s the thing,” he said. “That’s probably what took me so long vocally. You have to be patient and get to know people before you bark at them.
“Some people can’t be barked at. Like Zack. If you yell at Zack he’s going to break down so you can’t yell at Zack, you have to talk to him. Whereas there’s (Ike) Eke. You can cuss Eke out and he’ll be OK.”
Sometimes there is pushback when players try to demand a certain level of commitment and effort from teammates, but that didn’t happen at U-D and that is a credit to Winston.
“Cassius is one of the best kids I know,” Schearer said. “He’s a humble kid, he’s got a great sense of humor, he’s smart in the classroom; he works hard in the gym. He comes from a great family. You really just can’t say enough about the kid. He really just does everything.”
MSU coach Tom Izzo made his first trip to watch Winston when he was a freshman, and Winston has been a national recruit ever since. But not once did Winston permit that to become a barrier between himself and his teammates.
“What a very, very humble young man,” Donnelly said. “Never once throughout his career did he talk about himself, did he talk about his abilities on the basketball court. Actually, he was a little shy when people would mention it to him. It was just amazing to be around a kid that had as many accolades as he did and that never affected him in terms of his personality.”
Winston’s success on the court was almost matched in the classroom. He graduated magna cum laude with a 3.5 grade-point average and was admitted to Stanford and Harvard, two schools he seriously considered before choosing MSU.
To earn a 3.5 at U-D, Winston had to put forth the same level of work he did on the basketball court.
You don’t have to look any further than his parents to find where the work ethic comes from.
Conspicuously absent from the Mr. Basketball presentation was Wendi, who had a work conflict and needed to be in East Lansing that day. She would no sooner blow off work than her son would blow off a basketball tournament game.
“It wasn’t just a work day, it was an event and I planned the event,” Wendi said. “I had committed. I cried because that was the big one, but you committed. I had people who were so willing to help, but you committed. You said you’d be here. You keep your word.”
Of course Winston wanted his mother at the Mr. Basketball presentation, but he understood why she wasn’t there. More importantly, because of his parents he understands the meaning of commitment and work ethic.
“It means a lot,” he said. “That’s definitely where I got it from. They molded me into this person that I am today. My attitude, my work ethic can be attributed to them and I just act it out.”
Kind of like when you say you are going to win four Catholic League titles and a state championship — and then you do it.
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.
Past prep persons of the Year
2015: Grant Fisher, Grand Blanc runner
2014: Vicky Groat, Battle Creek St. Philip volleyball coach
2013: Hannah and Haley Meier, Grosse Pointe South runners
2012: Taylor Massa, St. Johns wrestler
2011: Dorene Ingalls, St. Ignace girls basketball coach
2010: Tarlton Small, Pontiac athletic director
2009: Marshall Thomas, Saginaw boys basketball coach
2008: Ken Hofer, Menominee football coach
2007: Bob Sutter, Farmington Hills Harrison defensive coordinator, and Rick Coratti, Novi Detroit Catholic Central defensive coordinator
2006: Scott Salow, Homer baseball coach
2005: Dave Soules, Detroit East Catholic basketball coach
2004: Mike Turner, Trenton boys ice hockey coach
2003: Denny Hill, Ann Arbor Pioneer swimming coach
2002: John Herrington, Farmington Hills Harrison football coach
2001: Dathan Ritzenhein, Rockford runner
2000: Marty DeJong, Kalamazoo Christian softball coach
1999: Tom Mach, Redford Catholic Central football coach