The lights in the gym are off.
The basketball floor is dark, a single shaft of light offered by the skylights overhead. The bleachers are empty.
The coach sits on the bench next to his three players, players he calls “the best.”
“Damian Hurta, Greg Gamble and Jalen Ward are probably the three best basketball players this school will ever see,” said St. John’s Basketball Coach Bob Winters. “No one here has amassed the number of wins and winning percentage accumulated by these three young men.”
Winters is not one to covet the spotlight, saving that attention and praise for his players. And it’s fitting here today, in this dark gymnasium, he steers clear of the single spot of light as well.
This day is as much about Winters as his three players. At age 70, after almost 50 years roaming high school basketball sidelines, Winters will retire at the conclusion of this school year.
His players came to help him say goodbye.
“This year’s team was one of the best I’ve ever coached,” he said.
There are tears in Winters’ eyes already, as much due to his farewell to the sport and profession that has sustained him for all of his adult life as the way in which his final game along the sidelines turned out.
The Cavaliers lost in the SCISA Lower State finals.
“Last-second shot, the kid was falling out of bounds and just threw the ball over his shoulder with both hands,” Winters said.
The line drive 3-pointer from 45 feet hit nothing but the bottom of the bucket and ended what many thought was a legitimate state championship season for SJCA.
In his 48 years on the sidelines no loss hurt as much or cut as deeply as this one.
“Devastating,” Winters said, “Just awful.”
While his words may have been few the adjectives were colorful.
He hurt for the kids. He wanted this for them.
SJCA will have some mighty big shoes to fill this summerwhen Winters shuts off the gym lights for the final time.
He nabbed his first head-coaching job as a 22-year old at Greenville’s Parker High School. Over the next 48 years, Winters haunted many a sideline, including a seven-year stint at Berkeley where he was named Coach of the Year by the Post and Courier and coached whom he called “the greatest basketball player I’ve ever seen,” in BHS Hall of Famer Roddney Mack.
“Rodney Mack averaged 27 points a game and never took a bad shot,” Winters said. “Everything was inside the paint and he hit everything. He was amazing.”
Over the next month you will read a lot about Coach Winters. He’s earned that privilege.
He’s earned the extra words because 600 of them can’t describe the impact this man had on basketball or the kids who played under him.
He deserves a proper send off.
While I was there for a talk, we didn’t say much. Words failed to convey the emotion of the moment. They were inadequate.
I make my living with words and I’m at a loss when Winters said the single greatest honor he’s ever had over the course of his career was to coach his son Bobby.
“I truly mean that,” he said, his voice breaking as the razor’s edge reality of time’s merciless passage settled in.
I left the coach alone with his thoughts then. I wasn’t surprised, though, to see him standing off to the side, safe within the gray shadows.
And out of the spotlight.