Cassius Winston used to believe his headband possessed magical powers.
Long before he became Michigan State’s point guard and the driving force behind this Final Four run, his mother would tote various color options to his AAU games in Detroit.
When Winston wasn’t playing well, he’d switch to a different-colored headband. Usually that did the trick.
“It got to the point where I got so comfortable with the headband, I had to keep wearing it,” Winston said last weekend in Washington, D.C., where he wore a white headband to defeat LSU and a green one to topple Duke.
Winston might not have actual super powers, but the first-team All-America does have an uncanny ability to calm things down for the Spartans, or rev things up dramatically, depending on what coach Tom Izzo needs.
“He’s the straw that stirs the drink,” Izzo said.
The 6-1, 185-pound Winston has grown from a self-proclaimed crybaby from his younger days into an unflappable leader who took on the role as team captain in February, as a junior.
Izzo appointed the captaincy after the Spartans learned junior guard Joshua Langford, who averaged 15.0 points per game, was out for the season because of a stress fracture in his foot in late December.
“To have a great team, you need a good leader,” Izzo said. “And I told [Winston], ‘The only burden — that means if he goes through the layup line half-speed, all the ducklings are going through the layup line half-speed.’ ”
Winston’s parents pictured him evolving into a leader from birth.
His father, Reg, was determined to name him “Hannibal” after legendary military strategist Hannibal Barca, who commanded the Carthaginian forces against Rome in the Second Punic War.
But Winston’s mother, Wendi, wasn’t about to name her son something that conjured images of Hannibal Lecter, in “Silence of the Lambs.”
“My mom was not having it,” Winston said. “She did not like that name at all. So now, they didn’t have a name for me because he was stuck on Hannibal and nobody else thought of a name.”
He was actually born without a name and stayed that way until the hospital nurses alerted Wendi and Reg they needed something for the birth certificate.
“So they started spitting out random names for maybe like two or three hours,” Winston said. “And finally someone said, ‘Cassius,’ and that was the one that stuck.”
The oldest of three brothers, Winston headed to the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, where he earned Michigan’s Mr. Basketball Award and ranked as the No. 31 recruit in the country in the 247Sports composite index.
So some of what he’s doing now was predictable. He averages 18.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. But it’s not like he has blazing speed or silky-smooth technique.
“I’m not sure you’d pick him out to be one of the best basketball players in the country,” Izzo said. “But when you watch the things he does and the way he handles himself, and the IQ that he has — which is off the charts — he’s found a way to be a heck of a ballplayer.”
Gophers fans saw firsthand why Winston earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors. In the NCAA tournament’s second round, Minnesota fell way behind before trimming Michigan State’s lead to nine, breathing life into their fans in Des Moines. Then, in a 54-second span, Winston went on his own 7-0 run to put the game away.
In the Elite Eight showdown with Duke, Michigan State stumbled into a 30-21 hole. Izzo called timeout. Later, the coach marveled at how little panic he saw from his players, crediting Winston for setting the tone.
Within minutes, Michigan State came back to tie the score 30-30, with Winston scoring seven of the nine points.
“I remember when I was little, I used to cry a lot,” Winston said. “I used to let my emotions get the best of me in a lot of situations. It didn’t help me any, you know what I’m saying? It would just take me away from my game. And nothing ever good came from it.”
Senior teammate Matt McQuaid said sometimes he’ll arrive at Michigan State’s basketball facility at 8 a.m., only to find Winston already there, wearing slippers and pajamas, watching Looney Tunes or Sponge Bob cartoons.
“He’s got a confident, outgoing personality,” McQuaid said. “He’s just kind of a laid-back guy. But when he gets on that court, he’s a killer.”