BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Whether it's inside the gym at Frontier High School or it was 35 years ago in South High's Winston Crite has more or less remained the same. Still fueled by a love for the game, still looking for the next challenge, even after coming within hours of death. "I've been given a second chance to do something I love doing."
Crite just finished his second year as head coach of the Frontier Titans. A school not known for its basketball, after 12 years the program is still chasing its first title. "Frontier obviously was the biggest possible challenge I could take because culturally it's not a basketball school it's never been," Crite said.
Growing up in South Bakersfield, Crite has grown accustomed to facing a challenge. "We had a big rivalry at that time with BHS. They had accomplished a lot more than us but it was nice to come in there as the underdogs and knock them off." A part of the Rebels 1981 valley title winning team, his time at South was where he found his game. "I began to realize that I could jump higher than other guys, that I was blessed with some abilities that I needed to develop but they were special."
After South he headed to Texas A&M where he would play all four years "Which is almost as hard to get as a degree," he jokingly told 23ABC while pointing to the plaque in his Frontier office. He finished his career fourth in school history for scoring, second all time in rebounds and first in career blocks. "I always had a chip on my shoulder because I came from Bakersfield and felt like we didn't get the respect we deserved."
On June 22, 1987, the Phoenix Suns took him as the 53rd pick in the NBA Draft. After two seasons in the desert he learned about the business side of the league and was released. "I got to just play and develop and love the game and travel the world and get paid doing to do what I loved to do."
He'd spend ten years playing overseas before returning to Bakersfield in search of his next challenge and thanks to the insistence from his wife Mechelle, he opened a basketball training club called Footwork Inc. For thirteen years he was asked when he would take up coaching and finally the right fit at Frontier.
But last summer the wins and losses took a back seat. "I had to sit down. It was the first time in practice where I said I'm going to go over here and sit down." The chest pains continued after practice. "He's laying on the couch just kind of; just not himself," Mechelle said. "So I just threw a fit and said we're going." She drove him to the emergency room where they learned Winston had just had a stroke. "They told me 'You had about two hours before you were done," Winston said.
Even after the scare his heart wasn't fully healthy operating at just 15 percent. "At that level of function, the risk of having bad heart rhythm, certain death is extremely high," said Dr. Rasham sandhu, a local cardiologist. Sandhu told Winston the two of them could beat the diagnosis but that he would have to go through surgery right before preseason conditioning. "I'm thinking about the boys and the team and he goes 'So you want to live or you want to die?' I go 'well I want to live.' He goes 'Ok you're having surgery."
Following the procedure and medication Winston beat the odds returning to the sideline at Frontier less than a year later. "What he came to now is amazing. I mean it's such a good story," Dr. Sandhu said of his recovery.
This year the titans finished with a record of 12-15. The most losing Winston says he's ever had. But given his journey--he's found a new perspective that's different from other coaches. "Life is about enjoying every moment. I've been given a second chance to do something I love doing, a second chance to be a better person all around so it changes you profoundly when you go through something like that."