Over the past seven weeks Everett Winchester has twice had significant reminders that he made the right decision when he chose to leave his hometown of Baltimore and come to Wright State two years ago:
• Last week – in WSU’s final game of the regular season at the University of Illinois at Chicago – the 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman guard showed the way he can impact a game. He scored a career-high 19 points and hit two pressurized jumpers in the final 67 seconds to expand a one-point lead to five and assure the Raiders of what would end up an 88-81 victory.
• In mid-January, his decision got sobering affirmation when a 26-year-old “close family friend” was shot to death on Mosher Street in West Baltimore, becoming part of the numbing statistics that have rocked the city the past three years.
“I grew up with him and was a close friend of his brother,” Winchester said. “Unfortunately, this happens to so many people back there that there’s always a chance it’s going to be someone you know.”
Over the past three years, Baltimore has had over 1,000 homicides. Last year the city of 615,000 had 342, 52 more homicides than New York City with a population of 8.5 million.
This past January there were 26 homicides and February was deadly, too. Many of the victims are young black men, the same demographic of which Winchester is part.
“My dad has always told me that it can happen to anyone, anywhere,” he said. “It’s just you being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said, ‘If you ever feel uncomfortable in a situation, just leave.’
“I was lucky because I had both my parents growing up and they always wanted the best for me. Some people don’t have that fatherly presence in their lives.
“My dad made it hard on me sometimes. It was just his expectations for me. And because I was the only guy and I have four sisters, he taught me how to treat them. And that set a standard for them when they meet a man and for me dealing with women.
“My mom was just as tough with school and my dad kept me in the gym. It’s a lot harder to get in trouble in there than out on the street.”
The formula worked. He excelled at Gilman School in Baltimore and for the Washington D.C.-based Threat 220 AAU team.
When colleges came calling he said his parents insisted on one thing:
“They wanted me to get away from Baltimore.”
He said St. Francis College in Brooklyn and Central Connecticut offered scholarships and schools like Saint Louis and Wake Forest had him on their wait-see list, depending on who else they signed.
But then Wright State entered the picture thanks to Patrice Days, the Billy Donlon assistant who was from Baltimore and knew Winchester’s AAU coach,
“I came out here for a visit and loved Coach Donlon and his staff,” Winchester said. “I liked the school, too, and the attitude of the team.”
He signed with WSU, but when Donlon was let go following the 2015-16 season when the Raiders went 22-13, Winchester suddenly had second thoughts.
“To be completely honest, my first thought was looking for what else was out there,” he said. “But then BG (athletic director Bob Grant) talked to my dad and said they still wanted me to come. And when Coach Nagy (new coach Scott Nagy) talked to me, my mom and dad, he said he wanted me here, too.
“I figured if he was willing to give me a chance even though he never recruited me, I should give him a chance to coach me, too.”
Nagy and Donlon agreed on one thing.
Winchester needed to gain weight.
“When I came for my visit, Coach Donlon talked to me about it and told me some foods I should eat.”
Once he got to Wright State, Winchester ended up in weight watching situation with a twist.
He and beefy freshman center Loudon Love were paired as roommates. While the 184-pound Winchester was pushed to gain weight, the 315-pound Love was tasked with losing some of that bulk.
“Actually it worked out perfectly,” Winchester laughed. “Loudon would get a lot of food and then he’d offer half of it to me. I ate most of the stuff he didn’t want.”
While Winchester ended up adding 21 pounds – he’s 205 now – Love shed 50 pounds.
“He looks completely different now,” Winchester said. “He looks great.”
The pair was redshirted last season so they could work on their bodies and their games.
“We took a chance redshirting both guys, but we felt it was best for the program and it worked out pretty well for them, too,” Nagy said.
“It’s never an easy thing for a player, but I tell them they’re trading a freshman year where they don’t know how much they’re going to play for a senior year where they’ll play 35 minutes a game. Either way, the three years in between are about the same.”
That convinced Winchester: “When he put it like that, it was a no-brainer.”
And it has worked out for everybody.
The Raiders are 22-9 and the No. 2 seed going into the Horizon League Tournament, which begins Friday night at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
With a first-round bye, the Raiders meet the winner of the Green Bay-Detroit Mercy game in a tournament quarterfinal Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
The 6-foot-9 Love – who is averaging 12.7 points and 9.7 rebounds a game — was just named the Horizon League Freshman of the Year and also won second-team All Horizon League honors.
Winchester, who comes off the bench, has averaged 21.7 minutes, 8 points and 3.9 rebounds a game. And just as he’s been the key to a few victories this year, his absence on the court played into a loss, too.
He missed the Feb 1. game at Cleveland State due to a head injury suffered in a game a week earlier. WSU lost to the Vikings, 77-74.
“The weekend he was out, that was hard for me,” said Nagy. “When Everett’s in the game, I have a lot more options on both ends, just because of how well he handles the ball and how he can guard about anybody, too.
“His size gives us a lot of versatility. And if he develops a jump shot, he’ll be nearly impossible to guard.”
Nagy believes Winchester and fellow freshman Jaylon Hall were both worthy of the Horizon League’s All Freshman team, too:
“When you play as many freshmen as we do, it’s tough to get anybody else on that team. Everett and Jaylon probably took away from each other, but they both certainly had years worthy of being on that team.”
Winchester wants to be “more than just a basketball player,” he said:
“I don’t want to be looked at as ‘Oh, he’s just an athlete.’ I wanted to branch out a little and be different.”
He said that prompted him to take up photography:
“I’ve got a nice Canon and I’m pretty big into it now, though I’m still learning.”
So what does he shoot?
“Well, scenery,” he said before smiling. “And my girlfriend. She’s a model. She’s from Baltimore and her family lives in Florida now, but she goes to Purdue.”
Her name is Leah Gizzi. He said they went to rival high schools and met before she was a model and he became a college basketball player:
“She’s one of my biggest fans. She comes to a lot of our games and texts me after all of them. She’s already done modeling work for some small companies and she’ll have more interviews in Florida. I’m really proud of her.
And then, he beamed: “Yeah, I’m a lucky guy.
“A really lucky guy.”