If being courtside at a state basketball tournament seems second nature to Lake City senior JJ Winger, it has been.
His father, Jim Winger, has been taking teams to state going back to before his son was born. Now son and dad are going together for the last time, beginning today when the 5A State tournament begins at the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa.
JJ began sitting on the bench when he was a towheaded 5-year-old in 2001. He said he remembers LC playing in the state title game in 2002 – the last time an LC team brought home a state trophy.
“Actually, the only thing I remember about that game was the national anthem,” JJ said.
LC (17-5) takes on District V-VI runner-up Skyline of Idaho Falls (19-6) in the first game of the tourney at 12:15 PST.
Winger averages 10 points per game and shoots 40.6 percent from 3-point range. He broke the school record for 3s in a game this year when he made 10. So when his father walks on the court for the season opener next year, the bench might seem a little empty.
“It’ll sure seem like something is missing,” the coach said.
Basketball is something dad never pushed his son to do.
“I never pushed him to do anything,” he said. “I’m a hands-off parent, even at home. We don’t talk about practices and rarely talk about games. I think that’s why we have a great relationship. People might not believe this, but I don’t live and die basketball.”
Father and son share a passion more important than basketball. It’s something they’ll do the rest of their lives.
“I think some of our best moments have been bird hunting in South Dakota,” Jim Winger said. “We like pheasant hunting. He’s kind of my best friend.”
Son will miss sharing basketball with his dad.
“It’s going to be weird, because it seems like I’ve been around basketball since I was born,” he said. “I bet I’ve spent 60 percent of my childhood around it.”
Winger has developed close relationships with two other seniors – Kyle Guice, a three-year starter and four-year letterman, and Justin Pratt, a three-year starter.
At times coach/player relationships between Winger and Guice and Pratt have been bumpy.
This season, Winger decided to quit trying to put a square peg in a round hole regarding the 6-foot-6 Guice. For the first three years, Winger tried to get Guice to play mostly with his back to the basketball. This year he allowed Guice the freedom to roam the perimeter, and Guice has blossomed. He’s averaged 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
“He’s really come along well,” Winger said. “He’s cut it loose this year.”
It was never more obvious than in the regional title game last week. Guice had two points at halftime, but he came alive in the third quarter.
“As he goes we go,” Winger said. “He had an average first half against Coeur d’Alene. Then something made him mad and he just took over in the second half. His teammates feed off of that.”
Guice is as gifted a passer as he is a shooter. He’s shooting 55 percent inside the 3-point arc and 45 percent outside.
Guice has appreciated the freedom this year.
“It’s been different,” Guice said. “I’ve been a post my whole life. I’m still doing a little of both.”
Winger’s appreciation for Pratt has grown this season.
“I was pretty hard on Justin the last two years, if you want to know the truth,” Winger said. “He had to start as a sophomore in a pretty tough league. They beat him up a lot. After that season he made a conscientious effort to improve his body, to get stronger. I’ve completely laid off him this year. When it’s money time, he comes through.”
Pratt, who averages 8.7 points and 4.9 assists, can’t believe his career is down to two and maybe three games.
“When you’re a sophomore it seems like you have a lot of time left, but then it flies by,” Pratt said. “I want to make some history this week.”
Winger, Guice and Pratt were starters last year when the Timberwolves went 0-2 at state.
They’re out for redemption this week.
“I thought last year we had a team that should have done some damage at state,” the coach said. “Now we have a chance to change that.”