Tex Winter nearly changed Tigers' 1st Draft

Late basketball legend tried to lure Gene Lamont to Kansas State

October 11th, 2018

The book sat in a box for years in Gene Lamont's Florida home, gathering dust as the baseball seasons added up. Lamont happened to come across it recently as he was clearing things out.

"The Triple-Post Offense" reads the cover, with a trio of basketball outlines. The author is Fred "Tex" Winter, the Basketball Hall of Fame coach who passed away Wednesday at age 96. Inside the leather-colored cover are the concepts and plays behind what would later become known as the Triangle Offense, the strategy behind Phil Jackson's dynasties with the Bulls and Lakers.

Also inside the cover is a message Winter wrote to Lamont.

The 1962 book is a collector's item, a true example of a coach whose concepts were ahead of their time. When Winter gave Lamont the book 53 years ago, however, it was a recruiting tool.

Yes, Tex Winter recruited Gene Lamont.

Yes, Gene Lamont was really good at basketball.

"I'm in the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame," Lamont said proudly.

Indeed, scour the names in the hall -- legends like Isiah Thomas, Dan Issel, George Mikan, Doug Collins and Hersey Hawkins -- and there's Lamont, star guard from Hiawatha High School in tiny Kirkland, Illinois, class of 1965.

Before Lamont became the Tigers' first-ever pick in the MLB Draft, he was headed to Kansas State to play baseball and basketball. He was going to play the latter for Winter, who took the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1964.

Lamont wasn't the Wildcats' star recruit. But when Kansas City high school great Lucius Allen decided to join Lew Alcindor at UCLA, Lamont was Kansas State's next option. He was a record scorer at Hiawatha, averaging 26 points per game one season.

Lamont had never been on a plane until he flew out to visit Kansas State, where he was greeted by a young assistant named Bill Guthridge. Guthridge would later join Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina and win a national championship as a head coach for the Tar Heels.

Lamont got the book from Winter and committed, leaving Manhattan thinking he was going to be a Wildcat. But he can't say he pored through the pages at the time to learn about the offense he was going to run.

"I didn't really learn much about it," Lamont admitted. "I did know that he was kind of noted for having some big guys. I didn't know much about the whole thing. Heck, I just wanted to go somewhere I could play basketball and baseball."

Lamont also had no shortage of Major League scouts watching his baseball games at Hiawatha that spring. Among them was Tigers scout Lou D'Annuzio, who had signed Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser and Tigers greats Willie Horton and Bill Freehan. But those signings were before MLB implemented the Draft system. If the Tigers were going to get Lamont, they'd have to select him first, then sign him.

The Tigers picked 13th in the first MLB Draft in 1965 and went with Lamont. He still wasn't sure what he would do until the team flew him to Detroit to see the city and talk about a contract.

"My dad and I talked," Lamont said, "and I said, 'Well, if they give me this' -- I think it was $35,000 or $33,000 or whatever. I took half one year, half the next year for taxes. I didn't know anything about taxes.

"I really loved baseball, but I like basketball too. I just kind of wanted to sign."

Lamont played in just 87 Major League games, mostly as a backup catcher, but he became a baseball lifer thanks to a second career as a coach under Jim Leyland, manager and instructor. Winter went on to coach at several stops before becoming Phil Jackson's top assistant and offensive guru.

Lamont, now 71, is a special assistant with the Royals, focusing on player development. And yet, as the basketball world remembers Winter, Lamont wonders what it would have been like to run his offense.

"I would've liked to see if I could've played basketball," he said Thursday before heading out to watch an Arizona Fall League game. "But I can't complain."

What would the Tigers have done had Winter and K-State wooed Lamont away from pro ball? It would've been an interesting twist in an inaugural MLB Draft that became known for another high-school catcher, Johnny Bench, going in the second round to the Reds.