WALLA WALLA - The last six months have been more tumultuous than those most college freshmen experience for former Wa-Hi athletic standout Gary Winston, Jr., but as the Walla Walla Community College 2010-11 men's basketball season nears the combo guard is hoping that a return to the hardwood can show that Thomas Wolfe's novel, "You can't go home again", isn't proven true.
After committing to the University of Idaho last school year - bypassing nearly a half-dozen other Division I scholarships - Winston headed to Moscow to start summer classes.
But his parents' divorce, a mysterious, still-undiagnosed illness, and the desire to rediscover his passion for basketball led him back to Walla Walla to play for long-time coach and mentor Jeff Reinland at WWCC.
"It came down to the fact that I wasn't happy in Idaho, for one thing," Winston said. "And I'm a man now, and my mom and sister need me to kind of be the man of the house now that my parents aren't together. I just couldn't do that in Idaho."
Winston reached the decision to enroll at WWCC about a week before he would have been declared ineligible to play for the Warriors in a decision that surprised some, but pleased Reinland.
"I know it's been a rough time for Gary, but it was obviously a break for us," Reinland said. "He is an amazingly talented athlete. Let's put it this way: I've been here for 18 years, and we don't get lucky to get a talent like him very often. If he can get healthy there's no reason to think he won't be a dominant player at this level."
However, health remains an issue as WWCC starts its full-time practice schedule. His symptoms were similar to those of mononucleosis, according to Reinland, but doctors ruled that out as the cause of his sudden lack of energy.
After several medical consultations failed to diagnose Winston's situation, he was left wondering if he would ever play basketball again.
"It was the sickest I have ever been, and it just wouldn't go away," Winston said. "I had totally lost my desire to play basketball. It wasn't fun at all anymore, and when I got so sick, and we couldn't figure out what was wrong with me, I started to question a lot of things about my future. At one point, I remember calling my mom and just asking her, ‘Would it be all right if I was just a student?'"
It was another experience with his family that led to Winston's decision to return from Idaho.
"I came to town to visit my family for my birthday weekend," Winston said. "I just realized this was where I need to be right now. I need to be close to my family at this point, so I talked to coach Reinland, and he told me that if I wanted to I could come play for him."
It was the beginning of a healing process that has led to him back onto the court with the Warriors.
"Obviously, since I've known Gary since he was a kid playing on the same team as one of my sons, I care a lot about his personal happiness," Reinland said. "But as his coach we have to remember that we have to focus on the job of finding ways to make sure he can improve as a player so he can move on to the next level. If he wants to move on to D-I next year, I have no doubt he'll get offers, but if he wants to stay here for two (years) then we have to make sure he has the methods to improve on his D-I level talent."
Throughout his youth basketball career, Winston was known for being a gym rat and practicing his game for hours each day, but it was a moment away from the court that inspired him to officially return to the game.
"My family is very religious, and one Sunday a couple of weeks ago we went to church," Winston said. "Afterward, we ate, and I felt so much better, and I just headed to the gym and started shooting. I spent hours just working on my shot. I can't totally explain it, but everything was like it used to be all of a sudden."
Winston isn't sure whether it was something spiritual that drew him back to Walla Walla, but he does believe that it was the right move to get his basketball career back on track and the correct choice to support his family.
"It feels good to be back, and now that I'm feeling better I can just focus on family and my new friends and teammates," Winston said. "It's different than high school, of course, but everything is getting better, and I'm definitely happier here."