We’ve all heard the story before. Before Michael Jordan went on to his illustrious career at North Carolina, then with the Chicago Bulls (and I suppose also with the Washington Wizards, but let’s just pretend that never happened, okay?), he was cut from his high school basketball team. Jordan has told the story throughout his career, including at his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech. It’s a well-known story that everyone seems to just generally accept it as fact.
But is it true?
This week on Only A Game, Karen Given interviewed Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated, whose article on former coach “Pop” Herring is called “Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?”
“I guess it’s a matter of semantics,” said Lake. “The fact is, he was in 10th grade at the time. There were combined tryouts for the varsity and the junior varsity team. It was extremely rare for a 10th grader to make varsity, and ultimately, Jordan made the JV team just like most other 10th graders.”
There was one exception, however. Jordan’s friend Leroy Smith made the varsity team, mostly because he was 6’7″ at the time, while Jordan, not yet fully developed, stood just 5’10”.
Leroy Smith was “a name that Jordan would then mention again and again over the next few decades as a person who inspired him to get better and better,” Lake said. “He could never forget that Leroy Smith had made varsity when he didn’t.”
While Jordan won six NBA Championships, Clifton “Pop” Herring hasn’t been a basketball coach in nearly 30 years.
“He had a long family history of mental illness, and in his early 30s, it came upon him,” said Lake. “He began acting paranoid, he thought people were going through his stuff or out to get him. It got worse and worse, and finally, the school let him go, and he was never able to coach again.”
Herring lost his wife and daughter, who moved away after Herring continued to leave his illness untreated. He was booed when he was introduced at Jordan’s first retirement ceremony in 1994.
These days, “Pop” can be found in the “Brooklyn” neighborhood of Wilmington, North Carolina.
“He and some friends spend most days under a big oak tree, sitting at a picnic table drinking and smoking,” Lake said.
Lake’s feature can be found in the SI vault: http://www.si.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1193740/index.htm