We all know the story. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team and then went on to become the greatest athlete ever. But along the way, 33 years after it happened, fact slowly morphed into myth. Most Jordan fans can tell you “Okay, yes he was technically cut from the varsity, but he still played jayvee, dominated, and then came up and kept dominating on the varsity the next year as a junior.” That’s nothing outrageous. Shoot, I’ll argue John Wall might even have a crazier story: getting cut from his high school team and having to transfer because no one wanted him nor thought he was good enough. The full MJ story was never given the light. Until now.
Sports Illustrated has a new piece in their newest issue that takes us back to Laney High School, Wilmington, North Carolina and the decision that probably helped change Clifton “Pop” Herring’s life forever.
MJ was banished to jayvee because he was only 5-10. The varsity needed size, and Leroy Smith (the man who would go on to become synonymous with Jordan’s maniacal wrath and competitiveness) and his 6-7 frame were chosen. Herring and the other coaches justified it this way, and after seeing Smith go on to actually play professionally, one can hardly argue taking this 6-7 high school kid was an asinine decision.
But Jordan? He became a jayvee monster.
Thomas Lake writes:
Over the next three decades Jordan would become a world-class collector of emotional wounds, a champion grudge-holder, a magician at converting real and imagined insults into the rocket fuel that made him fly. If he had truly been cut that year, as he would claim again and again, he wouldn’t have had such an immediate chance for revenge. But in fact his name was on the second list, the jayvee roster, with the names of many of his fellow sophomores. Jordan quickly became a jayvee superstar.
“He was so good, in fact, that the jayvee games became quite popular,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1999 biography of Jordan, Playing for Keeps. “The entire varsity began to come early so they could watch him play in the jayvee games. Leroy Smith noticed that while Jordan had been wildly competitive before he had been cut [sic], after the cut he seemed even more competitive than ever, as if determined that it would never happen again.”
Yes Jordan would eventually grow into a 6-6 athletic monster just a few years later. His life was just taking off. But for Herring, this was the beginning of the end. He became known as “the guy who cut MJ.” The stigma trailed him everywhere. Even a few years later when his team was actually better than they were with Jordan, he couldn’t escape its wrath, its fire, its shadow. Soon, he was out at the school, and would be replaced by a dude named Fred Lynch. You might know him as the guy on the Come Fly With Me video proclaiming it was him and not Herring who cut MJ.
Herring was eventually suspended and then stepped down not long after Jordan’s time. Everyone asked him to get help, writes SI:
Less than two weeks later, Pop’s wife and daughter left. Sara Herring had always loved her husband’s gentleness, his easy satisfaction. When she served him steak and potatoes, it was the best dinner in the world, and when she served him beans and franks, it was the best dinner in the world. Now nothing she served was good enough, and everything was a confrontation. She had begged Pop to get professional helpâ€”according to Coley, Pop’s condition had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophreniaâ€”but he wouldn’t acknowledge the problem. He said the man across the street was spying on him, and he spoke of being followed by a car with one headlight. At Christmas, Sara called Coley to say Pop had drunk a fifth of vodka and was getting violent. Coley spent the whole night trying to calm him down.
And so, over the next four years, as Michael Jordan became an Olympic gold medalist, a rookie NBA All-Star and the scorer of 37 points per game, Pop Herring went from suspended to unemployed to unemployable. As Jordan’s fame spread around the world, his old coach became a stranger in their hometown. Pop took to running, as if trying to shake out the sickness. His slender frame was seen on highways and bridges, north toward the tobacco fields and east to the ocean. Sometimes he’d come upon old friends and hug them, and other times they would call his name and he would keep running, looking straight ahead, as if they didn’t exist.
Over the years at virtually every event clamoring over Jordan’s success, Herring’s name came up. Ridiculed. Made fun of. Normally, as Lake wrote in his fascinating article, all of this was done by Jordan himself. But that was only a minuscule part of what became a nightmarish journey for the man who “cut” Michael Jordan.
Do you think Jordan had that drive in him all along or do you think he needed to be put on JV to fuel him to become the greatest ever?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.