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Sports Illustrated's Profile of Michael Jordan's High School Coach and the Cutting Myth Shows Power of Perception

If you haven’t read Thomas Lake’s profile of Clifton (Pop) Herring in Sports Illustrated, entitled “Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?” It may not seem like a big deal now, but this piece of information is a part of the Michael Jordan story/mythology. It was repeated everywhere. It was on the back of the Wheaties boxes that I used to collect as a youth, detailing Jordan’s rise to stardom.

And so it is that Lake provides “Pop” Herring’s side of the story. Jordan was not cut his sophomore year at Laney High in North Carolina. He was placed on the junior varsity team, hardly an insult to most mere mortal sophomores at a school where 50 boys are trying out, though a lifetime of insult to the greatest player. The then 5’10” Jordan was kept on the JV squad, rather than sit behind senior guards on a team that had gone to the state playoffs and on a team that had ten seniors. The only sophomore to make the varsity that year–and the constant source of motivation for Jordan so much that he mentions him regularly–was 6’7″ Leroy Smith. Smith was chosen because the varsity had no other players over 6’3″. Jordan meanwhile, would get a chance to star on the JV team and not have his minutes limited.

For Jordan, as competitive a person as might exist, I’m sure it was devastating. That doesn’t mean he was cut, or that the coach wasn’t trying to look out for him. That fueled him, but it is also true that he spent time at coach Herring’s house, that coach Herring opened the gym for him early in the morning, and that they generally had a good relationship through his time at Laney.

Of course, this isn’t just a story about whether Jordan was really cut. It goes deeper and looks at the life of the man behind that myth. It is a story of the tragedy of paranoid schizophrenia, how it impacted a man and his life. “Pop” Herring only coached for two more years after Jordan left, before he started showing the symptoms of the family illness, at the age of 31. He has largely been unemployed and at times homeless since he stopped coaching high school basketball over 25 years ago.

The story is an interesting contrast of how Herring’s schizophrenia took him down, while Jordan’s almost pathological need to feel spurned pushed him higher, highlighted by his Hall of Fame “airing of the grievances” acceptance speech. Even as Jordan thanked people, including “Pop”, he felt the need to point out how they failed. The most powerful piece of writing by Lake comes late in the piece:

If life is a cycle of giving and receiving, of storing up goodwill in the hearts of those around you, of doing kindness for the sake of kindness but also for yourself, for your reserve fund, in case one day you need to make a withdrawal, when you’re old or sick or poor or maybe all three, then for the first 31 years of his life Pop Herring built about as much wealth as a man could. And then he lost most of his earning capacity, almost overnight, and what he had left were those investments. The thing about investments is that they usually come with risk. You never know which ones will pay off. You can put in and put in and put in, and you still might get nothing back.

 

I don’t think it’s fair to be as simplistic as to say Jordan should do more for his old high school coach, who he has seen once in the last 25 years (at a Bulls game honoring Jordan). Pops, after all, has a serious disease that causes him to destroy and squander things, and he largely refuses to medicate. I think the point for me is this, in regarding to the Cutting Myth. Sometimes the most influential people in your life do things you don’t understand. That doesn’t mean they failed you when your name is not on the list you wanted. Eventually, most people realize that.

[photo via Getty]

 

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