I had always heard that Jordan added a little sugar to this story.
What is true is something in High School did fuel what would become arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, but just like any good movie some things have been exaggerated a bit.
The real story, that is of interest to me is the grudge Jordan held against his friend who made the team ahead of him even though the reason he made the team will make you chuckle.
The coaches met in Herring’s windowless closet of an office to compare notes. Most of the varsity spots were already locked down. Herring had gone to the playoffs the previous season with two phenomenal junior guards, Dave McGhee and James (Sputnik) Beatty, and now they were even better. Although it’s hard to be certain now, because memorabilia hounds keep stealing the yearbooks from Jordan’s time at Laney, there were about 10 seniors on the 1978–79 roster. They knew Herring’s system. Some of them, like Mike Jordan himself, had learned to run and gun at the Boys Club under Earl (Papa Jack) Jackson, the man who had taught the game not only to Pop Herring but also to Meadowlark Lemon, the great Harlem Globetrotter.
But the Laney Bucs did have one major weakness, and that was size. They didn’t have a returning player taller than 6’3″.
The coaches emerged from Herring’s closet with two handwritten lists, the varsity roster and the jayvee roster, which they posted on the door to the room that would later be renamed Michael J. Jordan Gymnasium.
In those days it was rare for sophomores to make varsity. Herring made one exception in 1978, one designed to remedy his team’s height disadvantage. This is part of the reason Mike Jordan went home and cried in his room after reading the two lists. It wasn’t just that his name was missing from the varsity roster. It was also that as he scanned the list he saw the name of another sophomore, one of his close friends, the 6’7″ Leroy Smith.
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.
When Jordan needed energy during a hard workout, he closed his eyes and saw Leroy Smith’s name on the varsity list in place of his own. When he checked into a hotel under a fake name, he checked in as Leroy Smith. When he left basketball to play baseball, he defended his decision by saying, “It should be a game that everyone has an opportunity to play—no matter who, Michael Jordan or Leroy Smith, it doesn’t matter.” When Jordan’s foremost corporate partner, Nike, launched a viral marketing campaign in 2009, it starred Eddie Murphy’s brother, Charlie, in the role of Leroy Smith.
“After I beat out MJ for the last spot on that varsity team,” the fictional Leroy Smith says in a fictitious ad for his training services, “he went on to become the greatest basketball player of all time. Coincidence? No way! [He is shown soloing on an electric guitar, surrounded by flames.] I’ll teach you the skills you need to dominate opponents the same way I dominated Mike when we were in 10th grade. [He karate-kicks in the direction of the camera, and the screen seems to shatter.] You! Will learn my three pillars of success: Motivize! Pulverize! And realize!”
The ads introduced Smith as the Man Who Motivated Michael Jordan, even though the real Leroy Smith didn’t do much to motivate Jordan besides being tall, showing up at the tryout and accepting someone else’s decision.
That someone else, of course, was Pop Herring. He faded from public view soon after Jordan left town. When a crew from NBA Entertainment went to Wilmington around 1988 to film the short documentary Michael Jordan: Come Fly with Me, Herring was no longer coaching at Laney High. The varsity coach was a man named Fred Lynch.
It’s unclear how Lynch came to replace Pop Herring on Come Fly with Me. One of the documentary’s producers, David Gavant, says he looked for Herring but couldn’t find him. He says he was told that Fred Lynch had been one of Herring’s assistants in 1978, the year Jordan didn’t make varsity, meaning Lynch would have taken part in the decision. In fact, Lynch didn’t even work at Laney then. Lynch says he tried to tell the filmmakers the truth but gave up because they didn’t want to hear it. About five minutes into Come Fly with Me, he makes a brief appearance to say, “I’m the coach who cut Michael as a sophomore.”
And so the Great Cutting Myth was enshrined in the top-selling sports video of all time, while the man who could have disproved it was written out of existence.
So Jordan didn’t really get cut, he didn’t called up.
That happens to a lot of sophomores athletes myself included. Back when I was Young Rob, in my mind I was good enough to play varsity football as a Sophomore and ever played in a couple of games when some injuries hit, but coach thought I would be better on JV where I had a Jerry Rice style year. When I was Junior I believe I was more prepared.
Leroy Smith needs to see if her can get some royalties for Jordan using his name all these years.