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The man who "cut" Michael Jordan

1/10/2012

You'll thank me if you take the time to read this amazing Thomas Lake story, in Sports Illustrated, about Michael Jordan's high-school coach Clifton "Pop" Herring. That Jordan wasn't really cut is only a tiny part of what fascinates. For instance, don't many assume Jordan's not making the varsity as a sophomore was a sign of his coach's idiocy? Well, as it turns out, Pop knew what he was doing, with and without Jordan:

The decision to leave Jordan on jayvee as a sophomore was not an oversight. Herring and his assistants knew Jordan would ride the bench on varsity, so they put him on jayvee, and it worked out perfectly. When he got to varsity, he was ready to lead the team. Pop gave Mike his time but made him earn everything else. They would play Around the World after practice, and Pop was nearly unbeatable. Jordan hated to lose, of course, so he kept improving until the day he finally won.

Some people, including Pop's friend Jimmy Hebron, the coach at New Hanover, believe Herring could have won a state championship if he had put the explosive and fast-growing Jordan at forward and let him "play volleyball" with the towering Leroy Smith. Hebron says this as a compliment to Pop for putting Jordan's development ahead of Pop's own desire for trophies. It's true that Jordan was better served by playing point guard than he would have been banging on the blocks, but Pop's assistant and friend Ron Coley says the move was designed to make the team better. They knew Jordan was their best player, and they figured the surest way to get him the ball was to put it in his hands at the start of every play.

The Great Cutting Myth suggests that Pop was unworthy of being Jordan's coach, or that he failed to appreciate the divine gift he'd been given. But the numbers show otherwise. Pop was a winner before Jordan arrived and a winner after Jordan left. He took Laney to the divisional semifinals in 1978 and '79. But in '79--80, when Jordan led the Bucs, in one game scoring 51 of their 55 points, Laney won fewer games than it had the year before, and the Bucs again lost in the divisional semifinals. Pop let Jordan carry the team again as a senior, and what happened? The Bucs lost yet again in the divisional semis, even though they entered with a 19--3 record. Jordan scored 26 points but shot "poorly" against New Hanover in that final loss, according to the Wilmington Morning Star. With 33 seconds remaining he missed two free throws that would have given the Bucs a four-point lead. Seconds later he missed a long jumper and then committed an offensive foul, his fifth, and the resulting free throws gave New Hanover a lead it never relinquished.

Pop had his best season two years after Jordan left. The Bucs made the state playoffs for the first time in their history. In their opening game, against Hoke County, they had a 12-point lead with 90 seconds left. Pop emptied his bench. One assistant coach nearly had a fit, because the game was still in question, but Pop wanted all his guys to be able to say they'd played in the state playoffs. He even put in a kid they called Bouffant because of his perfect red hair. "Bouffant can handle the pressure," Pop said, and Bouffant could. He scored two points, and the Bucs won by 11, and they rode home in celebration, grooving to Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, because Pop always loved his music.