The most infamous roster decision in high school basketball history came down 33 years ago on the edge of tobacco country, between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, in an old town full of white wooden rocking chairs. The decision took physical form in two handwritten lists on a gymnasium door, simultaneously beautiful for the names they carried and crushing for the names they did not. A parade of fragile teenage boys passed by, stopping to read the lists, studying them like inscriptions in stone. Imagine these boys in the time of their sorting, their personal value distilled to a binary question, yes or no, and they breathe deeply, unseen storms gathering behind their ribs, below their hearts, in the hollows of fear and exhilaration.
The chief decision-maker loved those boys, which made his choice all the harder. He gave them his time seven days a week, whether they needed shooting practice at six in the morning or a slice of his wife's sweet-potato pie. His house was their house and his old green Ford Maverick was their car and his daughter was their baby sister, and he liked the arrangement. He was tall and slender, like the longleaf pines that covered Cape Fear, and when he smiled in pictures, his dark eyes were narrow, hazy, as if he'd just awakened from a pleasant dream. His nickname, Pop, evoked some withered old patriarch, but Clifton Herring was only 26, one of the youngest varsity coaches in North Carolina, more older brother than father to his boys, still a better player than most of them. They'd never seen a shooter so pure. One day during practice he made 78 straight free throws.
To an outsider watching Pop Herring's basketball tryout in November 1978, it would not have been obvious that the gym at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C., held a player destined to become the greatest in the universe. He was still Mike Jordan then, not Michael Jordan, just another sophomore guard among 50 eager boys competing for 15 spots on the varsity and 15 more on the junior varsity. There was no doubt that Mike Jordan could handle the ball, but his shooting was merely good and his defense mediocre. Mike Jordan was seven or eight inches shorter than Michael Jordan would be, only 5'10" at age 15, and at least one assistant coach had never heard of him before that day. If Jordan distinguished himself at all during the tryout, it was through his supreme effort. He was first in line for the conditioning drills, and he ran them as hard as anyone, and when they were over he wanted to run some more.
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.
"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."
Smith didn't play much as a sophomore, but he meshed well with Jordan as a junior and senior on Herring's varsity and then accomplished enough at UNC-Charlotte to land professional gigs in England, France, Germany and Argentina. Jordan had other friends, but no name was burned into his memory like Leroy Smith's. 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.
That was 23 years ago.
My search for Pop Herring begins on a thick afternoon in late July, with a white sun firing through the clouds and a light rain cooling the brick-paved streets. One of his old college football teammates told me he saw Pop last year near downtown Wilmington, at a picnic table under an oak tree. He couldn't remember exactly where. So I walk east along Grace Street, where Pop once lived, down to the Chestnut Food Market, where boys are smoking cigarettes.
Yes, one of them says, Pop comes around here. Sometimes he shoots an imaginary basketball. He might be up on Sixth Street, north of the bridge.
Up on Red Cross Street, in front of Wanda's "Creative" Hair Salon, a man sits on two black milk crates, grooving to his portable CD player. Yes, he knows Pop. Everyone in Brooklyn does. That's what they call this neighborhood. Brooklyn is a terrible place to hide. Your grandfathers knew each other, and probably their grandfathers too. "He's let his self go," the music man says, and asks for money.
Beyond the narrow one-lane bridge, as I stand taking notes near Miracle Restoration Deliverance Revival Center Ministries, I hear a booming voice.
"What the hell are you doing?"
The voice comes from a man in a white wooden rocking chair, drinking gin from a clear plastic cup. I tell him I'm looking for Pop. He softens, tells me to sit down, then tells me many other things in a glorious baritone, boasting about two eightysomething men he knows who could pass for 49, reminiscing about his days as an airborne pathfinder in Vietnam. But about Pop. "When he comes by here, he's walking fast," the veteran says. "He can be nice or he can be mean."
The veteran knows a woman named BayBay who used to be Pop's landlady. Matter of fact, he has her number. He calls her from his white wooden rocking chair, and she meets me the next afternoon on her own porch in her own white wooden rocking chair, and then we get in her car and drive a couple of blocks to Pop's house, where a picnic table sits in the yard beneath a sheltering oak.
BayBay is the sort of middle-aged woman who commands fear and respect. She tells a man outside the house to go in and get Pop. The man returns a moment later to say Pop won't come out. BayBay finds this unacceptable: "Did you tell him Miss BayBay wants him?"
The man goes back in the house, which used to be white before time and weather scoured away the paint. Aluminum cans are piled under a dogwood tree by the sagging picket fence. There is no front door besides the screen door, which offers a view straight through the house to the cars traversing the bridge above the Cape Fear River. A handwritten cardboard sign by the door says:
Pop Herring steps into the sunlight. He is 59 years old, but he could pass for 70. He is tall and gaunt, with deep wrinkles along his brow and a patchy white beard on his sallow cheeks. His clothes are ragged. Miss BayBay introduces us. I offer a hand to shake, but he bends his arm to the left and gives me a gentle tap with the side of his hand. "He's not a gentleman yet," Pop tells Miss BayBay, and when I lean against a telephone pole he warns me to move, as if I might push it over. Despite all this he has a warmth about him, a jovial spirit, and he tells me to come back tomorrow with my car so we can ride around town.
Next morning he wears nicer clothes: a shiny white polyester T-shirt with beltless gray-brown slacks and polished gray dress shoes. He gets in my rented Chevy Impala, and we ride through Brooklyn with the air conditioner blasting.
"How 'bout lettin' me hear a little music," he says. "Doesn't make any difference what it is. Just leave orchestra out of it. He-he-he-he. Leave orchestra out of it."
Two things soon become clear. One, a traditional interview will be nearly impossible, because my questions don't seem to interest him. And two, the kind of music I play does, in fact, make a difference. "Put the Bone on," he says.
"The Bone?" I ask.
I spin the FM dial up to 108 and down again. At 103.7 I find the Bone, through which Tom Petty is telling a nameless babe how lucky she got. As we drive east on Market Street, Pop answers a question I have yet to ask.
"They criticized me for cutting Michael Jordan," he says. "Now, when, if you ever attempt to play any type of athletics, remember this small new hint of advice. New conversation of advice. If—when I was comin' up playin' ball, when you get cut, you are cut predominantly. Whatever is on each side. Then you do not even play either level, jayvee or varsity. Michael—well, Mike—Jordan was placed on the junior varsity level. Uh-huh? He was placed on the junior varsity level. He wasn't cut away from the game that made him."
Here is how Clifton (Pop) Herring came to be cut away from the game that made him. The story of his fleeting success is in some ways more remarkable than the story of Michael Jordan's spectacular ascent. This is partly because of the sharp contrast between their socioeconomic backgrounds. Their relationship cut against the Hollywood stereotypes. Jordan was not the hard-living urban black kid whose life is transformed by athletic achievement. He grew up in the suburbs, his father a supervisor for General Electric, his mother a bank teller, and without sports today he would probably be a thriving middle-class American like his two older, shorter brothers.
Pop, on the other hand, was born into one of the roughest parts of Wilmington to a 17-year-old mother with an eighth-grade education and a father who would soon leave. By the time Pop's younger sister, Eleanor, gave birth to her own daughter, at age 13, four or five generations of his family lived in the same house. From time to time one or more of them would go 90 miles north to Goldsboro for a stay at Cherry Hospital, formerly known as the Asylum for Colored Insane. Pop's grandmother went to Cherry Hospital and his mother went to Cherry Hospital and his sister went to Cherry Hospital. Their diagnoses were not well-known, but the mental illness that ran in the family did seem to worsen with age. Pop's mother was good to him when he was a child, but in 1986, when she was 51, she brandished a nail-studded board at a police officer who had come to serve her with an order for outpatient examination. In court records she said she took prescription drugs to relieve her shaking. She couldn't remember her Social Security number. Her total assets were $7 in cash.
Pop rode out of Wilmington on a full athletic scholarship to North Carolina Central in Durham, where he could have played basketball but chose football instead. He started at quarterback as a senior in 1973 and played through broken ribs to lead the Eagles to a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship. He came home with a degree in physical education and a talented woman named Sara, a six-foot schoolteacher who sewed the powder-blue tuxedo he wore to their wedding. He got a job as a teacher and assistant basketball coach at New Hanover High School. On Saturdays, after their daughter, Paquita, was born in 1977, Sara would send them both away so she could clean the house. Pop would take Paquita to visit his mother and come home hours later to a kitchen smelling like Lysol and dump a bucket of live crabs all over the sparkling floor just to hear his baby girl squeal with delight. And his wife would look from the snapping crabs to the kid she had married and decide to hush up and put the water on to boil.
The house was overrun with basketball players after Pop landed the varsity job at Laney High later in 1977. He never drew a line between work and personal life. Mike Jordan may not have made Pop's team as a sophomore, but he certainly did as a junior, and he showed no evidence of a lingering grudge when he visited Pop's house to play spades or invited the Herrings to his church or treated Paquita like the little brother he never had. One day Mike got too rough with the horseplay, and in her flaming indignation Paquita ran off to find a weapon. Pop Herring did many things for Jordan in those days—opening the gym for him in the mornings and on weekends so he could work on his jumper, giving him the keys to the Maverick to run personal errands, helping him navigate the mysterious world of college recruitment—but his most crucial favor may have been disarming his furious four-year-old daughter before she could cripple Jordan with a baton.
It's not easy coaching an elite player without forgetting the rest of your team. Those who knew Pop then say he did about as well as a coach could have done. 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.
The next game, a season-ending loss to Goldsboro in the regional semifinals, would be Pop's last as a high school coach. At open gym that summer the players heard him talking to himself, muttering about people conspiring against him and going through his mail. He suspected a close friend of some secret betrayal. Pop had just turned 31. The family disease was awakening.
His paranoia escalated, and in August 1983 school officials requested that he enter New Hanover Memorial Hospital for two weeks of psychiatric evaluation. He came back for the start of the school year and hung on long enough to hold tryouts. But after a mysterious incident with principal Kenneth McLaurin, Pop was suspended and replaced by Fred Lynch—the man who would take his place in the Come Fly with Me video. Even then, Pop thought of the boys first. He stepped down immediately, three days before his mandatory departure, so his players would have more time to get acquainted with their new coach.
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 help—according to Coley, Pop's condition had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia—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.
Ten years passed. Pop and his mother and sister fought a losing battle with the sickness and the streets. Pop and Jordan fell out of touch. By November 1994, when Jordan invited Pop to Chicago to celebrate his career with the Bulls, Pop's mother had died at 57 of an aortic aneurysm and his sister had in separate incidents been slashed with a box-cutter and shot twice in the abdomen, nearly to death, and now she wandered the town with her colostomy bag, turning violent when confronted by police. When Coley told Pop about the invitation to Chicago, Pop said, "Oh, Doctor, I don't think I'm gonna make it." He was afraid to be cast as the Coach Who Cut Jordan. But for a change he was taking prescribed medication, functioning better than he had, and Coley persuaded him to go.
It's true that the Bulls paid for the flight and a nice hotel, and that Pop attended a private party for Jordan that featured shrimp cocktails and Boyz II Men, and that Jordan gave Pop a commemorative clock, and that Pop seemed to enjoy his reunion with the player he'd once known so well. It's true that Jordan thanked Pop from the stage on the United Center court as he stood beneath the spotlights in his Carolina-blue suit.
It's also true that on the night his number was raised to the rafters, the night his 11-foot bronze statue was unveiled outside the arena, the night he was showered with praise and glory, Michael Jordan aired an old grievance with his broken coach.
"There wasn't one coach that I didn't listen and try to learn from," Jordan said. "They all knew more about the game than I knew, and probably still know about the game, more about the game now, than even I know at this point. But I respect them for taking the time to teach me the game of basketball. Goes all the way back to Clifton Herring, who was the first guy to ever cut me."
That was Pop's big introduction, to nearly 20,000 fans at the United Center and two million more watching on TNT. The first guy to ever cut me. The new arena had been designed to amplify the roar of the crowd. Now there was a rumble, a swelling chorus of voices. The fans were booing Pop Herring for an imaginary crime.
"But I think what people never knew, and I never had the opportunity to express, and my mother knew, and my brothers and sister knew, the next year, he picked me up every day at six o'clock and took me to the gym to help me work on my abilities. Thank you, Coach Herring."
The fans reconsidered. They began to cheer. Jordan could have stopped there, but he kept going. He raised his voice and his right hand, seeming to point toward the coach. "He knew he made a mistake! He just tried to correct it."
Seventeen years have passed since that night. Pop and his friends say it was the last time he saw or heard from Michael Jordan.
So," I say, on our second ride around Wilmington, "do you think that Mike appreciates all you did for him as a coach?"
The consensus around Pop's neighborhood is no, or at least not enough, or he certainly doesn't do enough to show it. Since 2005, Jordan has featured a tiny whistle logo with Herring's initials on two models of his Air Jordan sneakers, but this is not widely known around Brooklyn.
"You know," Pop says, "the one thing I say, when people come up with that question, is, because they come again on the opposite end ... 'Why the man doesn't do this? Why the man doesn't do that?' And my as—as far as my understanding is, Mike's reply is, 'My high school coach is doing O.K. He has a job. He works. He earns his own living. [None of this is true.] Even if something had come up, he has his retirement.' You know what I'm saying? 'He has some income comin', even if it takes a while.' That, that is my practicality of understanding."
By now I've asked him enough useless questions to know that the origin of this understanding is as unknowable as the origin of his fervent belief that each year has five seasons, if you count autumn. I don't know what Jordan actually thinks of Pop's situation, or whether he's fully aware of it. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
So how does this practicality of understanding make Pop feel?
"That's fine, but I can always use extra," he says. "You know [laughing], I can always—I can always use extra."
One time about 12 years ago, Pop did get some extra: a lump sum from the government of close to $40,000. The way his old friend Leroy Grady tells the story, Pop entered the bank with a shoulder bag and tried to take it all out in cash. Finally he got the money and went on a spending spree. He bought various substances and a car he couldn't afford to insure. He gave some money away. In six weeks it was all gone.
And although his retirement and Social Security checks were sufficient to rent a room, Pop was a nightmare tenant: slamming doors in the middle of the night, dropping bricks on the bathroom floor, filling trash cans with water, stuffing potatoes in the garbage disposal, turning on the gas stove for no reason, leaving food to burn and cigarettes to smolder. Landlords and fellow tenants revolted. Pop found himself homeless.
Two solutions came from Grady, a retired Army sergeant first class who had known Pop since childhood. Grady had a 1940s wood-frame house whose decrepit condition made it nearly impervious to the ravages of Pop. He rented it to Herring at a discount. And to make sure Pop's money lasted through the month, they agreed that Grady would manage the money from Pop's government checks and deliver him $60 in cash every other day to spend however he wanted. Both men said they were happy with this arrangement.
"You ain't got the music on, man," Pop says. We're driving east on a bright morning toward the blue Atlantic at Wrightsville Beach. Pop says he hasn't been to the beach in more than 20 years. I crank up the Bone, which is spinning a song called Drive, by Incubus. Pop is pleased with the music and the scenery. He remembers a nearby playground where he used to bring his daughter.
"What was she like as a kid?" I ask.
"Oh, she was just somethin' else," Pop says. "She was just somethin' else. Hard to describe, when all of a sudden, at four years of age, you go to the house and they're gone." He laughs, high and nervous, in his smoky old voice. Paquita was actually six when her mother left Pop.
"What did you do then?"
"Tried to locate her," he says. "I figured they went back to the Durham, the Raleigh-Durham area. And I went up there two to three times looking for 'em. Maybe more. But I couldn't find 'em."
The former Paquita Herring lives in Raleigh. She is now Dr. Paquita Yarborough. She has fond memories of her father and a fierce pride in what he accomplished before he got sick. She sends him occasional letters but never calls, because Pop has no phone. Paquita's doctorate is in higher educational leadership. She is associate director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at North Carolina Central, the university where her parents met. She says Sara never spoke an unkind word about her ex-husband, but Paquita is 34 now, old enough to know, and so she is skeptical of the way Pop remembers things. "You don't just come home one day and find your wife and daughter gone for no reason," she says. "Good try, but no cigar."
Raleigh and Wilmington are 130 miles apart. Paquita has never gone to see her father. "That's not a burden that I've chosen to take up," she says. Well, Pop hardly ever visited her, either. He did come up for her high school graduation in Durham. But he couldn't find a ride to her wedding, even though Paquita offered to put him up in a hotel, and anyway he told Grady that someone had stolen his suit.
Pop and Paquita haven't seen each other since 2005, at Sara's funeral. It was a sudden death from unknown causes. Sara was 52. Paquita wasn't sure Pop would be there until she saw him coming through the receiving line just like the other guests. He asked her something like, "Do you know who I am?" Later someone told her he had cried enough that day to wash away the church.
"Do you want to get out and walk on the beach?" I ask him.
"Nah, nah," he says. "They're too fine out there. The women too fine out there."
It's getting toward lunchtime, so we turn inland in search of pizza. Pop is thinking of sausage and extra cheese.
"Do you know what your mother's sickness was?" I ask.
"I don't know what her diagnosis was. But they attempted of diagnosin' myself as a paranoid schizophrenia."
"And do you think that's true?"
"No! That's a lie! See—that's a lie."
In Paquita's view, this is why her mother left Pop. Not because he was sick, but because he wouldn't admit it.
By all accounts, it has been many years since Pop saw a psychiatrist. "So you're not on some sort of psychiatric medication?" I ask.
What Pop takes is malt liquor. Also Newport cigarettes. They are his self-prescribed medication. He can buy them with his every-other-day cash allowance, but he would rather get them for free. This morning he asked me to stop at the New York Mini Mart on Nixon Street and buy him a pack of Newports and a 40-ounce jug of King Cobra. I didn't want to, because it felt wrong to support his habit. But he kept asking, with gentle determination, and finally I gave in. The same thing happened to Dwight Pettiford, the old college teammate who visited Pop in the summer of 2010: They couldn't have a conversation until Pettiford made a beer run.
We walk into Pizza Hut. This is a major step for Pop. Normally he insists on take-out because of his constant fear of being improperly dressed. Now he has a bounce in his step that I've not seen before. As Fleetwood Mac's Say You Love Me pours down from the overhead speakers, Pop dances the Carolina Shag alone on the carpet. A lovely young waitress approaches. Her nametag says ELIZABETH.
"Can you help me with my shag practice?" Pop asks.
"Oh, I can't dance," she says. "I wish."
He finishes dancing and comes to the table. When the Rolling Stones' Beast of Burden comes on, Pop sings along his own improvised lyrics in the rich growl of late middle age, somewhere between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits: "You can put me out, with shoes on my feet. Pu' me out, pu' me outta misery. Place me outta misery."
He switches from singing to talking. "Beast of burden," he says. "Just too much of every activity. Just draggin' weight, unnecessary weight around with you all the time. Too heavy of a load."
We order separate pizzas. Pop wants his own so he'll have leftovers to take home.
"You seem happy to me," I say.
"Always like that, when it's free and doesn't cost," he says. He sips his sweet tea and tears into his sausage pizza, eating five of the eight pieces, leaving the crusts on his plate like a pile of bones.
I pay the bill and we head for the door. Carrying his remaining three slices in a cardboard box, Pop gives Elizabeth a parting serenade along with the current radio song: Babe, by Styx. He calls to her over his shoulder through the open door: "And I'll be loooonely withooooout you/I'll need your love to see me through...."
We get in the car and he tells me to take him home. The jug of King Cobra lies on the rear floorboard, covered in beads of condensation, and he can't wait to crack it open.
Michael Jordan took his rightful place in the Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 11, 2009, with an acceptance speech that doubled as an airing of grievances. He shed some tears and thanked his family before getting down to the business of reminding everyone that his future North Carolina teammate Buzz Peterson was unjustly chosen over him as the state's high school player of the year; that Tar Heels coach Dean Smith wouldn't let him appear with his teammates on the cover of SI because he was a freshman; that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf wouldn't let him play soon enough after he'd broken his foot; that Chicago coach Doug Collins tried to stop him from playing ball in the summertime; that Knicks coach Pat Riley wouldn't let Jordan's friends Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing hang out with him because he was their enemy on the court; that Bulls general manager Jerry Krause told him it's the organization that wins championships, although it wasn't the organization that played with the flu in the playoffs against Utah; that Chicago assistant Tex Winter insisted there was no i in team and had to learn from Michael Jordan that there certainly was an i in win; and that Jazz guard Bryon Russell once claimed he could guard Michael Jordan and had to be punished for his insolence.
The message was clear. Jordan was a machine fueled by disrespect, and so these disrespectful men deserved his thanks.
Then there was Leroy Smith.
The tryout story had followed Smith for 30 years, around the world, from his international basketball career to his work in corporate America. Colleagues said he handled it with grace and self-deprecation, preferring to let others tell it rather than repeating it himself. It was all part of his ongoing connection with Jordan, which had served him well when he managed basketball promotions for the Asics company in the '90s and continued to serve him now, with his own company, HLS Entertainment, which offered newcomers a way to break into the sports and entertainment industries. On the company's website Smith tells potential clients he can use his relationships, including his ties to the Jordan brand, to help them get ahead. (After initially agreeing to an interview, Smith declined to speak to SI for this story.)
"Leroy Smith was a guy—when I got cut, he made the team, on the varsity team," Jordan said. "And he's here tonight."
Of course he was. So were Dean Smith, Reinsdorf, Collins and Riley. They had to be thanked in person, on national television, for the fire they put into the flying machine.
"He's still the same 6'7" guy," Jordan continued. "He's not any bigger. He's probably—his game is about the same." Jordan paused while the spectators laughed. "But he started the whole process with me, because when he made the team and I didn't, I wanted to prove, not just to Leroy Smith, not just to myself, but to the coach who actually picked Leroy over me, I wanted to make sure you understood—you made a mistake, dude."
There it was: an outpouring of Jordan-style gratitude for Pop Herring. Jordan's famous tongue slipped out of his mouth. The spectators laughed, then applauded. On television the camera cut to a stately man in a dark pinstriped suit and an orange tie. He shook his head and smiled, as if someone had just made an amusing observation that cut a little too deep. It was Leroy Smith, caught between allegiances as his old teammate surveyed the legacy of their ruined coach and cut it down to a single so-called mistake.
Pop Herring was not at Symphony Hall that night, nor was he watching on television, so he couldn't hear Jordan calling him out once again. Nor could he see the way Leroy Smith finally responded: by joining the chorus of applause.
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.
Pop Herring made hundreds of investments in those 31 years. Some have yielded little or nothing. Many others have been liquidated during Pop's 28 years of withdrawals. A small few are still paying dividends.
Pop's sister is dead now, along with his mother and his wife. His sister was 47. It was lung cancer. But she had that daughter at age 13, and for eight years Pop loved and nurtured her as if she were his own. That girl is Katie Herring. She didn't go on to become a media executive, like Leroy Smith; or the greatest athlete of the 20th century, like Michael Jordan; or a doctor of higher educational leadership, like Paquita Yarborough. But Katie Herring is the one who visits Pop Herring every day. She does his laundry once a week and brings him stuffed flounder and Cajun-shrimp pasta and generally makes sure he stays alive. She is a 44-year-old cook at T.G.I. Friday's.
But didn't we have a good time at the Pizza Hut?" Pop says. "That lady, she must be still excited down there. You know, the waitress?"
"Yeah," I say, "you got a smile out of her."
"Yeah, I did. I was able to—I had another one on the way out the door. Damn, man. Gave me another one on the way out the door."
We pull up at the ramshackle house and step into a blinding afternoon, 97¬∫, vibrating with the song of cicadas. Pop carries the pizza box in one hand and the bag of King Cobra and cigarettes in the other. We walk toward the picnic table under the spreading oak, where several ragged men cool their heels in the fine gray sand. Collectively they are known as the Oak Tree Boys. They are here morning and night. Some are homeless. One has a wild shock of white hair and another is missing his middle lower teeth, so he seems to have fangs. They have nowhere else to go. Pop lets them stay here. He still gives what he can.
Pop opens the pizza box. The fanged man takes two pieces. The third goes to the wild-haired man, who gobbles most of it and flings the crust in the street. Two seagulls swoop in and finish it off. Pop opens the King Cobra and takes a long pull. He hands the sweating bottle to his adopted brother and roommate, Bob Wells, who takes his own gulp.
"Hey, Coach," one of the men says out of the blue, "was you the one who cut Jordan?"
Pop's medicine will be gone in 10 minutes, taken mostly by others, finished by the fanged man, empty bottle thudding to the cool gray sand.
"No," Pop says. "It's a lie that you continue to tell."
POP WAS MORE OLDER BROTHER THAN FATHER TO HIS BOYS, STILL A BETTER PLAYER THAN MOST OF THEM. THEY'D NEVER SEEN A SHOOTER SO PURE.
POP IS 59 YEARS OLD, BUT HE COULD PASS FOR 70. HE IS TALL AND GAUNT, WITH DEEP WRINKLES ALONG HIS BROW. HIS CLOTHES ARE RAGGED.
MIKE JORDAN SHOWED NO EVIDENCE OF A LINGERING GRUDGE WHEN HE VISITED POP'S HOUSE TO PLAY SPADES OR INVITED THE HERRINGS TO HIS CHURCH.
POP HAD HIS BEST SEASON TWO YEARS AFTER JORDAN LEFT. BUT THAT SUMMER, PLAYERS HEARD HIM MUTTERING ABOUT PEOPLE CONSPIRING AGAINST HIM.
NOW THERE WAS A RUMBLE IN THE UNITED CENTER, A SWELLING CHORUS OF VOICES. THE FANS WERE BOOING POP HERRING FOR AN IMAGINARY CRIME.
POP AND PAQUITA HAVEN'T SEEN EACH OTHER SINCE 2005, AT SARA'S FUNERAL. SOMEONE TOLD HER HE CRIED ENOUGH TO WASH AWAY THE CHURCH.
THE MESSAGE WAS CLEAR. JORDAN WAS A MACHINE FUELED BY DISRESPECT, AND SO THESE DISRESPECTFUL MEN DESERVED HIS THANKS.
Photograph by BILL FRAKES
OUT OF THE GAME Herring, who has not coached basketball at any level since the early 1980s, lives in a ramshackle house in Wilmington, N.C., unemployable and estranged from his grown daughter.
AIR COACH Herring (above left) welcomed Jordan into his home and worked tirelessly to help him develop all facets of his game.
MEGABUCS Once Jordan (left) moved up to Laney's varsity, he teamed well with the taller Smith (right, blocking a shot in college).
COURTESY CHARLOTTE 49ERS ATHLETICS
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DOUBLE DIGITS Jordan wore the same number with the Bucs that he would famously use with the Bulls, who retired his jersey in 1994 at a celebration of his first stint with the team. Pop was flown in for the occasion, at which Jordan aired an old complaint against his high school coach.
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EASY STREET Jordan (right, rear center) grew up in comfort in this suburban Wilmington house, surrounded by family: his parents, James and Deloris, and siblings, including James Jr. (near right), Larry (far right) and Roslyn.