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.