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Did This Man Really Cut MICHAEL JORDAN?
THOMAS LAKE
January 16, 2012
For years the NBA Hall of Famer has claimed that his high school coach underestimated his talent as a sophomore. Clifton (Pop) Herring, whose life has been a struggle since then, tells a different story
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January 16, 2012

Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?

For years the NBA Hall of Famer has claimed that his high school coach underestimated his talent as a sophomore. Clifton (Pop) Herring, whose life has been a struggle since then, tells a different story

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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.)

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