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"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."