"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.