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Did This Man Really Cut MICHAEL JORDAN?
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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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.

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