It's the "story" of legend, even if the story was always a fictional tale. Michael Jordan, regarded for over a decade to be the best basketball player ever, was supposedly "cut" from his high school basketball team during his sophomore year. Jordan has brought it up endlessly, writers like Bob Greene and David Halberstam trumpeted the tale, and the idea that the Best Player Ever could not be included amongst the 10-best players in tiny Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., back in 1979 tends to boggle the mind.
It should boggle the mind, because it isn't true. Not just that he wasn't amongst the 10 best, Jordan clearly was, but because MJ was never really "cut." He was sent to the JV team by a 26-year-old coach who was recently brilliantly profiled by Thomas Lake at Sports Illustrated. Coach Clifton Herring is a man who probably didn't think he'd be the subject of anything having to do with Sports Illustrated at the time, much less 30-some years later.
It is a long (for the blog generation) but worthwhile read that cuts to the ever-shrinking core of Jordan, the person whose accomplishments need no inflating, but someone who has taken self-aggrandizing to a new level in the same way that he dominated the game of basketball for two decades after that "cut."
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.
Bobby Knight also loves to tell a tale of his own, even if his was actually based in reality. About how he told then-Portland Trail Blazer GM Stu Inman to "play [Jordan] at center" when Inman talked up drafting a needed center in the 1984 draft ahead of Jordan. Inman, flush with Clyde Drexler and 20-point scorer in Jim Paxson at the wings, selected Sam Bowie ahead of MJ. Bowie boasted more considerable accomplishments than Leroy Smith did at Laney, but the lesson (I suppose) remains the same.
Size matters in basketball, at any level. Just as it matters in football with linemen or a quarterback that can see over the top of an oncoming defense, it matters in a game where the best possible shot is taken inches away from the goal. And before Jordan, at least in the NBA, no other guard really mattered as much.
Every champion had a center leading the way, even if that center wasn't always the team's best player or leading scorer. Hell, before Jordan won his first NBA title in 1991, league-leading scorers didn't really factor into championship teams. To discredit coaches or personnel chiefs for not recognizing a player who would change the entire way we look at basketball is to yell at anyone who was around before 2005 for not figuring out that we could film hilarious things on our mobile phones and easily upload them to the Internet to much acclaim.
To kill the then-26-year-old Clifton Herring for thinking orthodoxy-first and selecting a 6-7 big man to man his middle over a 5-10 guard that would no doubt lead the JV squad to a series of wins (while developing his game with all the minutes and shots he could handle) is ridiculous. This isn't college hoops, where the 5-10 guard could transfer or fly off to the NBA. This isn't the NBA, where the guard could pout, force a trade, or leave as a free agent.
This is high school, where you have that guard for another two seasons following his assumed brilliant turn with the JV. This is high school, where you have a team to consider in between grading American History quizzes, and making absolutely no money while dealing with the developing egos and emotions of dozens of students.
This is high school. It sucked then and will continue to suck for everyone that is forced through its halls. Get over it, emo Michael Jordan. Because it clearly got a whole lot better.
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