It is one of the legends of Michael Jordan — that as a high-school sophomore he was cut from his high school team.
Jordan, ever the master at using slights real and perceived as fuel to drive him, took this insult as one of the things that pushed him through high school to North Carolina and beyond. He cried that night when he didn’t make the team and that was one of his first steps to being Michael Jordan.
So what was that high school coach thinking?
In a must-read interview and story in this week’s Sports Illustrated, Clifton Herring explained how he made a logical basketball decision — and that he never really cut Jordan.
There was no doubt that Mike Jordan could handle the ball, but his shooting was merely good and his defense mediocre. Mike Jordan was seven or eight inches shorter than Michael Jordan would be, only 5’10” at age 15, and at least one assistant coach had never heard of him before that day. If Jordan distinguished himself at all during the tryout, it was through his supreme effort…..
But the Laney Bucs did have one major weakness, and that was size. They didn’t have a returning player taller than 6’3″….. 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.
Jordan wasn’t cut, like most sophomores he was assigned to the junior varsity team. Jordan was fired up as only Jordan could be and he dominated at that J.V. level then started to do the same at the varsity level later — at the same time he sprouted up to become a tall player but always having those guard skills.
Herring did what any basketball coach would do — he went big. Tall and good beats small and good every time. There were already about 10 seniors on the varsity team, only a few spots were open and the coach went with the size he needed on the roster. It’s why you take Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, even if that in retrospect seems foolish. (GMs who say now they would have taken Durant are doing some revisionist history, at the time they all would have taken Oden.)
Jordan developed more and faster on the J.V. And if Jordan had made that varsity team, would he ever have become “Air Jordan?” Maybe we should just say thank you to Herring and move along.