Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?

Tom Lake: The most infamous roster decision in high school basketball history came down 33 years ago on the edge of tobacco country, between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, in an old town full of white wooden rocking chairs. The decision took physical form in two handwritten lists on a gymnasium door, simultaneously beautiful for the names they carried and crushing for the names they did not. A parade of fragile teenage boys passed by, stopping to read the lists, studying them like inscriptions in stone. Imagine these boys in the time of their sorting, their personal value distilled to a binary question, yes or no, and they breathe deeply, unseen storms gathering behind their ribs, below their hearts, in the hollows of fear and exhilaration.

The chief decision-maker loved those boys, which made his choice all the harder. He gave them his time seven days a week, whether they needed shooting practice at six in the morning or a slice of his wife’s sweet-potato pie. His house was their house and his old green Ford Maverick was their car and his daughter was their baby sister, and he liked the arrangement. He was tall and slender, like the longleaf pines that covered Cape Fear, and when he smiled in pictures, his dark eyes were narrow, hazy, as if he’d just awakened from a pleasant dream. His nickname, Pop, evoked some withered old patriarch, but Clifton Herring was only 26, one of the youngest varsity coaches in North Carolina, more older brother than father to his boys, still a better player than most of them. They’d never seen a shooter so pure. One day during practice he made 78 straight free throws.

33 thoughts on “Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?

  1. This is so good. And I’ll go full confessional here and say this is a story I’d been looking into as well. And as a young, ambitious guy just starting to crack into the national glossies and such, when I first saw that Thomas wrote about my Pop Herring, my heart just fell through the earth. I lived in Wilmington for two years. Just left last August to get my masters degree elsewhere. Knew about Pop Herring for about a year and a half. Been meaning to dig, kept putting it off for other projects.

    But then I read it. And I’m just glad to see a truly moving—great if not sad—well told. Really great work here. This is one of those I’ll keep and read over and over, to see how someone way better than me so well did what I wanted to do.

  2. Phenomenal story. Truly brilliant storytelling from Lake. Like Brandon said above, I also lived and worked at the Wilmington newspaper for three years, and tried a few times, unsuccessfully, to find Pop Herring. Like everyone in Wilmington, I quickly learned upon moving there that the “Jordan got cut” story was 100 percent fiction. So glad someone as good as Lake did and told his story.

    I think what makes Lake’s story so good is the detail, the slow-paced storytelling, and how he doesn’t make us pity Pop Herring, he just shows him as he is.

  3. After wallflowering over here for about a year, I figured I’d stumble to the microphone and say how much I loved this story — primarily because Tom didn’t overwrite something that could easily be overwritten. I tweeted at Tom that “leaving the crusts on his plate like a pile of bones” was my favorite line. I love that.

    Also — the necessity for Tom to inject himself into the story, the moral dilemma, the bit about buying Herring liquor. It’s sad, but he needed to do it to keep getting more out of the story, out of Herring, and it sets up the poignant final scene.

  4. This is like a sliver of disappearing America, like a grainy documentary, like the apocrypha uttered in villages and around fires. This is beautiful.

  5. Regarding Norlander’s comment, does anyone here have a different opinion on the malt liquor? I’m honestly curious to know what you would have done in that position.

    The truth is, if I had it to do over again, I don’t know what I’d do.

    • I like that you did it, but were conflicted about it. I also like that all that goes into the story. I say this because I have regrets about a similar situation in which I didn’t buy my subject what he had asked for (in this case, it was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken). A little explanation: I was a relatively new reporter at the Columbus Dispatch when I started working on a story about two homeless guys who an employee with the Columbus Metroparks was trying to help get homes. The homeless guys were squatting on land the Metroparks was getting ready to turn into a new park, and so they had to go. I went down to their camp a couple times. Once, I told one of the guys I would be back the next day and he asked me to bring him some chicken. Back in the office, I made an off-hand comment to my editor that I had to stop and get some chicken before heading to the camp the next day. Another editor (my editor’s boss) overheard and told me that was akin to paying for the story and that I couldn’t do it. Like I said, I was new, and so after tossing and turning all night, weighing the promise I had made to the homeless guy with thoughts of losing my job, I didn’t buy him chicken. I felt horrible driving back out to the guys’ camp, and didn’t even want to get out of the car. I’m only moderately comforted by the fact that the guy who I had promised chicken didn’t seem to remember asking me for chicken. It was 11 a.m., but he was already several cans into a case of Natural Light. All of this, I guess, to say that I still wish I had bought him chicken. And I tell my students that if they’re ever writing a story about a homeless guy, and he asks you for chicken, you better damn well buy him chicken.

    • Tom, it’s hard to say what I woud’ve done, because I’ve never met the man, wasn’t in the car, don’t know how each moment led up to that one.

      From a detached perspective, I think I would have done what you did, but would’ve probably made him work (talk) for it until my will and his patience reached their lengths. On one hand you feel bad about throwing coin at his condition, but on the other, if you refuse to do it he’ll end up getting that malt soon one way or another, and then the risk of furthering detaching yourself from the central figure to your story increases.

      The story proves you made the right call, even if it’s hard one, morally.

  6. Like Norlander above, I’m speaking for the first time after visiting often. I’m giving one answer (there could be more) to Ben’s question on Twitter: why’s this so good?

    It’s so good because so much *thought* went into it, as well as research. “Thought” meaning: hey, wait a minute, it doesn’t add up. When Jordan name-checked all the grievances/motivators during the Hall of Fame ceremony, it revealed a pattern of *perceived* slights, rather than real ones. (He had a beef with Dean Smith, for god’s sake?) And then, the research. Yearbooks on eBay; a miss by the great Halberstam (wow); the details about the lists, the boys’ heights, the office … I could go on. I felt like Lake was spooling out the story that we’ve all heard, bit by bit, to then reveal that there’s much more line there. Bravo, Mr. Lake. And thank you.

    • Sorry, when I said “it doesn’t add up” I was referring to Jordan’s version of the story, calling it a “cut.” Nervous writer writing for writers.

  7. I would have done it, Thomas. I would have also been equally conflicted and probably would have also come on here or somewhere else and asked the same question. But it wasn’t a gratuitous thing you did. It was something elemental to the Clifton Herring experience, and as someone said above, it is what gave you that final scene, which speaks so fully and so truly to Herring’s sad story as a whole.

  8. Ethics considerations aside — and, personally, I hardly think Lake was violating some sort of stone-tablet law bequeathed from the summit of Mount Medill (insert J-school of choice) — this story is essentially a quest for the truth, a story that’s about discovering a story. As such, I think Lake including himself in the piece, as well as his very real and human interaction with Herring re: buying liquor was both appropriate and essential.

    The best piece of journalism advice I ever received was the most simple: Everything’s material.

  9. I love that you [sic]‘d Halberstam! Well, I love a lot of things about this story. Just a beautiful piece of writing. Kudos.

  10. So many quietly devastating lines in there. One that stuck with me on the second reading (which I recommend):

    “He’s let his self go,” the music man says, and asks for money.

  11. I completely agree. The honesty is what makes it OK. Someone looking down from an ivory tower might have serious problems with this, because it could come across as rationalizing certain behavior (let’s call it enabling an addict) for the purpose of a story. (See: Weingarten and smoking pot.) But as a reader, it’s clear this is a moral dilemma (not simply lip service), it’s revealing of more than one character, and most importantly, it’s the Truth. Had a reporter not bought the booze, or had someone done this, not mentioned it, then had it come out later somehow, this would be a different discussion and a different story. Even when you know some people (respected peers, sometimes) will disapprove and that you’ll get all sorts of nasty letters, more honesty is pretty much always the right answer.

  12. Let me ask everyone a different version of this: What if Tom had felt these confliction emotions over the beer, had this internal debate, planning all along to be a character in the story, and then, either on editor’s advice or his own realization, decided that the piece needed to be third person to reach its full potential and deliver maximum power.

    What do you do then?

  13. A quick aside before we jump back to the new first-/third-person debate.

    Just opened a physical copy of the magazine and flipped to the back. The story received a full 10-page spread, with six full-page ads mixed in. It feels terribly ironic that all six of those ads are for Gatorade.

  14. At the ‘ol Chautauqua, if I remember correctly, some of us thought it was awkward the way Tom had originally constructed his interactions with Pop (TL: “Hey, Pop, how’s it going?” PH: “Hey, there, not too well,” etc.) And in the sections with that setup, said awkwardness stalled the pace of the amazing tale. I think it reads so much better now that those dialogue exchanges have been just streamlined into the story in those first-person sections. Isn’t that the way the story used to be? Correct me if I’m wrong. BTW, congrats, Tom. Really.

  15. In my high school, not making varsity means you were cut. So by a lot of definitions the coach did cut Jordan. And the downward spiral of his life seems to have everything to do with his mental illness and very little to do with Jordan.

  16. The story doesn’t ever say his spiral is MJ’s fault; I think it makes it pretty clear that it is the mental illness. And the point to me about the cut was this: what has been told and retold and retold, turned into a creation myth, was in fact way more nuanced than that. Yes, cut, but was on the JV. Yes, cut, but was put on the JV because of his talent, because the coach thought minutes would help more than a roster spot. Yes, cut, but almost no sophomores ever made it, so it wasn’t like he was viewed as mediocre among his peer group. Yes, cut, but the coach who cut him also became a mentor, taking him into his home and putting Jordan’s development over what might have helped the team, and the coach, win more. Etc. Etc. Etc. It was told as “Cut: because he didn’t recognize my greatness” when in fact it’s nothing like that at all.

    To me, more than a search for a fading coach, this story is a profile of Jordan, because to see him turn this person into fuel is to, for just a moment, see through the mechanism of celebrity into the truest places in him. To see what it takes, or maybe, just what it took.

  17. Maybe I’m biased because I just met the author, but I love this piece. Great writing, well paced, singg. Folks have complimented lots of great stuff here, so one thing I’ll add is the interesting issue about how even the most successful people need chips on their shoulders to spur them on. For example, I’m a Patriots fan, and Tom Brady is clearly fueled by the fact that his own college coach sort of took the starting job away from him as a senior and made him share it with Drew Henson, a freshman and local star triathelete. That and being a 6th rounder clearly pushes Brady even today, with three (and hopefully a 4th?) rings, and it’s part of his frequently cited work ethic. Pretty much every pro athlete likes to claim “I get no respect” any time anyone dares pick the opposing team. And of course we as writers all remember rejection letters, other writers who won more acclaim, negative reviews, etc, and that propels us. But the way Jordan constantly brings Pop up, and the apparent mean-spiritedness of this, shows the dark side of using past slights to press us on. We need those chips as motivation, sure, but we also need to realize we’re playing with fire.

  18. Welcome to Gangrey, Tom. Thanks for that comment. I completely agree with you. The desire to prove others wrong about us is one of the most powerful motivators in the universe. It was (and is) certainly true for me, after all the rejection letters I got in my first years out of college.

    As for your question, Charles, here’s an unpublished update I wrote on the situation:

    Clifton Herring, the man falsely accused of cutting Michael Jordan from his high-school basketball team, lives in a ramshackle house near the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, N.C. I visited Herring twice last summer for the long profile that ran in last week’s issue of SI, and on my second visit I saw a scary man walking out of the house. Numerous odd-looking characters roamed around the place, drinking cheap liquor under the oak tree and inciting small disturbances, but this man was different. He had hard eyes, hard muscles, and an air of menace. I didn’t think he belonged in the house that Herring shared with his adopted brother, but I was an outsider, and I let it be.

    I saw the scary man again on Saturday, in a mugshot posted online. He turned out to be Andrew B. Adams, age 55, a convicted rapist who is now charged with first-degree murder. The police said he killed a 24-year-old woman. She was found last week in a shallow grave in the side yard of the house where Adams lived with Clifton Herring. The old coach was arrested too, for being drunk and belligerent when the police showed up.

    No one should blame Herring for this. He is mentally ill, and he needs help. Adams took advantage of Herring’s weakness and moved in with him, and then Adams did something to bring the police. Herring drinks a lot; probably every day. Last time I checked, he was taking no psychiatric medication. He is vulnerable on the streets of Wilmington, and the next incident could result in something much worse than a misdemeanor arrest. I’m glad he has his freedom, but there must be a better place for him than a house full of miscreants.

    “I have no best friend now,” he told me last summer. Well, he needs one. His landlord and niece are doing their best, but they have limited means. His adult daughter has never visited him in Wilmington, and she told me Sunday she does not plan to intervene. Clifton Herring was kind to many people before he got sick almost 30 years ago. Were you one of them? Did you ever consider helping him? Now would be the time.

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