The Unkindest Cut Of All -- Dropping Of Michael Jordan From Prep Varsity Remains A Very Unpopular Topic

WILMINGTON, N.C. - Before he moved on to cartoons, Michael Jordan starred in an NBA Entertainment property called "Come Fly With Me." The 10-year-old film covers all the angles, and at every speed. Never has anyone risen so high, so slowly.

The filmmakers dug up Jordan's roots. They uncovered a story no one could believe, the one that seemed like urban myth.


The filmmakers had proof.

"Yes," Fred Lynch said, smiling into the camera, "I'm the coach who cut Michael Jordan."

No, he isn't.

Michael Jordan didn't make the varsity as a sophomore at Laney High. That much is true. He was too short, too raw. He never really outgrew the snub, which he used as the impetus for what may be the most remarkable career in basketball history.

Fred Lynch didn't kickstart it, though. He's the varsity coach at Jordan's alma mater. But, in 1978, he was the freshman coach. Clifton "Pop" Herring was the varsity coach 20 years ago, and he was with a former assistant in Chicago the night in 1994 that the Bulls celebrated Jordan's first attempt at retiring.

"These," Ahmad Rashad told the crowd, "are the coaches who cut Michael Jordan."

And everyone booed.

Herring didn't laugh. His promising coaching career ended soon after Jordan left Laney, ended before anyone even knew it bothered Michael Jordan that he was cut from the varsity.

Pop Herring knows it now.

"He's gotten kind of tired of it," said Ron Coley, one of Herring's former assistants.

A lot of people back home are tired of the story. Many of them won't talk about it any more. Fred Lynch won't. He apparently took the blame in the NBA film because no one wanted to put Pop Herring on camera. No one wanted to put him through the pain.

The funny thing is, it all seemed reasonable 20 years ago. Hardly anyone argues that back here, in the shadows of Jordan's leviathan career.

On Pop Herring's good days, friends say, he still can see the logic, too.

On his bad days, it doesn't really matter, because he doesn't know anyone at all.

Before some marketing genius blew life into "Air Jordan," the fellows back at Laney called him "Peanut," or "Shagnut," for the shape of his head.

"He never answered to it, though," said Michael Bragg, a junior on the Laney varsity in 1978-79.

No one cared if Michael Jordan liked the nickname back then. No one cares much what a junior varsity point guard thinks, not when he's sitting on the team bus and subject to the whims of varsity players, who think nothing of thumping the backs of his protruding earlobes.

"Now you look where he's at," Kevin Edwards said of Jordan, "and it's kind of amazing."

Edwards, a senior and back-up point guard on the varsity in 1978-79, said they had no reason to think Jordan would be special. He'd been known mostly as a pitcher and outfielder until junior high. High school at Laney in the late 1970s started with the 10th grade, and Jordan arrived for his sophomore year at a skinny 5 feet, 9 inches.

Only his hands gave him away. Edwards, also 5-9, recalled putting his hand next to Jordan's, "and his was twice as big as mine."

Going into the fall of 1978, it was the biggest impression Jordan made.

He didn't have much of a chance, really. Laney was only in its third year, but Pop Herring had grown up under Leon Brogden at nearby New Hanover High School, where Herring played on the last of Brogden's eight state championship teams. Brogden almost never carried sophomores on the varsity, and that policy was good enough for Pop when he became a head coach.

He didn't have much room for any in the fall of 1978. Laney returned 11 seniors and three juniors on the varsity, and eight of them were guards.

Herring had one opening for a sophomore. Three days of tryouts came down to one question.

"The debate," said Ron Coley, an assistant under Herring, "was what do we do with Leroy Smith?"

Smith had been a teammate of Jordan's in the ninth grade. He was 6-feet, 7-inches tall, at least four inches taller than anyone on the varsity. Herring needed the size. So he put up the varsity roster in the locker room after tryouts were over and didn't think any more of it.

But Jordan did.

"It was embarrassing, not making that team," he said in 1991. "They posted the roster and it was there for a long, long time without my name on it."

At least one other person was surprised Jordan didn't make the cut. Leroy Smith didn't play much for the varsity that year, although he later starred at North Carolina-Charlotte and in Europe. He acknowledged that the only way he could have beaten out Michael Jordan was because of his size, "because it certainly wasn't based on talent."

The decision never came down to Jordan or Smith, Coley said. Coley, now head coach at Pender High School, 20 miles west of Wilmington, said he doesn't even remember Jordan trying out. He called him a "shy ballplayer" who had a hard enough time just beating his 5-foot, 6-inch brother, Larry.

The cut awakened something in Jordan. He went from being a good player to the centerpiece of the junior varsity, scoring more than 40 points in a couple of games.

But, even at that, Coley said Herring never came close to moving Jordan up to the varsity in the 1978-79 season.

"Never even discussed it," he said.

Too many good players were in the way. "Michael judged his game by how he played against the upperclassmen," Michael Bragg said, "but he couldn't beat any of them one-on-one until the end of his sophomore year."

The varsity starters were seniors, led by point guard James "Sputnik" Beatty and shooting guard Dave McGhee. The rest were 6-3 Tony Evans, 6-1 John Bradford and 6-1 Leroy Bragg, Michael Bragg's older brother. "Nik and Dave did the scoring," Leroy Bragg said, "and me and Tony and Bradford, we cleaned up."

The varsity went 15-7 in 1978-79, losing three of its last four games to miss the state tournament. Beatty and McGhee were all-conference. Beatty went to Winston-Salem to play for Clarence "Big House" Gaines. McGhee played at South Florida, and Leroy Bragg played football at Winston-Salem.

Only after they left did Jordan get his chance. He probably would have earned it, anyway. Between the start of his sophomore and junior seasons, he grew from 5-9 to 6-3.

And he wasn't shy any more. "I could see a REAL big difference," said Michael Bragg, a year older than Jordan. "He was much more determined, and he had more ability."

Herring must have seen it, too. He called Jordan into his office before his junior season and gave him a choice of two numbers: Beatty's 23 or McGhee's 33. Jordan took Beatty's, and he has worn it almost exclusively ever since.

Jordan scored 35 points in his first varsity game. Over the next two years, he averaged 25.4 points, 12 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. He was invited to Howard Garfinkel's famous Five-Star Basketball Camp the summer before his senior year. Jordan called it "the turning point of my life." He went into the camp thinking he didn't belong. "But, the more I played," he said, "the more confident I became."

New Hanover Coach Jim Hebron told the Wilmington Star-News in 1981, "Kids are awed by him. I've seen him walk into a gym for a pick-up game and everyone else stopped playing. This might sound weird, and a lot of people won't understand, but some kids are just happy to be on the same floor with him.

"Kids will be able to say that they played against him or on the same team as he did."

Jordan never played in the state tournament, though. Laney was ranked No. 1 in the state much of his senior season but lost to crosstown-rival New Hanover, 56-52, in the conference tournament.

Afterward, all Herring would say was, "We reached for the moon and landed on the stars." Hebron, now head coach at Clayton State (Ga.) College, said Herring's concern for Jordan cost him. "He could have played him inside and won a state championship," Hebron said. "But he didn't. All he was concerned about was, `How can I prepare him for college?"'

A few days after the loss to New Hanover, Herring told a reporter that North Carolina would win a national championship, a prediction Jordan fulfilled his freshman season with a game-winning shot against Georgetown. Herring told the reporter how great it had been to work Dean Smith's North Carolina camp the summer before. "The highlight of my young career," he called it.

Herring was rumored for an assistant's job at a couple of colleges, including Appalachian State. But he gave no hint of leaving.

"I said when I accepted the job at Laney that I wanted to grow with the program," he said. "I feel like I have and I will continue to grow with the program."

He coached one more year, and his career was over.

In the summer of 1991, local officials renamed a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 40 for Michael Jordan. As he stood on the platform, only a few blocks from the street where he grew up, Jordan began to cry. He eventually regained his composure and looked over his shoulder at one of the men seated behind him.

"It all started," he said, chuckling, "when Coach Herring cut me."

Jordan didn't linger on his old anger, though. "What it did was instill some values in me," he told the crowd. "It was a lesson to me to dig within myself."

Pop Herring must have appreciated the sentiments. It is hard to know. He doesn't speak to reporters these days, and friends try to shield him from strangers. He lives with an aunt, but no one seems to know her name. If they do, they won't say. Only messages get through to Herring, and even those are difficult to deliver.

Ron Coley, one of his best friends, tried for three weeks. "Pop doesn't want to talk about it," he said at last. "It hurts too much."

Herring didn't start out with much. A fine athlete, he played for Leon Brogden at New Hanover. Brogden picked him up and took him home every day. He gave him his first job, as one of his assistants. His career was looking up when Laney opened in the mid-1970s, and he got the job.

But it all ended the year after Jordan left. Herring had to quit when a family history of mental problems caught up with him in his late 20s.

Hebron called Herring's fate "tragic." Kevin Edwards said it was a shame. Edwards, who still lives in Wilmington and works in a family business, said he sees Herring around town occasionally. Most times, he said, Herring looks at him as if he were a stranger. Once, Herring walked up and hugged him long and hard, as if he hadn't seen him in years.

Some days Edwards sees Herring running down the side of the road, and he can't help but cry.

"He'll just be lost," Edwards said.

Life after Jordan hasn't been so difficult for the rest. "I'm glad he made it and put us on the map," said Leroy Bragg, who lives in Charlotte and works as a youth counselor, as does his brother, Michael. "To me, it was fun."

To 'Nik Beatty, it was something else. He left Winston-Salem after one season and returned to Wilmington, where he was a local legend for years at the Martin Luther King Recreational Center.

He wouldn't talk about Jordan. "I'm not gonna get into that," he said, smiling, a hand up as if to stop an intruder.

"'Nik don't have a lot of love for Michael," said William Murphy, who runs the adult basketball league at the MLK Center. "A lot of guys are jealous because he made it out and they didn't."

Michael Jordan did more than just make it out. He is as far removed from Wilmington and Laney as any man could be, as far away as fame and fortune and time can take someone.

He still talks occasionally to people back home, but he isn't eager to talk to strangers about it. Approached by a reporter after a game on the road last fall, Jordan paused only to look over his shoulder.

"I don't have time to talk about Pop Herring," he said, and hurried on.

Pop Herring has nothing but time these days. He tells friends he'd like to get back into coaching, or teaching, but they don't speak of it as a realistic option.

Brogden doesn't want to say too much about what went wrong in Herring's last coaching job. He said Herring has been hurt enough. He worried that he might say something that would make it all seem worse, as if he could.

He remembered what kind of life Pop Herring came out of, the kind of player he was, the kind of coach.

He prefers to remember him that way, not as the coach who cut Michael Jordan.

"It was tough on Pop," Brogden said. "But, you know, in all fairness to him, he did well."

The sentiment sounded odd, wrapped in a tone so tired and thick and sad.

"He did well."