I know we’re only 11 days in but the best sports story of 2012 has already been written. It’s Thomas Lake’s profile of Clifton ‘Pop’ Herring for Sports Illustrated. Who is Pop Herring? The Wilmington, N.C. high school basketball coach who famously “cut” Michael Jordan as a sophomore at Laney High.
I, like Lake in the story, use “cut” because, as a child who was infatuated with Jordan and reading, I never really bought the story of how Michael Jordan didn’t end up on varsity as a 5-10 sophomore. He was a sophomore. He did grow eight inches by the time he went to college. There are any number of strategic decisions that would’ve made cutting Jordan feasible. I knew all of these things as a 12-year-old who adored “Come Fly With Me” and would regularly watch 70-plus NBA games a year, but needing a big man — the actual explanation — will never trump cutting the eventual best basketball player in the world. That’s a hook that will grab even non-sports fans’ interest.
That Jordan, the most ruthlessly competitive athlete we’ve ever seen, used the snub to become the greatest basketball player in the world also made for a convenient backstory. But thirty years on from when Jordan first emerged on the national scene as a freshman at North Carolina, nobody had ever stopped to ask one simple question: Was it actually true? That led to a better question: What ever happened to Pop Herring b.k.a. “The Man Who Cut Michael Jordan?”
It’s not a story, like so many sports stories, of an extraordinary triumph over unbelievable odds. It’s an ordinary story of an ordinary life the was, to this point, known only as a plot point in the vast machine-made mythos of Michael Jordan. That’s why it’s the best sports story of the year.