Let us not forget Michael Jordan was only “cut” from the varsity roster

by Mr. Sheehy

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.

“He was so good, in fact, that the jayvee games became quite popular,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1999 biography of Jordan, Playing for Keeps. “The entire varsity began to come early so they could watch him play in the jayvee games. Leroy Smith noticed that while Jordan had been wildly competitive before he had been cut [sic], after the cut he seemed even more competitive than ever, as if determined that it would never happen again.”

Smith didn’t play much as a sophomore, but he meshed well with Jordan as a junior and senior on Herring’s varsity and then accomplished enough at UNC-Charlotte to land professional gigs in England, France, Germany and Argentina. Jordan had other friends, but no name was burned into his memory like Leroy Smith’s. When Jordan needed energy during a hard workout, he closed his eyes and saw Leroy Smith’s name on the varsity list in place of his own. When he checked into a hotel under a fake name, he checked in as Leroy Smith. When he left basketball to play baseball, he defended his decision by saying, “It should be a game that everyone has an opportunity to play—no matter who, Michael Jordan or Leroy Smith, it doesn’t matter.” When Jordan’s foremost corporate partner, Nike, launched a viral marketing campaign in 2009, it starred Eddie Murphy’s brother, Charlie, in the role of Leroy Smith.

. . .

As we drive east on Market Street, Pop answers a question I have yet to ask.

“They criticized me for cutting Michael Jordan,” he says. “Now, when, if you ever attempt to play any type of athletics, remember this small new hint of advice. New conversation of advice. If—when I was comin’ up playin’ ball, when you get cut, you are cut predominantly. Whatever is on each side. Then you do not even play either level, jayvee or varsity. Michael—well, Mike—Jordan was placed on the junior varsity level. Uh-huh? He was placed on the junior varsity level. He wasn’t cut away from the game that made him.”

Thomas Lake, in Sports Illustrated. I read about Michael Jordan’s legendary cuttingfrom the basketball team in lots of students’ papers, and I feel a growing sense of need to help them know the story through more interpretations than Michael Jordan’s. The entire episode strikes me as great fodder for a lesson in the historian’s job of interpretation.