It’s a classic motivational story. A friend doesn’t immediately succeed at a creative or athletic endeavor, be it soccer, bassoon, rhythmic gymnastics or witchcraft. You console and encourage with a simple but powerful anecdote: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. But he worked hard and, eventually, turned out to be pretty good at it.
The story inspires, yes, but it also baffles. How could this superhuman being – this bona fide legend – have been cut from a basketball team? There’s an easy explanation. He wasn’t.
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Sports Illustrated recently profiled Clifton “Pop” Herring, the coach responsible for the widely misrepresented decision in 1978 to place Jordan on the junior-varsity team at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C. That year, most of the varsity spots were already guaranteed to returning players, and underclassmen like the 15-year-old Jordan seldom played on varsity anyhow. Herring did happen to make an exception but based it chiefly on height, placing Jordan’s friend and fellow sophomore Leroy Smith – who stood at 6’7” – on the varsity squad.
Jordan went on to repeatedly declare he’d been cut from Laney High’s team, and a myth was born. But the 1978-79 season was a great one for Jordan, who enjoyed extensive play time and popularity. As the undeniable star player, he led his teammates to a series of wins.
So while the myth has been quite exaggerated, let us still find motivation in the facts: sometimes starting on the JV squad isn’t so bad. For Michael Jordan, as you might have noticed, things seemed to turn out okay.