Update: Thomas Lake started a fundraising page for Pop Herring at IndieGoGo.com. Here's the link: click.
Back in January, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Lake profiled Pop Herring, the man who purportedly cut Michael Jordan from his high school team in Wilmington, NC, way back when. It was a fantastic story, and Tom was even kind enough to let me interview him about it. Tom had also hoped the piece would get Jordan’s attention, as Herring had not in fact cut Jordan and had even been incredibly kind and generous, opening the gym early for Jordan to work on his game, giving him rides and even loaning him his car, and the like.
Well, Jordan never responded, and Herring, who’s suffered from a debilitating mental illness, went from bad to worse. He recently landed in jail. Lake went back to Wilmington to check it out. What he found was that Herring had been drunk when police came looking for someone else, and that got him locked up. He’d stayed in jail for weeks because he simply had nobody to bail him out. Lake ultimately decided to bail Herring out, and then when he sat down to write about about Pop's latest developments, it took the form of an impassioned and powerful open letter directed at Michael Jordan, imploring him to help the man who in his most formative years helped him take those all-important first steps toward becoming the basketball player he is today.
The reaction has been loud and mixed. Lake (@ThomasLake on Twitter) has been equal parts praised and blasted. When I initially read his piece, titled “A letter to Michael Jordan: Shame on you for refusing to help Pop,” I thought what Lake had done was, on a human level, awesome. As a journalist, I was torn. There’s a fine line we journalists have to walk when it comes to advocacy, and it’s a safe argument to make that Jordan doesn’t really owe Pop anything. One could even argue that Lake overstepped his bounds as a journalist, as was argued fairly and thoughtfully by, among many others, Wilmington Star-News sports editor Dan Spears.
I’d planned to ask Lake if he wanted to come on the blog and talk a little bit more about the situation, maybe explain some of his thinking behind these decisions and all that, but radio talk show host Scott Hennessee (@ScottHennessee) got to him first. It was a to-the-point 10-minute talk, and Lake was thorough in his explanation. You can listen to it by clicking here, or if you prefer to read, I’ve transcribed it for you below. It's a quick read, and well worth the time.
Thomas Lake on Pop Herring and Michael Jordan
Italic type = Scott Hennesee, 1010KXPX | Regular type = Thomas Lake, Sports Illustrated
Before we get to Jordan’s role and what you believe he should do in this story, tell us first about Pop Herring and what about him drew you in to want to help him out.
Well it all went back to Jordan’s 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech when he called out Pop Herring. Not by name. But he said he’d been cut from his high school team, and he said, I quote, “You made a mistake, dude.” I was watching at the time and I said I want to find out about this guy. What coach is he talking about, exactly? So I went to Wilmington, NC and I found this guy, and I found out the story. First of all Jordan was not actually cut. He was in 10th grade, and he made the JV team just as many of the other 10th-graders did. Not only that, but after Jordan left, the coach fell on very hard times.
And by the way, the coach had been very good to Jordan. Everyone I talked to said that. Incredibly generous, opened up the gym for him at 6 in the morning, let him borrow his car, all these different things.
So Jordan leaves, and the coach, he comes down with this mental illness. Apparently it ran in his family. Something along the lines of schizophrenia, although it’s hard to be sure. And he’s been living with this disease for about the past 30 years.
So you wrote about Pop Herring in Sports Illustrated I guess months ago and did not really get a reaction from Michael Jordan, so today you come back with a letter directly to Michael Jordan imploring him to help Pop out?
Right. I was hoping after that initial story came out in January there would be some response, but I never got any. And never heard of anything there in Wilmington, either. Meanwhile I had been checking in periodically with Leroy Grady, Pop’s landlord, who really does a lot to help him. And he told me Pop was in jail. And you know, a couple weeks went by, he’s still in jail. And finally I just thought, well, I’ll go up there. I live in Atlanta, it’s about a six-hour drive, let me just see what’s going on. So that’s what I did.
Is it your belief that Michael Jordan is not helping Pop out because he is still holding a grudge over being demoted to the JV team as a sophomore?
I can’t know what’s in Michael Jordan’s mind. I wish I could but I can’t. I have no idea what’s going on here. And several people have made that point. They’ve criticized me for this story and said, “You don’t know what their relationship is like.” Okay, that’s a fair point. I haven’t heard Jordan’s side of the story. He won’t talk about it. But Pop Herring and many people who have known both of them over the years, such as assistant coaches and other players, to a man, to a woman, they tell me, Pop Herring treated Michael Jordan with nothing but kindness.
And does Pop talk about his relationship with Michael Jordan to you?
Not very directly. Because of that mental illness it’s hard to have a normal conversation with him. He goes sort of in circles. But what I do know pretty definitely is that he has not seen Jordan since 1994 and that’s when Jordan flew him out to Chicago to appear at this retirement ceremony, this celebration of Jordan’s career, and Jordan said a couple nice things about him to the crowd there, but also introduced him to the Chicago crowd as “The First Guy To Ever Cut Me.” And the crowd booed this guy.
So in your open letter to Michael Jordan, you suggest a few things that Jordan could do that would be very helpful to his old high school basketball coach?
That’s true. The guy doesn’t have a lot of money. He gets by, there’s a little bit of retirement from the school where he worked before he lost his job and a little bit of state aid too. But he’s really living in poverty. I went into the house he rents at a reduced rate. The house looks like it’s about to fall over. There are bugs everywhere. He’s sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Everything is falling apart. So people say well, if Jordan gave him money, he would just misspend it somehow, or buy alcohol.
Well, okay. He’s made bad spending choices in the past, but there are ways to help him, just to get him basic supplies, basic amenities that any of us would want to live a better life.
Does Pop have anyone else in his life who can help him at this point?
He sure does. He has a niece, Katie Herring, and his landlord who I mentioned before, Leroy Grady. And they do a lot for him. Without them his life would be, I can’t even speculate. It would be much worse. They do what they can. But they are very busy. They have their own lives, they have their own things to take care of, so there are times when he falls through the cracks, which is why he was sitting in jail for 24 days, with no one to bail him out.
And that’s why you were there, and you took money out of your own pocket to bail him out of jail.
Yes. And I knew when I wrote about that I would get blasted for coming across as self-righteous. And okay. I’ll take it. On Twitter I got absolutely shelled for that. But what would anyone have done there? The guy was locked up in a cage for basically being mentally ill. It wasn’t very much money. Most people could have found a way to come up with $100. And I’m a writer. Sports Illustrated sent me there to write about it. So I wrote about it. Should I have left him in jail? I think people would’ve hit me even harder if I had done that.
And to take the next step of writing an open letter to Michael Jordan, there’s been feedback on all sides on this issue coming at you, hasn’t there?
It’s true. The guy has such an esteemed place in American society and a lot of people didn’t like the tone the letter took, I guess. The reason I did it this way is that Jordan won’t talk to us. We tried to get him to talk to us for the last story and got nothing out of him so he’s not responding to personal communication. So I just thought well, I’ll put it out there in public and maybe he’ll see it this way, and maybe if Jordan doesn’t help Pop Herring someone else will.
That was my next question—certainly people are moved in a positive direction towards wanting to help Pop because of what you’ve written here. Is there a way that people can do that?
You know I should’ve thought of this beforehand. I didn’t know how positive many people would respond here. So some people have asked, okay, how can we help? All I can say on that right now is I’m working on it, I want to try to set something up for people to do that. So please, stay tuned, and hopefully over the next few days we’ll find a way to make that happen.
If you have a few extra seconds, I'd like to hear from you in the comments, whether you're a reader, a young journalist with questions or a journalism veteran with an opinion. I think we could have a good discussion about this here. Two questions:
1. Does Michael Jordan owe Pop Herring anything now?
2. Is what Thomas Lake did right, wrong, or somewhere in between?