WILMINGTON, N.C. — Clifton “Pop” Herring, a high school basketball coach who nurtured a young Michael Jordan’s talent on the court, died Wednesday, sources told the Wilmington StarNews. He was 66 years old.
Herring is the infamous coach who supposedly cut Jordan during his sophomore year at Laney High School in southeastern North Carolina. Herring told a different story, though.
In a Sports Illustrated article published in 2012, Herring said Jordan wasn’t cut, but rather placed on the junior varsity team before starring for the varsity squad in his final two years with the Buccaneers.
“The thing that I remember about Pop, he deserves a lot of credit for Michael’s success,” said Chuck Carree, a long-time reporter for the StarNews who covered Herring and Jordan while they were at Laney.
“Pop caught a lot of flack for not having Michael on varsity as a sophomore, but he had his best interests in heart. Pop saw his potential. I know he did,” Carree said.
“We talked a lot about it in the past. Because Michael could jump so high and so well, I think Pop actually sacrificed the success of the team in some ways letting Michael play guard and handle the ball. Instead of playing Michael inside, he played him outside, let him work on his ball handling.”
Carree also said that Herring battled a mental illness throughout the final years of his life, which was referenced in the Sports Illustrated article.
Herring attended New Hanover High School before playing football at N.C. Central University. His first job out of college was as an assistant basketball coach and teacher with the Wildcats.
Herring moved on to be the head coach at Laney from 1977-82, leading the team to three divisional semifinals and one regional semifinal.
Current Laney athletic director Fred Lynch was an assistant under Herring and succeeded him as head coach. Lynch had lost touch with Herring over the years but still recalls his positive impact.
“It’s very sad,” Lynch said. “I was one of (Herring’s) assistants when I transferred out here, and I just remember him being an outstanding Laney coach, and an outstanding human being.”
Another assistant under Herring was Ron Coley, who remains an assistant coach with the Laney boys basketball team.
Coley met Herring when the two were first starting their teaching careers at New Hanover High School. Herring and Coley both left the Wildcats to join the Buccaneers after Matt Fisher left just two weeks before the school year. Coley said that it would have been difficult for Laney to hire someone outside the district on such short notice.
While Coley laughed at the growing legend of Jordan being cut during his sophomore year, Herring did not share the same sentiment.
“Pop never found any of that funny. I took it lightly because we know what really happened,” Coley said. “He didn’t get cut, he played JV. This legend that he somehow didn’t play at all his sophomore year, it just took off. Some people don’t remember high school was 10th-through-12th grade back then. It was one of the best things that could ever happen to Michael. There was never any controversy, but Pop definitely didn’t feel good about that story.”