A last goodbye for a coach, and a friend

Published 4:58 pm Friday, December 20, 2019

They say Advent is a time when something is imminent, something’s about to happen and the outcome is often unknown. It’s the season often associated with the birth of Christ, leading up to the Miracle of Bethlehem and a brief time just beyond.

It could also represent another transition, when someone loved is taken too soon. That’s what happened last week when I learned of the untimely death in Wilmington last week of Clifton “Pop” Herring.

For those who didn’t know, and others who need their memory jogged, Herring was the former basketball coach at Wilmington Laney High School. And if that jogs other grey cells in your head, yes, that’s the school where none other than the famous Michael Jeffrey Jordan shot hoops and later graduated.

Herring came to Laney High the same year I came to the Port City. He had played football and basketball at nearby New Hanover High, then later for North Carolina Central University in Durham. After finishing his playing career, Herring returned to his hometown to teach and coach; first at his alma mater, and then at Laney in the late 1970’s.

Legend, and I call it that – something more polite than calling it a fable or falsehood – is that Herring is the infamous coach who supposedly cut Jordan from the Buccaneers basketball team during Jordan’s sophomore year at Laney.

Well, Sports Illustrated magazine wrote an article in 2012, where Herring stated – and I can equivocally back this up – that 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 Bucs.

“The thing that I remember about Pop, he deserves a lot of credit for Michael’s success,” retired Wilmington Star-News sports reporter and good friend Chuck Carree told the newspaper.

Chuck and I covered Herring and Jordan while both were at Laney.

“Pop caught a lot of flak for not having Michael on varsity as a sophomore, but he had his best interests in heart,” Carree continued. “Pop saw his potential. I know he did.”

“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.”

Herring battled a mental illness, first in his final coaching and teaching days in the early eighties, and later for most of those final years of his life.

But before leaving the bench, from 1977-to-82, Herring led the Bucs to three divisional semifinals and one regional semifinal. I was there the night he hugged Michael one last time as coach and player when Jordan came off the court after fouling out during a 1981 playoff loss.

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 recalled. “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 to this day with the Laney varsity boys’ team. Coley spent some time as a head coach at nearby Pender High before getting into administration and finally retiring, only to return to that second coach’s chair on the bench.

To this day, Coley laughed at the growing legend of Jordan being ‘cut’, and admits 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 told the Star-News. “He didn’t get cut, he played jayvee. This legend that he somehow didn’t play at all his sophomore year, just took off. 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.”

Another ‘legend’ says that throughout Herring’s troubles, Jordan never reached out to him. Heck, Michael was there for Pop before he left Carolina. As I said earlier, I ought to know.

Rest easy now, Pop. They can’t hurt you anymore. His leaving us has left not a hole in our lives as much as a loss of light, because he illuminated about every life he touched; on and off the court.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.