Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Case You Missed It - A Letter to Michael Jordan

Dear Michael Jordan,

I heard Pop Herring was in jail so I drove up to see him the other night. You remember Pop, your basketball coach at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C. The man who opened the gym at 6 a.m. so you could work on that jumper. The man who let you borrow his car and had you over to his house and treated you like a son. The man who put you on jayvee in your sophomore year. Didn't cut you, as you always said after that, although at the time it probably felt like a cut.

I guess it still does, or did in 2009, when you were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and you addressed Pop directly without actually using his name and said, regarding his failure to put you on varsity, "I wanted to make sure you understood: You made a mistake, dude."

Well, it was your mistake. You used what should have been a joyful occasion to call out a man for something he did not actually do. A sick and indigent man at that. As we both know, Pop's life fell apart after you left town. Not his fault. A disease ran in his family, paranoid schizophrenia or some such thing, and he started acting strange, and he lost his job, and his wife, and his daughter, and pretty much everything else. Took to drinking, as you or I might do in similar circumstances.

Did you help him? Not in the past 18 years. He and his friends say the last time you saw him was 1994, and no one from your camp has come forward to dispute this. That was at a celebration of you in Chicago, and you introduced him to your fans as "the first guy to ever cut me," and they booed.

Were you unaware of his plight? I guess it's possible, or at least it was until last January, when Sports Illustrated published my story about him. Someone on your staff must have read it. I hoped you would reach out to him then. A visit or a gift or something. But no.

It's been seven months, and Pop and his friends say there's been no sign of you. A terrible thing happened after the article came out. A man who had been staying in Pop's tumbledown old house was charged with killing a young woman and burying her in the yard. Pop was arrested too, because he was drunk and difficult when the police showed up, but he had nothing to do with the killing.

Let me repeat that: He had nothing to with the killing. I confirmed this with the District Attorney's office. The bad guy was a serial rapist, one of many shady characters hanging around that house, and Pop was incapable of keeping him out. This is something that happens when you're mentally ill. People take advantage.

Here's another thing that happens when you're mentally ill. You have trouble organizing your life. You miss a court date or two, and the judge issues a bench warrant, and pretty soon the cops come and throw you in jail. This is exactly what happened to Pop. He was living with a criminal because he is mentally ill. He was drinking because he is mentally ill. Nothing against the good people of the New Hanover County justice system, but this much is true: Clifton "Pop" Herring went to jail because he is mentally ill.

Recently I called his landlord and heard he'd been back in jail since July 14. No one would bail him out. So I got in the car. "This is my 24th day," he said, on the telephone, through the glass. He did not seem angry. In fact he was jovial, as usual, and he asked me how my little girl was doing. I told him fine, and he said good, and then he asked a favor. He said the charges had been cleared up that afternoon in court, and he wasn't sure why they were keeping him here, and he wondered if there was anything I could do to get him out. They were treating him just fine, but he didn't want to spend one more night in a cage. I said I would go see about it.

Sure enough, the charges had been resolved. All except one, a failure to appear. The bond was $100. I had no idea what I was doing. Never bailed anyone out before. Checked my wallet and saw forty bucks. There's an ATM over in the corner, a deputy sheriff said. So I went over and took out another hundred. My own money -- not from a Sports Illustrated expense account. It felt wonderful. Like you, Mike, I had profited from Pop's story, and I figured this was the least I could do to pay him back. I slid five twenties under the glass at the magistrate window and the guy gave me a receipt and told me to bring it to the deputy at another window.

Pop came out in his secondhand clothes, old jeans and an old gray T-shirt, and he said something grateful about the jail officials having laundered them. He was hungry, and so was I. We drove downtown to The George on the Riverwalk. Pop got a seafood platter with fried shrimp, fried flounder and fried oysters. It looked delicious, better than my shrimp and grits, and he let me try some. Then I took him home.

Mike, I know you can't fix Pop. But you can help him. He helped make you, and now you are a very rich man. Here's what you could do for Pop. You could buy that tumbledown house from Pop's landlord. You could tear it down and build a new one. Nothing fancy. Just a nice little one-story structure that won't blow over next time a hurricane comes through. You could hire a caretaker for this house, preferably two or three. These caretakers would keep the place clean, because Pop can't, and they would keep the shady characters outside, because Pop can't, and they would bail Pop out of jail next time he's caught with an open container, and they would make sure he shows up for court.

His niece and his landlord do a lot for Pop, but they both have their own busy lives, and from time to time he falls through the cracks. You could pay people to always catch him. You could even hire his landlord and his niece, so they wouldn't have to work other jobs, and I'm sure they would treat him right. Fine.

I know I'm dreaming here. Asking too much. Well, there are smaller things you could do. Cheaper things. You could hire an exterminator, so Pop could turn on the stove or take a dish from the sink without seeing a swarm of small dark bugs. You could buy him a dishwasher. You could buy him a bed-frame so he wouldn't have to sleep on a mattress on the floor. Pop is a sentimental man, keen on mementos, and he keeps his New Hanover High Most Valuable Player 1969-70 basketball trophy on the mantle in his bedroom. The thing is so old and corroded that it's about to fall apart. You could pay a few bucks to have it restored.

I saw Pop the next morning, getting a shave and a haircut at Washington's Barber Shop. He was talking about getting some new clothes so he could get a girlfriend or two. You could buy him new clothes. I looked down at his feet, at his off-brand white sneakers, stained with water and mud, laces so old they were turning to fuzz. Mike, this would be the easiest of all. No money to spend. Just a phone call to your friends at Nike.

Thomas Lake is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, his past gigs include The St. Petersburg Times and Atlanta Magazine and the author of the insightful "Bad Nights in the NFL." 

The photo of Pop Herring used with the January 2012 SI story which is here.

Cedars Take: I get calls from the Bobcats front office about once a month. They want me back or more correctly my money. They have been most generous, "comped" Mrs. Cedar and I floor seats a couple of times last year and even a few games in a skybox. I haven't renewed the season tickets for a number of reasons, but mainly I didn't like and atmosphere of the cable box, gone was the family friendly feel of the Hornets games replaced with the "hip hop" and bling culture of Charlotte tying to be New York or Miami.

But when Jordan took over I thought I'd give the "Cats" another try, but then there was the short season so I took a rain check. The truth is I think I'll step up where MJ should have, and when the corporate guys from the Bobcats call, I'll tell them I decided to sponsor a coach who needed a little help, a pair of new shoes and maybe even a door bell.

If you ever watched the Tarheels play you know the assist is always pointed out. It is a tradition Dean Smith started years ago. In the lane you take the pass and score and on the way down court you always point to the assist.

So what are you waiting for, how about pointing out the assist? Click here, get out the credit card and give back a little something to North Carolina.

Hat tip to Alison Henry for pointing out this story.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, Mr Lake has mistaken fame and fortune with something MJ lacks.....class. It can't be taught, it's internal.
The Jordan clan has a history of screwing the small people, just ask any of the vendors of his failed Flight 23 company ran by his family.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but want to think MJ didnt know. I think we all would like to think he'd do the right thing. It would take nothing to make Pop's world right nothing.

Change, a dinner tip for MJ and his friends.

Thanks Cedar for posting this and the link.

Anonymous said...

WTF why are you trying to shame MJ this most famous basketball player who ever lived into supporting this drunk? Pop or whatever his name is had nothing to do with MJ's success nothing and he owes him nothing. Give the old drunk another bottle he'll be just fine. Screw you Cedar Posts looser!

Anonymous said...

Nice comment there 2:07, let us hope you never need a hand up.

Anonymous said...

Wow! No wonder America is going into the toilet with remarks like 2:07. Maybe he is the guy on the video that follows this article. Sounds like him.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like this man has a mental illness and is self-treating with alcohol, making the problem worse. He needs treatment for both. Some of the suggestions in that letter may be helpful, but leaving him in an area where the same murderous felons, alcoholics, users, come around is not a solution. Based only on reading and accepting this, he needs to be in a different, safe location and under medical care and supervision. He should not be put in any home where he is currently living and the same people have access to him.