Chapter 2: Wilmington
Michael Jordan playing for Laney High School in December 1980 (a Wilmington Star-News photo by Jamie Moncrief). (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / August 24, 2009)
"Mike was about 5-10 at the end of 10th grade, no more than 5-11," recalled Fred Lynch, Laney's current varsity coach and the sophomore coach during MJ's Buccaneer days.
"He always had talent -- he was our best 9th grader and our best 10th grader. He played with a lot of heart, he had guard skills and he always had big, strong hands. By his junior year he shot up to 6-3, almost 6-4. All of a sudden you had size to go with that talent and drive. ... He just blossomed."
Todd Parker, a Laney teammate who played various sports with Jordan "since T-ball," saw it coming, even if he wasn't quite sure what it was.
"Final game of our sophomore year, we were playing down at Goldsboro. Mike stole the ball and had a breakaway, and he went in and dunked it -- I mean he threw one down," Parker said, his tone conveying his awe at the move 30 years later. "I believe that was the first competitive dunk of his life. We were like, 'Wow, where did that come from?'
"Then he comes back for junior year, he's a different guy, no longer skinny little Mike. He's jumping out of the gym. I'm like, 'What?' "
It was the makings of the Michael the world knows now.
"I guess we knew then that he was going to be special," Parker said. "But nobody could have envisioned him becoming the greatest player of all time."
You know the story: Jordan had been cut from the Laney varsity as a sophomore.
Fred Lynch is a trim, serious man under his shaven head, and that bit of history prompts a scowl. Urban legend, he insists.
Clifton "Pop" Herring, his predecessor who has long since stepped away from coaching, had a "no sophomores" policy for the Laney varsity.
Because Leroy Smith was 6-7 and the Buccaneers were height-challenged, he was an exception. MJ was not.
"Mike wasn't quite ready for the varsity as a 10th grader," Lynch said, "and we all agreed he'd be better off getting playing time on the sophomore team than sitting on the bench with the varsity.
"I believe it worked out OK."
Plaques, proclamations and other mementos from a long career in coaching share wall space with a signed, poster-sized photo of MJ in Lynch's cramped office -- he's also Laney's athletic director. The gym bears Jordan's name -- Michael J. Jordan Gymnasium -- and a larger-than-life, center-court silhouette of the Nike-designed Jumpman figure is hard to miss. Lynch has a small private stash of MJ memorabilia, ruefully noting that whatever had been displayed often wound up stolen, including a Laney game jersey anonymously returned with a biblical passage seeking forgiveness.
"These kids ... they've seen highlights, they've probably seen his commercials, but none of them have seen him play," said Lynch, a tinge of sadness in his voice. "They don't really relate to him. That was a long time ago."
But surely he uses the legend of MJ as a teaching tool.
"Not really," he said. "What Mike had ... the talent, the work ethic, the will to win ... you either have it or you don't. It can't be taught."
No, it can't, so Wilmington does not appear to try terribly hard. The town doesn't overwhelm a visitor with MJ lore.