Michael Jordan's high school basketball career is best known for what didn't happen. In the fall of 1978, Jordan didn't make the varsity team as a sophomore at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C. He played for the junior varsity instead. After growing six inches, he made the varsity team and starred for two seasons before signing with the University of North Carolina and becoming the dominant NBA player of his generation.
Just Call Him Mike
Back in 1978, Jordan was known as Mike, not Michael. He was more accomplished as a baseball player than as a basketball player. He was an outstanding center fielder and pitcher who would later throw 45 consecutive shutout innings for Laney High School. He stood just 5 feet, 9 inches as a sophomore. The basketball team returned 11 seniors and three juniors that year, including eight guards. The older players called the reticent Jordan "Peanut" and "Shagnut," which were not terms of endearment. Nobody had any inkling that a future Hall of Fame player was in their midst.
Laney High School coach Clifton "Pop" Herring had one spot for a sophomore and filled it with 6-foot-7 forward Leroy Smith, opting to add some badly needed size. Smith blossomed into a star in his own right, going on to play for North Carolina-Charlotte and various European leagues before embarking on a successful business career. But the relegation to junior varsity stung Jordan. "It was embarrassing not making that team," Jordan later told ESPN. "They posted the roster and it was there for a long, long time without my name on it. I remember being really mad, too, because there was a guy who made it that really wasn't as good as me."
Jordan threw up a couple of 40-point games for the JV team but never got called up to the varsity as a sophomore. "Never even discussed it," said Ron Coley, one of Herring's assistant coaches on that team. But Jordan started growing and he kept working, day after day after day. "He never wanted to lose in anything," said Ruby Smith, a physical education teacher at Laney. "That was in-born into him. I normally get to school between 7 and 7:30. Michael would be at school before I would. Every time I'd come in and open these doors, I'd hear the basketball. Fall, wintertime, summertime. Most mornings I had to run Michael out of the gym."
Jordan took flight as a junior. He was assertive now, not shy. He scored 35 points during his first varsity game. In two seasons for Laney, he averaged 25.4 points, 12 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. After his junior season, he was invited to Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star Basketball Camp. He dazzled college scouts while playing head-to-head against other top high school players. North Carolina coach Dean Smith targeted him as a priority recruit and signed him before Jordan's senior season.
Finishing With a Flourish
Jordan led Laney to the No. 1 state ranking as a senior, but he couldn't lead his school to a state title. Rival New Hanover delivered the knockout blow, 56-52, in the conference championship game. New Hanover coach Jim Hebron believes Laney could have gone further had coach Pop Herring used Jordan differently. "He could have played him inside and won a state championship," Hebron said. "But he didn't. All he was concerned about was, `How can I prepare him for college?'" Jordan's consolation came when he poured in 30 points at the McDonald's High School All-American Basketball Game after the season.