As schools across the state try to figure out how to handle budget cuts, New Hanover County’s Laney High is getting a little boost. A new ad campaign built on the legend of one of Wilmington’s most famous son’s and Laney’s most famous alum is giving the school some global exposure and some extra cash. We explore the fact, fiction and the gray area in between.
You probably know the story of Michael Jordan’s journey from Laney High to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But a new Nike ad campaign tells part of the Air Jordan story you may not know; maybe because it is not totally true.
There is a real-life basis for the character Leroy Smith in Harvest Leroy Smith, Junior – Jordan’s best friend in high school. “We were connected at the hip,” described Smith.
Smith has long been the answer to the trivia question of, who beat out Jordan for the final spot on Laney’s varsity team their sophomore year. “No. That was not the truth,” said current Laney coach and athletic director, Fred Lynch. Lynch knows, because he was an assistant for that 1978-1979 team. He said it is true coach Pop Herring put Smith on varsity and sent Jordan to JV.
“Because Michael was a sophomore, and he had some pretty good guards on varsity, that it would be better for Mike to play JV. That way he’d play all the time,” said Lynch.
It also helped that Smith was six foot six inches. Smith said, “I was the tallest kid in the school, so I guess the coach’s decision was, “Hey, let’s go with the real tall kid.”
Lynch and Smith said not making varsity likely did motivate Jordan, who they said hates losing, but they said it probably did not play the large role the farcical Nike commercials and website getyourbasketballon.com portray.
The real Leroy Smith is not just an entertainment executive in California; he is also a motivational speaker for high school kids. “I talk about just the value of having goals, setting goals and working through other people to achieve those goals,” Smith said.
As for the character Nike created, Lynch said actor Charlie Murphy’s over-the-top performance is fitting. “Leroy was a character. Leroy was very outgoing.”
And Smith, who said Nike contacted him about the ads last fall, after Jordan told the company about his old friend, said there are elements of him in the character. But what about the online petition that if Jordan belongs in the hall of fame, so does his motivator? “That’s a true statement. And I jest right now,” said Smith.
Smith is serious, though, about being able to help his alma mater, which a school district spokeswoman said will get $5,000 from Nike for using the Laney name. “To know that the school is getting some funds out of this and really helping the program, whatever they’re doing with the money, it’s a good feeling.”
Neither Smith nor Lynch know for sure what Nike plans for this ad campaign, but Smith said there has been talk about a new shoe and clothing.
Lynch said he would love to see a resurgence in sales of Laney merchandise, including Michael Jordan’s Laney jersey, which Lynch said has brought the school about $150,000 over the years.