You might say it is a mere formality. Friday night in Springfield, Massachusetts, Michael Jordan, the man many people consider the greatest basketball player ever, will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Of course, Jordan’s career started as a school boy in Wilmington. And as his Airness officially achieves basketball immortality, we talk to a couple guys who knew him when he was just a kid named Mike.
Fred Lynch saw how special Michael Jordan was three decades ago, when Lynch was an assistant basketball coach at Laney High School.
“When he was in the ninth grade, he was the best ninth grader. When he was a sophomore, he was the best sophomore,” Lynch said.
But as a sophomore, Jordan missed out on the varsity team when Coach Pop Herring decided the guard would get more playing time on the JV squad and instead filled the varsity’s need for size with Jordan’s taller, best friend Leroy Smith. Many people believe it was a decision that inspired Jordan to greatness.
“Michael was always a tremendous competitor anyway, and I guess that was enough to say, ‘you know what? I really don’t like this feeling, and I’m going to push and push and push,'” remembered Smith.
Jordan pushed his way to varsity, filling gyms and earning a scholarship to UNC, exceeding the expectations of many as he led the Tar Heels to the national championship as a freshman, hitting the game-winning shot in the finals.
“We kind of took bets with people saying he’ll come off the bench at Carolina. We’d say there’s no way. And watching him in college, we knew that he’d be a better pro than a college player, because the game’s different,” said Lynch.
Jordan was different than most everyone else; leading the Chicago Bulls to six world championships and transcending the sport.
He became a sight to be seen for fans, and especially for a friend who knew Jordan way back when he was a kid shooting hoops in the driveway of his family’s Gordon Road home.
“In some aspects, it’s surreal,” said Smith. “Michael was not just a great player. He’s iconic.”
Today, Jordan’s icon adorns the court at his high school alma mater. The gym bears his name. Now Laney’s athletic director, Lynch said despite all that and what Jordan’s achieved, his legacy does not cast a large shadow over today’s players.
“Now their heroes are Kobe, Lebron and those guys, so it’s a little bit different for the younger generation,” Lynch added.
Still, Lynch said he uses Jordan’s story as motivation for young people. “Here is somebody who could’ve not worked as hard, and he still would’ve been better than most people. But he wanted to be the best, so he worked hard at it.”
Both Lynch and Smith said they are very proud of Jordan’s enshrinement tonight. They are also proud of whatever small part they played in his success.