By Thomas Lake
August 14, 2012

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 Illustratedpublished 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 got my stuff ready to go," he said.

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.

"Go in the lobby and wait for him," the deputy said. "Be about 20 minutes."

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. You could tell them your old coach needs a new pair of shoes.


Thomas Lake

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