Part 1

Jordan's will to win came early

Youthful work ethic spurred future Hall of Famer

Staff WriterSeptember 9, 2009 

— Ruby Sutton has a distinct pet peeve when it comes to the subject of her former pupil, Michael Jordan: the oft-told story of how he was "cut" from the Laney High varsity basketball team as a sophomore, spurring him to greatness.

"Back then, [most] 10th-graders played JV; that's just the way it was. Nobody ever 'cut' Michael Jordan," Sutton, who still teaches physical education, said earlier this month, shaking her head as she retold the story for at least the 100th time.

"Him not making the varsity that year was not his motivator -- he was motivated well before that. He just always wanted to be the best."

Jordan, now 46 and part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, will add another checkmark to his "best" basketball legacy this weekend when he is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Over the past 30 years, he has won a national title at North Carolina, earned six NBA championship rings, been dubbed the greatest basketball player of all time and become a cultural icon who transcends sports.

And it all began here in New Hanover County, a 192,000-resident coastal community roughly 130 miles south of Raleigh known-- before His Airiness -- for beautiful beaches, calabash seafood and Meadowlark Lemon.

This is where Jordan displayed his now-familiar competitive edge on the Babe Ruth baseball field he helped build; honed his work ethic while cleaning out the pool at the El-Berta Motor Inn as a part-time job; and sharpened his overall skills after watching his friend, Leroy Smith, promoted to varsity ahead of him because Smith was (at least) a half-foot taller at the time.

Little did anyone know Jordan would one day have both his high school gym and a stretch of Interstate 40 near his hometown named in his honor, or have his own exhibit in the Cape Fear Museum (which also features displays of a giant ground sloth skeleton, and native seashells).

"Nobody could have predicted Mike would become a Hall-of-Famer, or any of the other things that he has become," said Laney athletic director Fred Lynch, an assistant coach on Jordan's high school teams. "But he was something special."

A diamond on the diamond

Dick Neher thought so too, although he apparently has a notable distinction amongst those who coached against Jordan: when "Mike" was 10 years old, playing on his first organized basketball team, Neher actually told his squad to let Jordan shoot it.

"He was fast and athletic, but he could shoot maybe only 10, 20 percent back then, and I knew I had a couple of big boys who could rebound," Neher, 74 and retired from General Electric said, laughing. "Bet I was the last guy that did that."

Where Neher really appreciated Jordan's talent in the mid-1970s was on the baseball field -- particularly the one off Kerr Avenue, which has been upgraded and re-configured.

"I don't care what you did with him, he wanted to be No. 1," Neher remembered. "If we ran laps, he wanted to be the first one to finish them. When we laid down bunts, he wanted do the best on the most. Between innings, after getting the third out, he'd be the first one in the dugout; that's just the way he was."

A friend and co-worker to Jordan's father, James, Neher coached Michael -- who he nicknamed "Rabbitt," because his ears were so close to his head -- as a 13-, 14- and 15-year-old in the Babe Ruth League. Jordan played mostly catcher and pitcher, and the best Neher can figure it, the teenager's competitive fire came from having two older brothers (as well as two sisters): "James never told the older ones to take it easy on Mike, and I'm sure that motivated him. You always want to beat your brothers."

Jordan -- who played minor league baseball briefly after his first retirement from the NBA -- never made an all-star team under Neher. According to the scoresheets the former marine still keeps in his filing cabinet, Jordan batted .260, scored 24 runs and struck out 20 foes. But his squad went 31-11 over those three seasons, winning the city/county Babe Ruth Championship in 1976 and 1977.

Even then, Neher said, the most important thing to Jordan was racking up victories.

"We were playing S&G Concrete one night, and he was on third [base]. I said, 'We've got to have a run, let's call a suicide squeeze,' " Neher said.

" ... Mike was coming on the pitch, faked back to third, and instead hurdled the catcher on the way home -- because in youth leagues back then, you couldn't run into the catcher. He walked across the plate and scored the winning run.

"...If I would have had nine Michael Jordans on my team, we would have never lost."

$3.35 an hour

Jordan's work ethic carried over off the field, too.

Before his senior year in high school, his mother Deloris, who worked at a bank, walked up the street and asked Horace Prevatte -- owner of Whitey's restaurant and the El-Berta Motor Inn -- if he might have a summer job available for her son.

"He hadn't decided on a college yet, but wanted to earn some money for college," remembered Prevatte, now 81. "So he did some part-time maintenance around the hotel, cleaned the swimming pool, took out the trash, and cut grass. He was a nice young man, a good worker."

And he had a keen sense of humor. There's a long-standing story that Jordan once hipped one of his buddies into the 9-foot-deep end of the pool -- which has long been closed, and will soon be demolished along with the 82-room inn off U.S. 17 -- while he was tending to it.

"He was your typical teenager, getting his work done, trying to earn some extra money,'' said Horace's son, Michael, who kept the pay stubs from Jordan's $119.76-every-two-weeks paycheck.

Then, the Prevattes remember, they had no idea that Jordan would become, well, Jordan; the summer of 1980, the friendly teen was still going to basketball camps, hadn't hit his final growth spurt, and hadn't even chosen a college.

"Someone told me he was thinking about playing at North Carolina," Michael Prevatte remembered, "but he was only 6-2 or 6-3, so I'm not sure I really believed it at the time."

These days, a cancelled paycheck and signed Jordan photo are on display at Whitey's restaurant, which is next door to the hotel, proof of Jordan's former employment. And Jordan's mom still stops by for a meal when she's in town, Horace said.

"He [Jordan] made $3.35 an hour; that was minimum wage,'' Horace said. "Now minimum wage has gone up, and I thought I might call him up and offer him his old job back."

Then he grinned.

"It's a tribute to his work ethic that he's accomplished all of the things that he has ... and it's nice that some of that work ethic [showed itself] around here."

Short stature, big outcome

Much of Jordan's sweat, though, was saved for the basketball court -- be it playing pick-up ball at Empie Park, working out on the homemade basketball court behind his house (where the goal has long since been stolen) or meeting the janitors at Laney High every morning so he could practice before class.

"When I would arrive at school at 7 or 7:30, Michael was already here," Sutton, his physical education teacher, remembered. "And he wasn't just working on shooting. He was working on the types of things kids didn't want to work on, like footwork."

These days, there's a roughly 20x14 foot Nike Jumpman logo at center court of Michael J. Jordan Gymnasium, placed there as part of the deal that allowed Nike to sell replicas of his No. 23 Laney jersey years ago. Even Lynch -- now the head basketball coach -- has to laugh at the irony of the size of the emblem, considering that when Jordan first arrived at Laney, it was his sub-6-feet stature that kept him off the varsity squad.

"Leroy [Smith] was not a better basketball player than Mike, he just had size," Lynch said. "We didn't have a lot of tall kids, and Leroy was 6-6, 6-7 ... and [head coach] Pop Herring thought we had plenty of guards but needed size.

"The Hollywood version is that Mike got cut, came back the next year, and was great. That's not true. He played on the JV team, was our best JV player, and played on the varsity his final two years and scored more than 1,400 points [including a triple-double his senior season: 29.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 10.1 assists.] It was never a situation where Mike was ever a bad player."

Smith wasn't a bad player either; he went on to play at Charlotte after the Jordan-led Laney team lost in district play to New Hanover their senior season. But it was Jordan, who grew up a fan of N.C. State's David Thompson, who went on to become a McDonald's All-American. Many around town still believe he should have been the state player of the year in 1981, too, rather than Asheville's Buzz Peterson, a future teammate at UNC.

Lynch, who also coached Jordan when he played quarterback on the ninth-grade football team, doesn't know whether having Smith make varsity ahead of him motivated Jordan. But Jordan worked on his skills relentlessly, Lynch remembers, sometimes practicing with both the JV and varsity teams.

And the coach thinks playing JV, rather than varsity, helped Jordan's development.

"One of the things that benefited Mike, was by not being 6-5, 6-6 when he got to high school -- like Leroy was -- he played guard," Lynch said. "So because he was a smaller kid, he worked on his ball-handling, worked on his shooting and when he grows to 6-5, 6-6, and he's already got all of those guard skills. Versus Leroy, who was always a big kid -- and big kids always get thrown into the post."

Still, Lynch, and Laney High, have never quite been able to escape the "Jordan-was-cut" myth, for better or for worse. He even got stopped at Disney World once, by a kid who wanted to know how he could have possibly do that to a future Hall of Famer.

He still answers with both a smile and grimace, knowing there's more to Jordan's motivation, and Wilmington history, than why he didn't play varsity in the 10th grade: "Please. Do you really think Michael Jordan ever got cut from anything?"

Robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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