If character is destiny, you wouldn’t know it from reading our latest Notable Narrative. In “Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?,” Thomas Lake introduces Clifton “Pop” Herring, the high school basketball coach of perhaps the greatest player the game has ever known.

The story, which ran in the January 16 issue of Sports Illustrated, breaks down the legend of Herring eliminating Jordan from the team during his sophomore year. It turns out that events may not have unfolded in quite the way that Jordan came to recount them in the decades that followed.

The most surprising thing about Lake’s narrative is not that Jordan has misremembered or exploited a minor high school trauma, but what has happened in his life – and Herring’s life – since. Lake uses counterpoint beautifully, and the degree of Herring’s suffering and decline seems to parallel the degree to which Jordan’s star rises.

As he is inaugurated into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Jordan surrounds himself with coaching legends, friends and associates, whom Lake contrasts with the homeless derelicts who make up Herring’s social set these days.

We pull up at the ramshackle house and step into a blinding afternoon, 97º, vibrating with the song of cicadas. Pop carries the pizza box in one hand and the bag of King Cobra and cigarettes in the other. We walk toward the picnic table under the spreading oak, where several ragged men cool their heels in the fine gray sand. Collectively they are known as the Oak Tree Boys. They are here morning and night. Some are homeless. One has a wild shock of white hair and another is missing his middle lower teeth, so he seems to have fangs. They have nowhere else to go. Pop lets them stay here. He still gives what he can.

Pop opens the pizza box. The fanged man takes two pieces. The third goes to the wild-haired man, who gobbles most of it and flings the crust in the street. Two seagulls swoop in and finish it off. Pop opens the King Cobra and takes a long pull. He hands the sweating bottle to his adopted brother and roommate, Bob Wells, who takes his own gulp.

We get Pop Herring as a schizophrenic post-millennial Jesus, still out there feeding the multitude, even if it’s just with leftover pizza and malt liquor from a shared bottle. Lake’s layered scenes are full of moments like these that make the piece sing.

But why, in the end, does his story matter? Is he just calling out Michael Jordan for ingratitude? I don’t think that’s all there is to it, but, boy, does the story do that. Is it to show how far a man can fall, despite all the good he does in the world? Maybe. But it seems to me that in telling this story, Lake is going for something bigger, reminding us of the negligence that accounts for too much of human traffic. It’s never said explicitly on the page, but all the same, I get the feeling that Lake is wondering what we’ve done lately for our own Pop Herrings.

For more about this story, read Brandon Sneed’s interview with Thomas Lake.

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