A Letter To Sports Illustrated's Thomas Lake: Stop Writing Smarmy Letters To Michael Jordan

Dear Thomas Lake,

On Tuesday, you wrote something for SI.com called, "A letter to Michael Jordan: Shame on you for refusing to help Pop." It was a classic work of low-grade smarm, doing business as high-minded advocacy journalism. It began:

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.

You're double-dipping here, aiming to draw attention back to the profile of Herring you wrote for Sports Illustrated earlier this year, in which we found Herring broke and mentally ill and stumbling into a bewildered senescence. There was a lot to like about the story itself, particularly its portrait of a North Carolina that Jordan had the good fortune of never knowing, and you mostly kept your purple crayons in the box. (Mostly. The phrase "Imagine these boys in the time of their sorting" should've been buried alongside whichever dead Irish writer inspired it.)


But the story fixated, weirdly, on this supposed myth of Jordan's getting cut by Herring—"the Great Cutting Myth," as you had it. Herring said, and you repeated and amplified, that the teenaged Jordan was simply assigned to the junior varsity rather than the varsity, which was in no way the same thing as being cut. So poor Pop Herring was falsely scapegoated.

Whether this small, long-ago moment deserves its outsize place in the Michael Jordan vengeance-porn collection is one thing. But there's no getting around the fact that it happened. Jordan was cut, in both the colloquial and the dictionary sense of the word. The coach cut down the varsity roster; Jordan didn't make the cut.


In January, shortly after your profile appeared, a man who had been staying in Herring's house was charged with killing a 24-year-old woman and burying her in a shallow grave in the yard. Herring was arrested, too. You write in your letter to Jordan that Herring "was drunk and difficult when the police showed up, but he had nothing to do with the killing. [...] 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."

You continue:

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.

That's right. Michael Jordan may be a short-fingered, apathetic monster, but there's a white knight in this story, too: the fellow who wrote the story. You inform us that you spent $100 of your own money—"not from a Sports Illustrated expense account"—to post bond on Herring's behalf.

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.

Smarm. You're writing from a position of unearned and blithely unexamined moral authority about people you don't really know and a situation you only half know. Pop Herring's own family and friends chose not to get him bailed out, but the real-life obligations and complications surrounding his case are swept away with a wave of Michael Jordan's imaginary checkbook.

This is the monstrousness that makes "magazine writer" a term of disparagement in some circles. The writer believes that his (and it's most always "his") attention ennobles and validates the people he's writing about—and then wants to be congratulated for having done them the favor of writing about them. Pop Herring is a symbol of how much you, Thomas Lake, care about regular people, forgotten people, the people Michael Jordan is too much of a big shot to connect with anymore. And for anyone who wants to buy the feeling of being realer and more righteous than Michael Jordan, you started a "Show Pop Some Love" page on an indie funding-platform website. That's probably a good idea, since the publication of your "open letter" all but ensures that Jordan won't lift a finger.

So there's you, Thomas Lake. To borrow from one dead Irish writer, who's he when he's at home? According to this here site, you got your start in newspapers at age 17, writing a story for The Evening Times in Little Falls, N.Y., about a subscriber on your paper route. You eventually moved on to bigger things, while your old paper entered a bewildered senescence of its own, one might say. The other day, our intern, Dan Gartland, called up your old newspaper. He asked the guy in the newsroom who picked up the phone if you had ever thought to reach out to the paper. After all, this was the place that got you started on the long road to success. Had Thomas Lake stopped by the office? we asked. Had he offered to mentor any young writers?

"No," the guy said, "not in a long time. We did a story when he was inducted into the Herkimer County Community College alumni hall of fame. But other than that, no. He certainly hasn't offered to mentor any young writers.

"I mean, we're a small staff, and he's busy with Sports Illustrated."