The Man who Motivated MJ 2.0

Leroy Smith and Michael Jordan at Laney High School.

Yes, the story is true: basketball great Michael Jordan didn't make the varsity team as a sophomore at Wilmington's Laney High School. Leroy Smith Jr., who went on to become a Charlotte 49er, did.

Jordan recalled the moment in his basketball hall of fame induction speech in 2009 with Smith in the audience.

"There's Leroy Smith, and you guys think that's a myth," Jordan said during his speech. "Leroy Smith was a guy when I got cut; he made the team, the varsity team."

"He's here tonight. He's still the same six-seven guy, and he hasn't gotten any bigger, and his game is about the same. When he made the team, and I didn't, I wanted to prove, not just to Leroy Smith or to myself, but to the coach who actually picked Leroy over me. I wanted to make sure you made a mistake, dude."

Jordan's success and life are well documented. Smith, who played for Charlotte in the 1980s, has become known as the man who motivated him.

Smith recently sat down with Niner Times to discuss his life's journey. 

Jordan and Smith became friends and teammates at Trask Elementary School. Smith, now 59, was born in Philadelphia and moved to Wilmington in 1972. One of his earliest memories was when a coach approached him to play for the eighth-grade team.

"I hadn't played competitive basketball up to that point, and it wasn't my focus," said Smith, who was six feet tall at the time. "My eighth-grade coach was definitely my inspiration to get started."

At Laney High, Head Coach Clifton Herring wanted both Smith and Jordan to try out for the varsity team. Smith credits his height for his selection. 

"I was always a tall, gangly, slender kid and was taller than most of my teammates," Smith said. "You looked for your last name when they posted the roster, and I could find my name, and Michael sadly didn't make the team."

Jordan, who stayed at the junior varsity level, developed his game and had an outstanding season. Smith played sparingly off the bench for the varsity team. Jordan moved up the next season. 

Smith said there was a defining moment he knew Jordan was exceptional.

"In a game, our point guard Todd Parker threw a lob to Michael, and he caught the ball with one hand and dunked it," Smith said. "The crowd went crazy, and in my mind, I knew he was going to be special."

After high school, Smith took the next step in his playing career, playing for Charlotte from 1981 to 1985. He said Head Coach Mike Pratt and assistant Melvin Watkins were instrumental in bringing him to Charlotte.

"I liked the history of Charlotte and how they made it to the Final Four in 1977, and when I went to campus, I fell in love with it," Smith said. "The staff believing in me helped, and it was great to have people you looked up to believing you could do great things."   

After Pratt left the program, the 49ers posted abysmal 8-20, 9-19 and 5-23 records. Smith said the adversity and challenges were instrumental in helping him mature into a better player and person.

"Losing does things to you. You question yourself as a player and an individual," said Smith. "Those teams were forged in the fire, and I will always be grateful for Charlotte. If I had to choose again, I would do it all over."

Smith graduated from Charlotte and then traveled overseas to play basketball professionally. He played in England, Germany, Japan and the United States. Smith played for Hemel & Watford Royal in England, TuS Bramsche in Germany, Kumagai Gumi Bruins in Japan and the Westchester Golden Apples of the United States Basketball League.

"It was a great opportunity for me to understand what being a professional is all about," said Smith. "It was a privilege and an honor to play."

After he retired from the sport, Smith worked for Asics Tiger, handling basketball marketing. Smith then moved into television, selling programming for BET and USA networks.

Smith worked his way up the ranks at USA before NBC Universal bought it. He became vice president of sales and marketing for NBC and was recognized as one of the most influential Black men in cable. He is now the co-founder and president of a tech startup and a Hollywood film company. Smith currently lives in North Carolina with his wife of 30 years and is a father to three children. 

"My journey outside of basketball has been a blessing," said Smith. "Every job that I have had, I have loved."

In 2009, Nike ran an advertising campaign about Smith, "the man who motivated MJ." Smith is the only player to have a Nike signature shoe without playing in the NBA. They're called the Air Jordan 1's Leroy Smith edition.

"The campaign came up in 2009 right before he (Jordan) was going to be inducted into the hall of fame," said Smith. "The campaign is out there forever, and it is awesome to be able to pull it up and show my grandchildren I was connected to one of the greatest."

Smith is now looking at the legacy he hopes to leave and his impact on those around him.

"When people think of Harvest Leroy Smith Jr., I want them to think of someone who was loyal, dedicated, a hard worker who wasn't perfect but was committed to the process," said Smith. 

"I want people to think of me as the guy who will try everything once and the good things twice."

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