Records indicate Michael Jordan was born into this world in the winter of 1963, but witnesses believe his birth as an otherworldly basketball talent occurred over the summer of 1979, between his sophomore and junior years at E.A. Laney High School.
"Mike was about 5-10 at the end of 10th grade, no more than 5-11," recalled Fred Lynch, Laney's current varsity coach and the sophomore coach during MJ's Buccaneer days.
"He always had talent -- he was our best 9th grader and our best 10th grader. He played with a lot of heart, he had guard skills and he always had big, strong hands. By his junior year he shot up to 6-3, almost 6-4. All of a sudden you had size to go with that talent and drive. ... He just blossomed."
Todd Parker, a Laney teammate who played various sports with Jordan "since T-ball," saw it coming, even if he wasn't quite sure what it was.
"Final game of our sophomore year, we were playing down at Goldsboro. Mike stole the ball and had a breakaway, and he went in and dunked it -- I mean he threw one down," Parker said, his tone conveying his awe at the move 30 years later. "I believe that was the first competitive dunk of his life. We were like, 'Wow, where did that come from?'
"Then he comes back for junior year, he's a different guy, no longer skinny little Mike. He's jumping out of the gym. I'm like, 'What?' "
It was the makings of the Michael the world knows now.
"I guess we knew then that he was going to be special," Parker said. "But nobody could have envisioned him becoming the greatest player of all time."
You know the story: Jordan had been cut from the Laney varsity as a sophomore.
Fred Lynch is a trim, serious man under his shaven head, and that bit of history prompts a scowl. Urban legend, he insists.
Clifton "Pop" Herring, his predecessor who has long since stepped away from coaching, had a "no sophomores" policy for the Laney varsity.
Because Leroy Smith was 6-7 and the Buccaneers were height-challenged, he was an exception. MJ was not.
"Mike wasn't quite ready for the varsity as a 10th grader," Lynch said, "and we all agreed he'd be better off getting playing time on the sophomore team than sitting on the bench with the varsity.
"I believe it worked out OK."
Plaques, proclamations and other mementos from a long career in coaching share wall space with a signed, poster-sized photo of MJ in Lynch's cramped office -- he's also Laney's athletic director. The gym bears Jordan's name -- Michael J. Jordan Gymnasium -- and a larger-than-life, center-court silhouette of the Nike-designed Jumpman figure is hard to miss. Lynch has a small private stash of MJ memorabilia, ruefully noting that whatever had been displayed often wound up stolen, including a Laney game jersey anonymously returned with a biblical passage seeking forgiveness.
"These kids ... they've seen highlights, they've probably seen his commercials, but none of them have seen him play," said Lynch, a tinge of sadness in his voice. "They don't really relate to him. That was a long time ago."
But surely he uses the legend of MJ as a teaching tool.
"Not really," he said. "What Mike had ... the talent, the work ethic, the will to win ... you either have it or you don't. It can't be taught."
No, it can't, so Wilmington does not appear to try terribly hard. The town doesn't overwhelm a visitor with MJ lore.
Signs at the city limits acknowledge the North Carolina Azalea Festival, not the hometown of Michael Jordan.
He is a presence at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, a first-floor display case chronicling his life from kindergarten to the Bulls, including a college anthropology paper detailing his 1984 Olympics experience. Dr. James Peacock gave him a B-plus and advised him to seek a publisher, with one caveat: "Suggest [you] delete comments about Coach Knight ..."
The regular breakfast group at Whitey's Restaurant -- Howard, Bruce, Stacy, Louie, Robert, Larry and Bobby -- sure, they like Mike, but they point out that Wilmington has produced a number of fine athletes: tennis player Althea Gibson, Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, football players Sonny Jurgensen, Roman Gabriel and Clyde Simmons and baseball player Trot Nixon.
Larry -- retired Wilmington firefighter Larry Brown -- lost most of his eyesight rescuing three people from a burning building years back. He sort of defines "hero" to his breakfast buddies.
Newsmen David Brinkley and Charles Kuralt were from Wilmington, the boys note, as is actress Linda Lavin. And the table talk this day centers on Kristen Dalton, the 22-year-old Wilmingtonian who represented the U.S. in the previous night's Miss Universe pageant.
Proprietor Whitey Prevatte has a unique link to MJ. He signed his first paycheck in 1980 when Jordan worked on the maintenance crew at the recently shuttered El Berta Motor Inn, which adjoins the restaurant.
"Three thirty-five an hour," Whitey declared, displaying a framed copy of a check for $119.76. "Minimum wage at the time. It's a little higher now, so I tell his momma if Mike wants to come back, we could probably pay him a little more."
"Momma" is Deloris Jordan, who was a customer while working as a teller at United Carolina Bank up Market Street.
"She called me up and asked me if I might have anything for Mike," Whitey said. "I said, 'Deloris, you send him over, and we'll find something.' That woman is a jewel of a person. Now she travels the world raising money for the needy."
Whitey thought enough of her son -- "nice kid, good worker, dependable" -- to offer input on his college choice.
"I told Deloris, if he were my son, I'd send him to Carolina," Whitey said. "That Dean Smith always impressed me as a fine man and a fine coach."
Parker recalled the Laney players meeting all the college coaches who came by for a look at MJ.
"[Jim] Valvano, Lefty Driesell ... Roy Williams [then a North Carolina assistant] spent so much time down here, we thought he was working at Laney.
"Then Dean Smith showed up, in this powder-blue suit, and it was over. If Dean Smith shows up, Carolina really wants you."
So basketball's gain was baseball's loss? Not really.
"He never made an all-star team for me, and his talent didn't jump out at you the way it did in basketball, but give me nine Mike Jordans and you'd have to bring your 'A' game to beat me," said Dick Neher, Jordan's coach for three years.
Neher, a proud former Marine, worked at the General Electric plant with James Jordan, Michael's father.
Neher's walls bear witness to a lifetime involvement with youth baseball, and he was a meticulous record-keeper. Mike "Rabbit" Jordan batted .275 for Parker's Drugs as a toothpick-armed 14-year-old outfielder/first baseman (with a little pitching and emergency catching).
Rabbit? Neher believed nicknames helped foster team harmony. Jordan was known as "Rabbit" because of the peculiar cut of his ears.
"I don't think he ever would have had enough bat speed to play in the big leagues -- he had this big, sweeping swing, so he couldn't catch up to a good fastball," Neher offered in an oft-repeated scouting report.
But those intangibles.
"Terrific competitor, great teammate, kept everyone loose," Neher said. "One time I had to use him as an emergency catcher. He was having trouble making the throw to second while we were warming up, and the other team was all over him -- 'We're going to run on this rag arm.' Mike took his mask off and looked over at them with this big smile on his face. 'If you run, I will gun' -- the throw got down there on one hop, but I think he nailed four out of five."
Todd Parker has to smile as he points out MJ's inscription in their senior yearbook: "To a guy I think is the toughest white boy in the state ... good luck in the future."
Said Parker: "It was surreal watching him, what he'd become, and thinking you'd been out there with him. You bet I'm proud of him. I wish he hadn't gone off to play baseball. The Bulls would have won eight in a row if he hadn't.
"And I wish he didn't come back to play for the Wizards. That shot against Utah was the perfect ending."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times