CAMDEN, N.J. — The myth took flight as the man once did himself: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team.
The truth was more complicated, more nuanced, but that stood little chance against the legend: Michael Jordan was cut? How does that happen?
Jordan did nothing to correct the record as the years passed and his accomplishments accumulated. Rather, he used this supposed snub as fuel, powering him through what is arguably the greatest career of all time (with allowances for Wilt, LeBron and a few others).
No one can say how his story might unfold. Nor is anyone suggesting that it will wind up anything like Jordan’s.
Certainly, though, one of the early chapters reads much the same way. He too was cut from his high school team. He too rose above that. He too uses that slight, if it can even be called that, as motivation.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder, no matter what,” he told reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the draft.
So the comparison to His Airness holds up in that way, at least. Anything beyond that is a stretch, though it should be pointed out that one member of ESPN’s broadcast crew, Jay Bilas, compared Fultz to James Harden on the air Thursday night, and that another, Jalen Rose, likened him to Bradley Beal.
“I definitely see myself as a superstar, as one of the best players coming into the NBA,” Fultz told reporters Wednesday. “I’m going to have to earn it, though.”
His friends have little doubt that he will.
“Every time I see him, I feel as though he gets better, so I expect him to keep getting better,” said Reggie Gardner, once his teammate DeMatha High School, in Hyattsville, Maryland. “I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
“I’m expecting him to do big things,” said another former teammate, Ahmad Clark. “He said he’s going to win Rookie of the Year. I don’t know if he can win MVP yet, but I can see him winning it down the road in his career.”
DeMatha is one of the nation’s great programs, a school that has sent players like Adrian Dantley and Victor Oladipo to the NBA (not to mention former Sixer Jerami Grant). Fultz arrived there as a 5-foot-9 freshman five years ago and was immediately consigned to the JV team. Same thing the next year — “even though,” Clark said, “he was good enough to play varsity.”
That left an indelible impression.
“He still is trying to prove himself,” Clark said. “He still feels he has to play that certain way.”
That’s a rare thing, DeMatha coach Mike Jones said, before invoking a familiar comparison.
“You can think of Michael Jordan taking every perceived slight and using it as fuel and motivation for going after his goals,” Jones said. “I think Markelle is one of those unique individuals that does the same thing: Anything that doesn’t go the way he wants to, he doesn’t pout about it. He doesn’t sit back and try to blame it on this or that. He just says, ‘You know what? I’m going to prove you wrong.’ And I think that’s a great quality to have.”
Jones was, of course, the guy who assigned Fultz to the junior varsity. He recalled there were some older kids — “and kids in his class, too,” he added – who he regarded as superior players.
“He clearly proved me wrong,” Jones said. “I think he’s done that and then some.”
At the time, things were touch and go with Fultz. Keith Williams, who had coached and mentored him beginning at age 7 at the Run 'n Shoot Athletic Center in Forestville, Maryland — not far from Fultz’s home in Upper Marlboro — wanted him to transfer.
“I wasn’t happy,” Williams said. “I thought he was losing time in development.”
The way Williams tells it – and the way Kent Babb wrote it recently in The Washington Post — Fultz’s mom, Ebony, cast the deciding vote. She had raised Markelle and his older sister Shauntese as a single parent. She wanted her son to get a good education.
So in the end, he stayed at DeMatha.
“Obviously,” Williams said, “it all worked out.”
“My confidence and my goals never changed, no matter what,” Fultz told reporters in New York on Thursday. “(Being cut) just made me realize that it’s … a hill I have to get over, and I just started working even harder.”
He grew seven inches to 6-4, his current height, before his junior year, then starred on a team that went 33-4 that season, and one that went 32-5 the next. He was also the shining light of a 9-22 Huskies team in 2016-17, averaging 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.
Rest assured that Jones “absolutely” sees the parallels to Jordan’s story, and that he’s fine with it.
“I don’t know whatever happened to that coach,” he said, “but I’m very secure in my ability to coach the game of basketball, and I will be the first one to say when I’ve made a mistake. Clearly not having Markelle on the varsity was a mistake.”
Jones has good reason to feel secure, seeing as he has won over 400 games in 15 years at DeMatha. As for Jordan’s coach all those years ago at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., it was one Clifton (Pop) Herring, profiled five years ago by Thomas Lake in Sports Illustrated.
Lake wrote that like Fultz, Jordan had yet to have his growth spurt as a sophomore; he stood just 5-10. Laney had two experienced guards on the varsity but needed a big man. Herring, as a result, kept 6-7 Leroy Smith instead of Jordan.
We all know what happened down the road. The title-winning shot at North Carolina. The six rings with the Bulls. But Jordan never forgot his days at Laney. As Lake wrote, Jordan invited Herring to the ceremony for his number retirement in 1995, and introduced him as “the first guy to ever cut me,” eliciting boos from the sellout crowd in the United Center.
Jordan went on to say that Herring also worked with him early every morning before the following season, but according to Lake added, “He knew he made a mistake! He just tried to correct it.”
Herring, who Lake wrote has since been wracked by mental illness, was unable to make it to Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction in 2009. But Smith was there, and Jordan sounded some of the same notes, saying that he wanted to make sure “the coach who actually picked Leroy over me … understood — you made a mistake, dude.”
The Sixers can only hope, then, that Markelle Fultz rises to a point where he is somewhere in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan.
In another sense, they can hope that he rises above.