The man who lit the fire under Jordan
When does something go from urban legend to rumor to reality? I had heard the stories about the guy who made Michael Jordan become the greatest ever, but I didn't want to believe them. Or believe such a guy even existed. But the other day, while searching for a motivator to help me better understand how I could reach that W.C. Heinz level all sportswriters aspire to reach, I was led to the greatest motivator of all. Of all the people I sought out -- Oprah, Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil, Les Brown, Buster Olney -- I was told this guy was the master. His name: Leroy Smith. His claim to sub-cult status fame: Yep he's the one who motivated Michael Jordan. Unlike people who claim to have motivated Tiger or Gretzky or Mike Tyson, I have proof: The guy who made Jordan Jordan does exist, and here's the interview to prove it:
Scoop Jackson: So is it true that you beat Michael Jordan out for the last spot on the Laney High School varsity team his sophomore year?
Leroy Smith: Yes. It was down to just two people. Mano a mano. And the coach decided to go with the more experienced, more aggressive, more motivated player. Who at that time was me. Not Michael Jordan. Me, Leroy Smith.
Could you describe for me what Michael Jordan was like as a basketball player in high school?
Back in high school, I would say, Michael was more suitable for beach volleyball than basketball. But after I got a hold of him, after I motivated him
But what did you do at the time to motivate him?
I made him realize that there was no future for a black man in beach volleyball. I made him understand that. And I made him understand there was no figure in that sport that was the equivalent of Leroy Smith.
So were you a good beach volleyball player, too, or what?
Leroy Smith don't play beach volleyball. But I can motivate a beach volleyball player, just like I did Michael Jordan.
So explain to me why you deserve credit for Michael Jordan being the greatest player ever.
You have to understand, before Michael Jordan encountered Leroy Smith, he had no personality. He had no swagger. I'm the one that taught Jordan to hang his tongue out when he goes to the hole. That's what I used to do to him. Now, he won't admit that. But he copied that from Leroy Smith.
But Jordan said he got that from watching his father work on cars and trucks in the backyard when he was a kid.
That's a nice public relations story. And as we know all public relations stories aren't true.
So it all came from you?
It all came from me. See, one of my ways of motivating Michael when he was young was I would take him on the court prior to games and I would go have a meal laced with garlic, and as I would drive to the hole, I would hold my tongue out of my mouth so that it would go past Michael's nose. Therefore, I would motivate him to become an ace at defense as well as how to hold his breath at just the right moment.
A lot of people used to use that method, but they just wouldn't take baths. They'd just go on the court stankin.' But that wasn't your style, you're saying. You did garlic instead.
Yeah. And I used a lot of garlic. So much that nowadays you can't bring garlic into a room around Michael Jordan. Because the first thing he's going to think is: Leroy Smith is yellin' in his face.
Now Jordan always said his older brother Larry was the one who motivated him, because Michael could never beat him. Now could you beat Larry too?
Obviously, I could beat Larry because Larry is not the man that motivated Michael Jordan. That was just another public relations story.
I saw that at the time you wore No. 45 at Laney. Now when MJ came out of retirement and wore No. 45, was that a tribute to you?
Yes. You have to understand, Michael Jordan walks like me. He talks like me. He even holds his fork like me. Everything that Leroy Smith projects manifests itself in Michael Jordan.
I see in your office you have a poster of Michael that says "Thanks, Leroy." How special is that poster to you?
That poster is close to my heart. As a matter of fact, I have a tattoo of that poster over my heart. The whole poster. Signed by Michael Jordan. He came down to the tattoo parlor, to sign his name on my chest.
Did you ever think that you taking his spot on that high school team would have this type of effect on him and make him into the man that he's become?
Well that was my plan from the very beginning. I knew that once I lit that fuse and that fuse is leading to a stick of dynamite and that stick of dynamite would become what we all know today as Michael Jordan.
So you saw this coming a long time ago?
Absolutely. To be a master motivator, part of your responsibility is to be able to see great talent in its raw state. And I seen that in Michael.
Have you ever seen that type of talent in anyone else?
Uh, not yet.
You call yourself a "mastervator," not a motivator. And you use the term, "motivise" instead of motivate. Why?
I'll put it to you like this: A mastervator is a master motivator. A motivator is someone like Don King. Don King is a motivator. He drives all of these fancy cars and it motivates young men to excel in the sport of boxing because they want to be champions. But who motivates Don King? Yeah, the mastervator! Leroy Smith.
So you are like the sensei of motivating.
You are older than Mike, yet you have more hair. How is that?
Well, part of the rigors of becoming the greatest basketball player in the world is stress. And Michael has always had a problem with stress. That's the reason I have more hair. I'm a much more relaxed athlete than him on the court.
Well, is there anything you can do to motivate Michael to get his hair to grow?
Leroy Smith ain't God, now. I'm just a master motivator. Now I can motivate Michael to go buy a wig, but I can't motivate for his hair to grow.
M.J. is getting inducted into the Hall of Fame in September. Do you think he's going to mention you in his Hall of Fame speech?
I'll just put it to you this way Scoop: Even if he don't mention the name Leroy Smith, I will still be honored because I'll be looking at a man that is talking like me, walking like me, thinking like me, and using my name as an alias. Because see, a lotta people don't know this, but Leroy Smith and Michael Jordan are so close that if Michael Jordan was making love to a woman and she screamed out, "Oh Leroy!" Michael wouldn't even mind.
OK, rumor is that along with wearing his Carolina blue shorts under his uniform throughout his career he also used to write your name on his shoes. Is this true?
My name on his shoes? No. My name was in a little envelope that he would tape over his left nipple before every game. That way he could keep the name Leroy Smith right next to his heart.
Just like you have his tattoo over your heart.
Exactly. But I thought the tattoo was a little more masculine than a little piece of tape on your nipple.
Do you and Mike still stay in contact?
Well, he calls from time to time, still trying to stay motivated. You know, every now and then motivation gets settled and it has to be recharged like a car battery. So every now and then Michael needs to get a jump.
So what type of motivating do you do? Is it psychological? Is it physical? Do you yell and scream at people? What do you do? How do you get people motivated?
Motivation is all psychological. It's me being able to tap into what someone really wants, what they really see themselves as and then taking that and reshaping it into what Leroy Smith knows is the secret to success.
And what is that secret?
Well, if I told you that, there would be more than one Leroy Smith.
But I want to get motivated, too. I want to be the Michael Jordan of my own profession.
I'll tell you what, when we get off the phone, I'll have my agent contact you and we can make a deal. And I'll personally come to your house and I guarantee you when I get through you will be 200 percent better off in life than you are right now.
And I can be making love and my girl can scream out your name and I won't get mad?
Your girl could be making love to you and I can be in the room and you won't get mad.
OK, back to Michael. So what do you think would have happened to Michael Jordan if you didn't exist?
I'll be honest with you, if Leroy Smith didn't exist, not only would it be detrimental to Michael Jordan, but I really feel that the whole sport of basketball could not have evolved into what it is today. If it wasn't for Leroy Smith, the NBA would be just like the Harlem Globetrotters. One thing's a game, the other is a real game. You get what I'm sayin'?
I do. But if you were that good, why didn't you ever make it to the League?
Well you'll have to buy Leroy Smith's book to get secret information like that. You know, I just don't want to come out and spill all of the beans just like that. But it was a very valid reason. I'll put it to you like this: If you woke up one morning and realized that you had the qualities of say, Mother Teresa. The exact same qualities. You were capable of helping people just like Mother Teresa. Now you had a choice: Either you use those qualities to help other people or you could work for ESPN interviewing people on the phone. Now the choice is yours. But Leroy Smith, I would choose to use those Mother Teresa qualities. And that's what I'm trying to hint at why you didn't see me in the NBA. My services were needed in other areas.
I got you.
See, I've motivated thousands upon thousands of people outside of Michael Jordan, you see. If I had just gone to the NBA, I would have been a great player, but would I have "motivated" as many people as I have? I seriously doubt it. I had a higher calling. See, you have to understand Leroy Smith's basketball game was so intense, that if you were my opponent on the court, instead of motivating you, I'd demoralize you.
You know Bishop Don Magic Juan told me the same thing when I was a kid.
Funny that you mention his name, because that's another one of the people that I've motivated.
I also heard Oprah, too. And that the television show that you are about to do, she's interested in producing it. Is that true?
I don't mean to let the cat out of the bag, but yes.
Yeah, that she's done with Dr. Phil and she's looking to you now.
You have to understand. Oprah, Dr. Phil, Tyra Banks, they've all been motivated by Leroy Smith. These people have been knowing about Leroy Smith for years upon years, and now the world is getting ready to become aware of the power of Leroy Smith.
When it's all over, when it's all said and done, how do you want the world to remember the great Leroy Smith?
I would like the world to remember Leroy Smith as "The Mastervator," the man who inspired the greatest basketball player in the history of the game. The man who has inspired untold millions across the globe. And I'd also like to be commemorated with a giant statue in front of Madison Square Garden. Or the Spectrum, even though it's closed. Any big arena where basketball is played, there should be a statue in the honor of Leroy Smith, "The Mastervator."
Last thing. Has anyone ever told you you look like Eddie Murphy?
I've been told that I look like Eddie Murphy. I've been told that I look like Demond Wilson, [who played] Lamont from "Sanford and Son." I've been told I look like several peoples. Otis Redding. People are always going to try to compare me to someone else. But there is no comparison to Leroy Smith. I'm the one and only.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.