Like everybody else in the Trail Blazers universe, I am in shock over the passing of Jerome Kersey. As I write, details are still sketchy. We know that Jerome was 52, that we loved him, and that he's no longer with us. Click through the link to keep abreast of the story, as we'll update there. For me, I don't care to. I'm just sad Jerome is gone.
We knew Kersey as a basketball player and that's how I'm going to talk about him here. But I want to spend a moment offering condolences to his family and teammates, the people who knew him off the court as well. Our loss pales next to yours. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
Jerome Kersey came into the NBA during a magical phase in my life. When you're a young kid, sports heroes are idols on a pedestal, larger than life. Meeting one is akin to meeting a deity; flip a coin to see whether you stare in awe or hide behind your mom's legs. By the time you reach middle age athletes start looking like kids themselves. Having lived through your prime physical years, you simultaneously admire their fitness and hope they have the wisdom to make good use of it before their backs and knees start hurting and they're forced onto a multi-vitamin regimen. You're still interested in them but you realize athletes live in a transient world, quickly fading and beyond your grasp.
But there's a brief, wonderful period in your mid-teens when pro athletes are enough older than you to remain role models but still close enough in age that you can imagine reaching them. To a guy this age they're neither blind idols nor youthful case studies, but Men...with a capital "M". You see their pattern, you feel their glory. It's personal. You're not yet where they are but that's where you're going to be soon. When you get there, you want to be like just them: Men, capital "M", doing big things that move people and demonstrate your excellence.
In the late 80's and early 90's nobody on the Trail Blazers was more of a Capital "M" Man than Jerome Kersey. And I was the exact right age to appreciate everything that meant.
My first introduction to Jerome--not the person, but the concept of Jerome, his distinctive playing style--came while watching a pre-season game in 1984. Kersey checked into the game and the Blazers' color commentator--I can't remember who it was right now--started talking a mile a minute. He said, "Keep an eye on this Kersey kid." ("Kid." Safe to say the commentator was not in his mid-teens.) He continued, "Normally you don't expect much from a second-round pick but he gets your attention every time he takes the floor. The coaches are really talking about him. He could make it." I lifted an eyebrow and started watching him closely to see if I could see what they were talking about. Then Jerome did something obscene in the lane--it might have been an offensive rebound putback--and I was like, "Whoa! I guess so!" I decided I better not watch too close until I got some safety goggles. His move made Spalding orange squirt out of the TV set right into my eye.
With Kiki Vandeweghe on the team, Kersey wasn't going to break the starting lineup early. That was OK; his game was still raw. Combined with his brick-like build and his 98-foot vertical leap, this made his game all the more exciting. The crowd would swell involuntarily when he took the court. Between monster dunks, monster blocks, and general craziness, Kersey taking off the warm-ups became the Blazer fan's equivalent of the ice cream truck coming down the street. You didn't know what the guy had today but you'd get your 50 cents and run like hell to see it because it was going to be sweet.
Raw potential became raw power when Jerome took over the starting small forward position in 1987-88, scoring 19 points per game on 50% shooting in the process. He hadn't yet developed the jumper which carried him through his later years. In fact he didn't have that much more than his right hand. It hardly mattered. If you thought you could stop Jerome Kersey, bouncing off his pecs and abs on your way to the floor would teach you different. He was magnificent.
Kersey dialed back his offensive game in subsequent years, making sure Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Buck Williams, and Kevin Duckworth got enough touches. Porter's offensive game was more versatile, Buck's more reliable, Drexler's more prolific. But even in that power-packed lineup, Kersey was the guy you most feared getting loose on the run. Sure, Drexler would jam on you, creating a highlight poster in the process, but Kersey with a head of steam would HURT you. Clyde was a fighter jet sailing to the rim with the most powerful missiles known to mankind. Jerome's dunks were thunder itself. You couldn't imitate them, you couldn't explain them...all you could do was duck your head under the covers and wait for the bad sound to go away. No shame in that. When Jerome Kersey got free on the break, even the rim said, "Mommy!"
My most enduring in-person memory of Kersey came during the famous Perfect First Quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in the 1990-91 season. The Blazers were rolling hard, demolishing David Robinson and the shell-shocked Spurs, when all of a sudden Kersey and Drexler broke out on the run. You could see it coming as if in slow-motion, the same time compression that happens during a car accident. "Oh my God, Jerome is loose. Will Clyde see him? Oh my God, Drexler got him the ball! Ahhhhhhh! HOLD ON!!!!" I know it's not possible, but it felt like Kersey sailed 100 feet in the air on that jam. His huge hammer was like the end of a boss battle in a video game. Everything splintered, lights exploded, they might as well have stopped the game right then. With one move he told the Spurs--a team with designs on the conference crown--to go home and never come back. And they never did...at least until 1993, anyway.
You can see that dunk here. No video can do it justice.
My most memorable Kersey TV moment involved Ken Norman and the Los Angeles Clippers in the '88-'89 season. The Clips weren't very good in those days but they were mean and Norman was big, young, and trying to make a name for himself as a small forward. He and Kersey got in a tussle which ended up with both squaring off in boxer's stances. You wanted to think, "Uh oh, this could be bad..." but before your brain got to the second "h", Kersey threw a jab with the force of a swinging tree trunk. Norman got knocked straight on his tea kettle, allowing refs and teammates to pull the two apart. Once he cleared the wooziness, Norman was left to complain, "Wait! Do over!" while Kersey walked away with a look that said, "Go ahead and fine me. I enjoyed it." After that nobody messed with Kersey too much (outside of the crazy and somewhat-random Xavier McDaniel). Jerome was a bad man.
Kersey had his ups and downs on and off the court as his career progressed. He developed a bankable jump shot, a left hook that never looked like it was going in but somehow did. But age wasn't kind to his game or his shooting percentages. The Blazers made him available in the 1995 expansion draft. Toronto selected him, then cut him the same summer. He'd go on to play for the Golden State Warriors, Seattle Supersonics, Los Angeles Lakers, and eventually the San Antonio Spurs where, at 36 years of age, he earned the World Title with Tim Duncan and David Robinson that had eluded him with Drexler, Porter, and Williams. I had a few mixed feelings when Drexler got his ring with the Houston Rockets; somehow I was nothing but happy for Jerome.
After he retired Kersey returned to the Trail Blazers family, most recently serving as Director of Alumni Relations. Before that, when he was still searching for a way forward in the NBA, I had the privilege to sit next to him while covering Summer League. This was the first big test of my media resolve because...well...read that opening paragraph about mid-teens boys and impressions of athletes again. When Kersey and Mario Elie came and sat beside me, my brain was like, "Uhhhhhhhh..." but my heart was all, "WAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!"
The first thing I noticed was that even watching the game with Jerome was a visceral, somewhat physical experience. He'd be all calm and relaxed, then his body would tense up and he'd lean forward almost as if he were playing from his seat. I suspect in his mind he was, as he turned to Elie and said, "These kids don't know how to play. We could just..."
Then Elie shook his head and said, "Those days are long gone. You gotta let them do their thing." The message was somehow comforting and sad at the same time, perhaps to Jerome but also to a writer who remembered watching him. But Kersey relaxed a little after that.
Then the thrill of my young writing life came when Kersey turned, looked at me scribbling notes, and asked, "Who's that coach?" I asked him if he meant the assistant coach for the Blazers and he said, "Yeah." I told him it was Bill Bayno and he nodded. A little while later I asked him his opinion on one of Portland's Summer League players and he explained things like dribbling position and scoring from the elbow. I left feeling a little wiser and a lot more like I was going to make it doing this sportswriting thing.
I guess that's how I'll remember Jerome (having known him only from a distance other than that one encounter). He seemed smooth, powerful, and totally aware of who he was but always a little restless looking for the next play or the next thing to do. Sometimes the results were astonishing, sometimes less so, but through it all Jerome Kersey was the guy who wanted to make things happen. And boy, did he ever.
Godspeed, Jerome. And thanks.
Enjoy these highlights of Kersey in the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest. Note not just the power of the dunks, but how effortlessly he gets up there and into them. Zach LaVine was amazing in this year's contest, but part of his charm was how death-defying the endeavor looked, how precarious the line between success and failure. Kersey, by comparison, looks like he's taking a walk through the park on this series of enormous jams.
You can also see Kersey dunking in actual games through this link to NBA.com highlights of his career.