Oh, have mercy.
Jerome Kersey, 52, died Wednesday of a dislodged blot clot suspected to be connected to a recent knee surgery, collapsing on his way home from the Trail Blazers facilities. Over the last two days, former Portland players and those within the organization have expressed their grief. There has been one, continuing theme throughout their comments.
It always happens to the good ones too soon.
This is probably a bit confusing to those outside of Rip City’s broadcast area, at least in terms of cultural impact. Kersey was a starter for six of his 11 seasons in Portland. He was an essential defender, rebounder and scorer on the wing. But save for coming in second to Michael Jordan in the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest, Kersey was not a national star. He was a meaningful rotation player, but in the specter of the U.S. public, the team belonged to Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter.
So why has this hit the city of Portland so hard? Those outside the state are likely wondering: Why did Jerome Kersey matter so much to you?
Let’s back up for a minute. There’s not much to say here for me about Kersey as a player. His involvement for the team was incredibly important to a generation outside of my personal realm of knowledge. That era of Trail Blazers was not forced down my throat. In fact, I would wager that this is the case for many born more than an hour away from Portland proper post-1985.
Portland’s Millennial youth (if, in fact, we can still be called youth) are therefore skewed in large part to the generation after Kersey, Clyde, Porter, Duck and Buck. Rasheed Wallace was our love-him-or-hate-him-or-both player. Rod Strickland was a pop culture reference. Maurice Lucas – the badass version – was a character in a book, if you were in a particularly learned crowd.
But, despite this narrative of distance, the Drexler-era Blazers have always been around. Through second-rate basketball cards delivered through packages of Franz Bakery cookies and loaves of bread; through limited edition glassware at Dairy Queen, limited only by the amount your dad would buy for you; through posters of Blazer Dancers acquired at G.I. Joe’s in middle school that played an awkward part of your pubescent awakening.
The Blazers and their culture are a part of sports awareness in Oregon, no matter if you are paying attention to them or not. This has, historically, always been the case.
You see, the 1977 NBA Championship team is heralded in Oregon as one of the greatest teams of all time. They say if Walton’s health had kept up, they would have had a dynasty. They say they should have won it all again in 1978. They say they were the pride of Portland. They say it was Blazermania. All of this is likely true, and in fact there’s no reason to think otherwise. It’s just that I’ve never met anyone in Oregon under the age of 50 who cares deeply about ’77.
From personal experience, I’ve yet to meet someone in the generations surrounding mine that knows all the players, or all the storylines or has an intimate connection to that team. Breaks of the Game is about as close as any of us get. But still, Walton, Lucas, Lionel Hollins and Bobby Gross are all live on forever as greats, even for those without a connection to 1977. They continue to exist both as realized champions and as what could have beens.
Similarly, Drexler’s teams had the same kind of story arc. They reached greatness only to run headfirst into the buzzsaw of two of the most important dynasties in NBA history – the Pistons and the Bulls. These Blazers had a Top 50 All-Time player, great chemistry and community support. As with the Walton era, Drexler’s Blazers had, for lack of a better term, an excuse. Or at least an explanation that no one was going to fault them for. They lost, but enthusiasm and hope were never defeated in Rip City.
This is an oversimplification for the sake of brevity. It is an abridgment that ignores complexities in each of the respective situations that I am sure will anger my fellow Oregonians. It is important to understand that this is not sling-shotting rocks at brittle, old single-pane windows. It’s a way of unpacking how the cultural appropriation for continuing generations has been created by the impact of those two sets of teams.
Historically, Portland fans might only be fans of one era, but they always understand why teams of the past mattered and the respective permeation of that impact into the culture around the organization.
That brings us back to Kersey.
Like many of the Drexler-era Blazers, Kersey stuck around Portland. He was a local and, by all accounts, one of the nicest cats you could meet. In the limited time I covered the team in-person or was around in any capacity, this was my impression. Whether you passed him in a grey hallway under the Moda or an emptied-out press room, Kersey always smiled at you. Others, like Harry Glickman, Bill Schonely and Porter have all echoed this sentiment. Writers, fans and friends have come out to communicate in one way or another just how genuine Kersey was. It's been tough for everyone.
When someone as important as Kersey passes, we're often reduced to selfish thoughts. I’d like to say that I’ve wept wholly for Kersey and his family and his friends. I’d like to tell you that I’m permeable and cognizant and am able to properly deal with the depth of emotions of which his passing has brought. That I’m not in any way grieving for the continued loss of my own tangible world and my own mortality as I am for Kersey as a human being.
But I can’t. I’m not, at least not entirely. For many of us, Kersey’s death is about the changing of The Way It’s Always Been after growing up around the Blazers. And I wonder if that’s OK. I wonder if part of dealing with the loss of a man who helped shape the community's ethereal attitude toward something as silly and strangely binding as sports is understanding the finality of it all – just as long as we understand that Kersey’s impact will forever be felt in Portland.
There’s nothing final about that. The teams he was on and type of person he was exemplifies the way that Oregonians want to think of themselves, culturally and in athletic competition. As heroes of feat and as people of character. As different in their thinking, as accepting as well as exceptional. With love given to their community and love returned by it.
Kersey finished his career second in games played, third in rebounds, third in steals, fourth in minutes and fifth in scoring for the Blazers. He wasn’t just a role player, he was the player that helped Rip City, well … roll. He was a community staple, and a person to be looked up to by those who interacted with him. And while 52 seems too young for Kersey, especially for someone who did so much that was fundamentally good, you know what they say about that.
It always happens to the good ones too soon.