The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 12 | Jerome Kersey
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 831, Postseason 91
*PTS: 12.1 | REB: 6.1 | OREB: 2.3 | FG%: 46.5%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 1984, drafted 46th overall in the 1984 NBA Draft
Departed Club: June 1995, drafted by the Toronto Raptors in NBA expansion draft
Place in History: Nobody who followed the Portland Trail Blazers during the 1980’s and 1990’s could ever forget the golden voice of broadcaster Bill Schonely ringing out with, “Mercy, Mercy, Jerome Kersey”. The object of Schonely’s adoration, a 6’7 small forward with superhero muscles and a movie-star smile, might have provoked the utterance by hitting a jumper or throwing down a thunderous dunk. Just as likely he dove to the floor for a loose ball, bulled over a defender on the way to a bucket, or swiped a nifty steal for a breakaway. Jerome Kersey did all those things and more.
The phrase wasn’t supposed to make Schonely’s list of catchprhases, though. “Mercy, Mercy” started out as an utterance of surprise and genuine amazement, a shorthand way of saying, “Who the heck is this kid and what the heck did he just DO? Can you believe that? Mercy, mercy!!!”
Kersey showed up in Portland in 1984 as a second-round pick, straight out of Longwood College. Let’s save you the Google search: it’s in Farmville, Virginia. Yes, that’s every bit as obscure as it sounds.
As a graduate from a university that sounds more like a role-playing institution than a school, having played in a town that sounds more like a cutesy iPad app than a real place, Kersey wasn’t expected to take the world by storm. Everybody liked his physique. He looked like the love child of The Incredible Hulk and The Flash, equal parts powerful and fast. But his game was raw, his skill set largely unknown. Under the circumstances, just making the team would be considered an accomplishment, especially under Coach Jack Ramsay, who tended to prefer his players refined.
But nobody had counted on Kersey’s drive and willpower. The rumblings started in the first couple weeks of training camp. Whispers started floating around about this “Kersey” kid and his nose for the ball. He was reportedly taking the camp by storm, making an impact beyond expectations, and impressing coaches with energetic play. Announcers began to utter, “Wait until you see this guy.” Schonely reached for the rhyming dictionary.
Kersey’s big unveiling came in the second game of his rookie season. He had played in the first—no coach in his career would be able to keep him seated for long—but had only registered 8 minutes. Game 2 saw the Blazers facing rival Seattle, featuring Tom Chambers and Jack Sikma in the frontcourt. Jerome jumped them, turning in a 5-9 performance for 11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals in 18 minutes of play. He was a whirlwind, making teammates Jim Paxson, Kiki Vandeweghe, Mychal Thompson, and Sam Bowie seem staid by comparison.
Despite early flashes, Kersey did not come ready-made. This wasn’t going to be a Rookie of the Year situation. The coaches would diagram sets, only to watch Kersey, “LEEEEROYYYYYYY JENNNNNNNKINS!” as he charged for a block or a rebound. After the play, instead of, “Dammit, Leroy,” it’d be, “My God, Jerome, I think you for real killed him. Is that even legal?” Teammates and opponents alike learned to duck when Kersey flew near.
In his first two seasons, Kersey’s minutes went up and down. He learned the game, though. As he became more polished, rises and falls moderated. Every time his minutes went backwards, they’d rebound quicker. Each time he got a promotion, he’d hold it longer.
Kersey was a fantastic rebounder and a great defender. His straight-ahead game was unstoppable from the start. As time went by, he added a jumper...first tentative and close to the basket, then farther out. He developed a dribble drive. His finishes on the break were works of art. (Say hello to a four-time participant in the All-Star Slam Dunk Contest.) His stamina seemed eternal. He became one of only a handful of Blazers to play day-in, day-out over multiple seasons.
Kersey’s big break came in his third season. Unable to come to a peace with the new, more individual style of NBA basketball embodied in Portland by Clyde Drexler, Ramsay exited the stage. He was replaced by Mike Schuler. The new coach was an X’s and O’s guy and a disciplinarian. He also valued hard work and smarts. Shedding off his initial image as a physique-oriented player, Kersey had demonstrated plenty of both.
In a Hollywood script, Kersey would have been the almost-bookish Schuler’s foil. In reality, Schuler gave Kersey more minutes than he had ever seen. Kersey responded with stability and consistency without losing one iota of the explosive energy that made him special.
The fear with young players is always that their efficiency will decrease as their minutes increase. Players who look great statistically at 10 minutes per night sometimes turn distressingly nondescript at 30. Kersey never experienced that. The harder you pressed the gas pedal, the more engine noise and speed you got out of him. He was, simply, a dream.
That dream came to full flower in 1987-88 when injuries to Vandeweghe opened the door for Kersey to start. Jerome being Jerome, any half-open door was going to get blown off its hinges. That season Kersey started 75 of 79 games, averaging a career-high 19.2 points. This was short of the incredible 27-point average Vandeweghe had posted the season prior, but...
- Vandeweghe wasn’t coming back at that level
- Kersey did a whole lot of other things that Kiki didn’t
- 19 points out of 27 was enough of the average to hold, especially since Kersey had scorers all around him
- If the team ever needed more, it was pretty evident Kersey could score 20 by taking a few more shots instead of playing in team mode
More importantly, the Blazers won 53 games that season after spending a decade trying futilely to break the 50-win mark. It was better than Vandeweghe’s teams had ever done. With Kersey in the lineup, Portland would get there in five of the next six seasons.
The Blazers lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs that year, but Kersey averaged 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals per game while shooting over 49% for the series. Forget plucky youngster, the Blazers now had a legit star candidate on their hands.
The team struggled through infighting and another coaching change in 1988-89. Rick Adelman took over mid-year after Schuler’s tight ways provoked a mutiny among his players. Portland struggled to 39 wins while Drexler averaged 27 a night. Undaunted, Kersey chipped in 17.5.
Despite the disparity in their stats, there was still plenty of competition between Kersey and Drexler. Modern fans wondering if Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can occupy the same lineup successfully can take solace in the fact that, “Can Clyde and Jerome co-exist or is there too much overlap?” was debated just as firmly. Both were athletic, both were explosive. Either one could score big, given free rein. Either could potentially be the star.
Obviously Drexler turned out to be the bigger deal, and rightfully so. But that wasn’t automatically assumed in 1988, even with Clyde scoring at a Vandeweghe-like rate. This was a Stone Cold-Rock situation. Both talents were great, either could be on top at a given moment. The organization was going to be better off if they played off of each other instead of forcing people to choose.
A thought: When people are having that kind of conversation about you and Clyde Drexler, you’re probably a pretty good player.
Drexler did work it out with Kersey and the rest of his teammates. Coach Adelman let his players play to their strengths, looking past mistakes to the greater opportunity that his athletic lineup provided. It was the perfect environment for Drexler, Kersey, and Kevin Duckworth to flourish. Adding hard-nosed power forward Buck Williams gave Portland even more muscle and a nearly-insurmountable defense. Opponents swallowed hard at the thought of being defended by Jerome and Buck. The only fates worse were having to battle them for a rebound or, God forbid, having to defend them at a full run on the break.
During the next three years Kersey, already known as a Top-20 rebounder, steals producer, and Iron Man, would also become a Top-20 NBA defender. He’d help the Blazers to three Conference Finals and a pair of NBA Finals. Like Drexler, he stepped back from his individual offense for the good of the team. He’d average 14.5 points and 7.8 rebounds on 47.5% shooting from 1990-1992. In the 1990 NBA Playoffs he gave his team 21 points per game, playing in 21 games between the first round and the Finals. He’d average 18.3 points over that three-year, postseason span. Not only was he a fantastic player overall, Kersey stepped up in the playoffs. What more could you want?
Sadly, Jerome and company never got to hold the trophy aloft in Portland. Isiah Thomas and the Pistons would deny them in 1990, Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 1991, Michael Jordan and the Bulls in 1992. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
The aftertaste of that last Finals run wasn’t any more palatable. 1992 had been Drexler’s year, the season when the whole team stepped back so he could battle Jordan mano-a-mano for the crown. Clyde and the Blazers had fallen. So had Jerome. Eight years of incredibly tough play over incredibly long seasons had left his body battered. At 29, he was moving slower, relying far more on his jumper than thunderous dunks. He’d spend three more seasons in Portland, none injury-free, only one as a regular starter. As new “Do Everything Man” Cliff Robinson displaced him, Kersey’s shooting percentages dropped. His scoring dipped into single digits. His defense became hit-and-miss, the intimidation factor gone.
Deep in transition between the old Drexler era and the chemistry lab new General Manager Bob Whitsitt was building, the Blazers left the 33-year-old Kersey unprotected in the 1995 NBA Expansion Draft. The Toronto Raptors called his name and suddenly, it was goodbye. It seemed an ignominious way for a player who had given so much to the franchise to depart.
It did not prove the end of Kersey’s career, though. The Raptors waived Kersey three months after they selected him. He signed as a free agent with the Golden State Warriors, reunited with Adelman, whom the Blazers had fired the year prior. Kersey started in 58 games for the Warriors that season. The next year he was in L.A. with the Lakers, starting in 44 of his 70 appearances next to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. He’d spend an injury-riddled year in Seattle with the Sonics, then two with the San Antonio Spurs. Though he played comparatively little by then, he finally won his NBA Championship in 1999 behind Tim Duncan and David Robinson. A final season with the Bucks in 2000-01 would complete a career that included 17 seasons, 15 playoffs appearances, and a championship ring.
Kersey worked as an assistant coach and a front office executive for several years following his retirement, serving with the Bucks and Blazers.
An amusing anecdote from this time:
I had the privilege to sit beside Kersey for a few games at the NBA’s annual summer league. He saw my notepad and asked a few questions about Portland. I asked a few about the game and his perceptions. He was gracious and friendly. During the proceedings, he was also speaking to former teammate Mario Elie on his other side. After a particularly athletic, but rough, sequence on the court, Kersey shook his head and muttered to Elie, “These guys...they can jump and run but they have no idea how to play.” Then he muttered something in a quieter tone, meant for Elie’s ears. I gather from Elie’s response that it was something along the lines of, “I wish I could get out there...” Mario shook his head and said out loud, “Those days are long gone, my friend. It’s our job to teach them now.”
Reflecting, I think how ironic, yet perfectly apropos, that exchange was.
First of all, “These kids can jump and run but they don’t know how to play.” Excuse me...Jerome? Jerome??? Let’s rewind the tape back to 1984 and see what the veteran jury said about a young forward wearing #25. But he was right. They didn’t know how to play yet. He might not have either, at first. But man, did he flourish. Think of all the super athletic prospects who foundered on NBA rocks without making it. Then there’s Kersey, who not only did it, but made the transition to stardom without losing one iota of what made him special and feared.
Also, it’s so totally Jerome Kersey that his solution to the issue was to put on the uniform and do it himself. That’s the way he approached everything on the court. If it was there, he was going to get it. If it wasn’t there, he was going to run himself into the ground until he found it. He was not going to ask someone else to pick up a defensive assignment, grab a rebound, or dive on the floor so he could score and look good. Whatever happened, he was going to be in the middle of it, all the time, busting heads and taking names. (Pssst...he didn’t really care about the names.)
Nothing on the court ever got in Jerome Kersey’s way without getting hit, moved, or jumped over. It’s no accident that half of the comparisons in this write-up are superheroes or larger-than-life characters. That’s exactly what he was. Kersey may not have worn a cape in the slam dunk contest like Dwight Howard, but you could see it trailing behind him every time he leapt for a put-back jam. Woe be to anybody who dared to tug on it.
Kersey was recuperating from knee surgery in Portland on February 18th, 2015 when a blood clot traveled to his lungs and took his life. He was 52 years old. It seemed impossible, unreal, that something so small could overcome someone who played so big. But one of the wonderful things about Jerome is that, no matter how he awed people on the court, he was still human. You wouldn’t know it at first, but give it a second, and you’d figure it out. The ready smile, the handshake, through joys and mistakes, giving and receiving accolades...Jerome Kersey knew exactly who he was, but he was always ready to share with the people around him.
For becoming a charming, unstoppable superhero when all people saw was a kid from nowhere, for the spectacular dunks, for fantastic defense, for evolving into a complete player, for the Finals runs, for never letting anything stop him, and for all the memories, Jerome Kersey gets the 12th spot on our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
God rest, and godspeed #25.
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