The Portland Trail Blazers have suited up 354 players since the inaugural season of the franchise in 1970. Few are more beloved than Jerome Kersey, the unheralded Longwood College graduate who worked his way into 11 seasons with the franchise, 17 total in the NBA.
This year, long-time Portland sportswriter Kerry Eggers completed the definitive biography of the fabled small forward, titled, “Jerome Kersey: Overcoming the Odds”. The 328-page treatment hits all the right notes to enchant Trail Blazers fans, instantly becoming a must-read in the small pantheon of books circling the franchise’s orbit.
The Blazers drafted Kersey in the second round of the 1984 NBA Draft with the 46th overall pick. He was the fifth player Portland selected that year, concealed in the considerable shadow of #2 overall pick Sam Bowie. Famously selected ahead of Michael Jordan, the oft-injured Bowie would become all but synonymous with terrible draft choices. Alongside teammates Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, Kersey would go on to key one of the most memorable and successful eras in franchise history.
Eggers does not start with that narrative, nor where you might expect an underdog-themed biography to commence: with young Kersey fighting and clawing his way to respect. The book begins at the ending, with Kersey’s tragic passing from a blood clot following knee surgery in February of 2015.
It’s a curious choice, a downer beginning an uplifting book. At first, one suspects it as an attempt to bring gravity to the subject. A biography about John F. Kennedy might well start with the fateful day of his assassination, an event well-known and weighty enough to unite readers in a common bond. Neither Kersey’s person nor his passing—significant though they were—have that kind of pan-readership attraction. Those who lived in Kersey’s presence would nod knowingly, but a random Sixers fan wouldn’t understand yet why they should care beyond the obvious human tragedy.
In context, though, the choice of opening plays out themes that will run throughout the book, defining who Kersey is, and who he isn’t. Eggers speaks of Kersey as a human being, neither mythological figure nor NBA star, though his life surely encompassed both roles. Beginning with Kersey’s death, Eggers weaves humanity into the tale, both Jerome’s and the lives of the people who speak of him. The reader will have to take Kersey’s significance as it came: unapologetically wrapped up in a real person. The stellar NBA career will reverberate through the story; that is why we’re reading after all. The story will not bend wholly to its lens.
Nor, oddly enough, will the reader be waiting for Kersey’s passing as if it were THE moment, the inevitable end that defines a life, reducing it to the poignant and sentimental. The blood clot was real. The words and feelings of Jerome’s wife, Teri Donnerberg, on that day were real. Jerome Kersey was real. Only when we admit this, remaining firmly grounded in Kersey’s reality, can we begin to understand the journey of a man raised by his grandparents next to a nondescript rural farm who proceeded to turn an NBA franchise, and all its expectations, on its ear.
The care shown through this choice, along with the impactful description of Kersey’s last days in the book’s introduction, typify Eggers’ treatment. The author captures the lyric, granular storytelling of David Halberstam’s famous “Breaks of the Game” without the conceit of viewing subject and environment as simply extensions of authorial vision. Halberstam tried to frame what his narrative meant; every name therein served the story accordingly. Halberstam talked about the Blazers. Eggers talks Kersey. The lack of preposition speaks volumes about the book’s approach.
In this style, the best moments of Jerome Kersey shine through. Upbringing gives way to high school and college careers, then to the titanic struggle to get the forward-center noticed by NBA Scouts.
In an era before video and big budgets, scouting was word of mouth, in its infancy compared to today. Eggers chronicles how Longwood Coach Cal Luther had to work through intermediaries to contact Marty Blake, omnibus talent scout for the entire league, then drive Kersey personally to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, just to get him in the vincinity. Kersey wasn’t officially invited. He only got to play because Oregon State product Charlie Sitton had a family emergency. The author describes how Kersey’s notice ultimately centered around a single dunk, observed by Trail Blazers talent guru Bucky Buckwalter, who ultimately greenlighted drafting Kersey.
Stories of how the raw Kersey, all but dismissed from pre-season workouts by the Blazers brass, bulled his way into the final spot on the roster will delight Portland fans. Embedded comments from John Stockton, Jim Paxson, Clyde Drexler, and an innumerable list of contemporaries add color. Eggers runs the paces: how hard Kersey was to control on the court, even for his coaches, how he yearned to go after Larry Bird specifically, how battles with Kiki Vandeweghe for playing time, Xavier McDaniel for reputation, referees for respect, the Pistons and Bulls for a title. Throughout, the pieces you thought were the most important turn out to have been more visible...a significant difference. The reader doesn’t get to know Kersey in manufactured Big Moments, but in a thousand small happenings and asides.
For example, when Kersey joined former Portland coach Rick Adelman for a lone season in Golden State, he entered a lineup replete with well-paid, “name” forwards. Eggers quotes the coach on their reaction to the new addition:
“The players didn’t like Jerome at all,” Adelman says with a chuckle. “He played too hard. He played so hard in practice. Some of those guys didn’t appreciate that.”
Was Kersey a hero, the blue-collar forward taking it to softer contemporaries? Perhaps. Was Kersey also something of a disruptive force, breaking unwritten rules? Probably. Were people supposed to embrace or fear Jerome? Counterpoint: does that matter? Either way, he was going to be himself. For that, people respected and loved him.
Eggers’ Kersey story ends as it begins: with chapters on Kersey’s relationships, personal interactions, and the memories of those around him about a person, not just the basketball star. Anecdotes and quotes continue right up to the final words on Kersey’s funeral, closing the narrative circle. But this time, somehow, we understand...not why Kersey passed, but who, exactly passed.
The final word comes from Kersey’s former frontcourt partner Buck Williams. Together the duo formed one of the most terrifying two-way forward tandems the Blazers have ever fielded. Williams doesn’t talk about the court or Kersey’s professional success, though. He simply offers the observation that, ultimately, Kersey became Portland and that Portland embraced him in rare symbiosis. Then Williams offers the simple conclusion, “I miss him.”