Jerome Kersey: Diary of a Dunker, 1988

[Kerry Eggers, the veteran Portland-based journalist, author, and keen pro basketball observer, recently published an excellent book on the late NBA great Jerome Kersey. If you don’t have a copy already be sure to order one online. 

But if you want to jog your memory first about Kersey, a NCAA Division II player from tiny Longwood College, here’s a nice mid-career profile penned by another outstanding Portland journalist, Dwight Jaynes. His profile of Kersey ran in the April 1988 issue of Basketball Digest. Here’s to a great player who left us way, way too soon.]

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He was about 17 and, like many youngsters of that age, a little unsure of himself. But one experience stands out in his mind. It was a pleasurable moment to be sure, but a mere prelude to the ecstasy he would feel later when he became more accomplished at the act.

“I knew I could do it,” said Jerome Kersey, remembering that time wistfully. “It was in the gym, after practice. It was one of those timing dunks, a ball that bounced on the rim. But it was flush, with my hand on the top of it. I was so happy I just ran to the locker room. I didn’t even try it again.” 

That day.

But in Kersey’s hands, the slam-dunk shot became an expression—or perhaps an extension—of his personality. It’s his trademark, certainly. And it’s also an illustration of Kersey’s sheer enjoyment of doing his job in his own way.

“A dunk in a game is like, to me, a great release of energy, anxiety, or frustration,” Kersey said. “You know it’s definitely going to be a crowd-pleasing thing. It really gets me pumped. Once you get one, it’s like you want another one, then another one. You get addicted to dunking. 

“At some point, just dunking isn’t enough. Basically, anyone in the NBA can dunk in the open court. Then you want to go up against somebody and dunk it over them.”

Kersey described his first dunk the way Burt Reynolds might describe his first date. So be it. Anyone who ever bounced a basketball soon wanted to dunk it. For most people, it’s impossible.

But if dunking came easy to Kersey, life didn’t. He wasn’t always wanted. “My mother had me out of wedlock,” Kersey said in his quiet, almost shy way. “She moved to Richmond [Virg.], and my grandparents raised me. I call them Mom and Dad.”

Elizabeth and Herman Kersey served as Jerome’s “parents” in rural Skipwith, Virg., population maybe 900. And his grandmother remembers what it was like for Jerome. “He had some tough times,” Elizabeth Kersey said. “The other children gave him a bad time. But we talked a lot about it and prayed a lot. He was always such a real nice kid. He was sort of quiet. He never was a wild kid. And he never caused us any trouble.”

Jerome played football and basketball, and his grandmother remembers football as being his favorite. “But I was afraid he’d get hurt,” she said. “I did, though, give him permission to play basketball.”

And play it he did. Constantly.

“We had a little court near our house,” Elizabeth Kersey said. “And in the winter when it snowed, he would go off there with his little shovel. He was just a little-bitty boy, but he went off with his shovel to clear the snow off the court. He’d work for a long time just to get the snow out of the way, then he’d play basketball the rest of the day.”

At Bluestone High School, Jerome was a solid player, but nothing special. He was yet to achieve his full growth, and he played in the shadow of someone else. “My cousin Clifton was a 5-foot-8 guard,” Jerome said. “He was a good football player, and he eventually went to North Carolina Central to play football.”

In the summer following his high school graduation, Kersey grew 3 ½ inches. He was recruited by tiny Longwood (Virg.) College, which just a few years previously had been an all-girls school. “I was recruited as a guard,” Kersey said. “But by the time I left there, I was playing center.”

After just one season at the NCAA Division II school, it was evident Kersey could play at a higher level. Contacts, perhaps illegal ones, were made. “Through the grapevine, you hear things,” Kersey said. “There were some big schools who wanted me then. I could have transferred.”

But Kersey, loyal to Longwood and doubtful he could sit out the one year necessary to change schools, stayed put. “I have been playing basketball every year since fourth grade,” he said. “It would have been tough not to play. I was a big fish in a little pond at Longwood, and the atmosphere there was good.

“I had always been a hard worker, but Longwood gave me a positive attitude about myself that really helped me. And that gave me an even better work ethic than I already had. I studied hard and kept my head in the books.”

In four seasons at Longwood, Kersey set school records for points (1,756), rebounds (1,162), steals (248), and blocked shots (142). As a senior, he was a Division II All-America selection. 

All of that, of course, meant nothing as far as professional basketball is concerned. Small school all-stars usually last about three weeks in NBA camps. They’re usually too small, too slow, or too unskilled to make it as professionals. Bucky Buckwalter, now Portland’s vice president/ basketball operations, remembers the first time he saw Kersey, in 1984 at a postseason all-star tournament.

“It was at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament,” said Buckwalter, who was then a Trail Blazers assistant coach and scout. “He was amazing. He had so much raw talent. He had the physical ability—the running and jumping ability—to play in the NBA. But he was very unsophisticated. But he loved the game.”

The Trail Blazers spent the No. 46 pick on Kersey in the 1984 draft and brought him into rookie camp that summer. He was impressive right away, but still, this was just a rookie camp. Portland had a set roster going into the 1984-85 season, and it was hard to see a spot for Kersey. 

The eager forward, the Blazers’ decreed, should go to Europe for a year. “Jack [Ramsay, then Portland’s coach] suggested it,” Buckwalter said. “But Jerome wanted to come back to fall camp. He thought he could make the team.”

Kersey remembers the day Ramsay called the summer-league players together to talk about their future. It was a day when Kersey thought his dream had gone up in smoke. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think your skill level is ready for the pro game,’” Kersey said. “It was very disheartening.”

But Kersey never even considered going to Europe. He got Ramsay to concede to let him return to fall camp and then went home to Virginia to go to work. “I really had a transition to make,” Kersey said. “I had been a center in college. But I felt I knew what I could do. This was do-or-die for me. And from the moment [Ramsay] told me that, I think I knew I was going to make it.”

Kersey, of course, did make the Trail Blazers roster that fall. Once he showed up in camp, it was a foregone conclusion that the team just couldn’t cut him. “He had so much potential,” said Rick Adelman, a Blazers assistant coach. “If he had gone to Europe, we would have retained his rights. But once he decided to come to training camp, we knew we couldn’t cut him. We just couldn’t do it.”

Kersey looks back at that first year and knows his game wasn’t even close to the level it has reached  today. “I was definitely rough on the edges,” he said. “But I had that work ethic, and I’ve never stopped working on my game. I play just as hard now as I did then. But I think I play a little smarter now.”

Kersey averaged 6.1 points per game as a rookie and improved in each of his first three seasons. Last year, he became the team’s trusted sixth man, depended upon to come off the bench to add an emotional lift on offense and defense. 

He played in 82 games and averaged 12.3 points. In the eight games he started, Kersey averaged 17.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 37.9 minutes per game. Along the way, he became a big fan favorite—for the dunks and for his all-around hustle. 

Kersey moved into the starting lineup this season and has made the most of his increased playing time. At midseason, he was averaging 19 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals per game.

Coach Mike Schuler has been toying with the prospect of starting Kersey this year—at big forward. While small forward is his natural position, Kersey is ready to contribute any place he’s needed. 

“Everyone likes to start,” he said. “But I know now that if I get my consistent playing time—whether I start or not—I’m going to do what I do best.”

And there isn’t too much doubt what he does best. Kersey’s outside shooting has improved during the past four years, but he’s still always fighting to get to the basket. 

Kersey won the Blazer Slam-Dunk Classic in 1986, defeating such sultans of slam as Billy Ray Bates, Clyde Drexler, and Spud Webb. Then he broke into dunking’s big time with a runner-up finish to Michael Jordan in the 1987 NBA slam-dunk championship during All-Star Weekend in Seattle. 

But the dunks in games, dunks when creativity and power combine for big baskets that help turn games around, are the ones that mean the most. “I have two dunks that I really remember,” Kersey said. “Well, maybe four or five.

“I remember one in a game two years ago against Utah when I was just going to lay the ball up. But Fred Roberts was coming at me from an angle. I went up to lay it in and then pulled it back and dunked it backward. I didn’t even know ahead of time what I was going to do.

“There was another one last year against Dallas, when I was up a lot higher than I thought, pulled the ball down, and then went up and dunked backward. It was totally a surprise to me. It was situational. 

“I was pumped up for the rest of the night.”

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