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Rip City the better for knowing Jerome Kersey
The horrible news took awhile to sink in Wednesday night.
Jerome Kersey, gone? The guy who exuded more energy, life and passion than arguably anyone ever to work for the Trail Blazers? At age 52?
Say it isn't so.
"I woke up," former Blazers guard Terry Porter said Thursday morning, "and thought it was a bad dream."
The more you think about the loss of Jerome Kersey, the more devastating it feels.
It's hard to imagine a Rip City without him, his smile and the Pied Piper-like presence he carried, whether it was just another day at the Blazers office, or one of his countless public appearances on behalf of the team, or just any random interaction he had with fans in Portland and around the state.
As another Blazers legend, broadcasting Hall of Famer Bill Schonely, put it on a very somber Thursday morning: "I knew he was special when he first came to us. He was my friend, he was my buddy, and I'll never forget him."
We all first got to know Jerome Kersey as the relatively unknown but strapping small forward from some place called Longwood College in Virginia. We still don't know exactly where that is -- but, mercy, mercy did we know Kersey.
We all came to love him for his effort and hustle. He was good-looking and fashionable -- and a kamikaze on the court who played with abandon and seemingly little regard for the welfare of his own body.
He played his guts out for Portland from 1984-95, then had stints with five other teams, winning an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs (their first, in 1999) before retiring in 2001.
Then we in Portland fell in love with Jerome Kersey all over again. He easily shifted into the role of friendly, kindhearted, loyal team ambassador who represented the Blazers organization as well as anyone ever has.
Kersey loved being a Blazer. He put great value in being a member of the alumni and a citizen of Portland. All those things were extremely important to him. Family, and people, were extremely important to him.
Like The Schonz, he probably could have run for mayor -- and won.
Kersey earned his place as an icon in Rip City. He had 10,067 points and 5,078 rebounds in a Blazer uniform, and he worked just as hard for the team while wearing a suit and tie.
When other Blazers couldn't -- or wouldn't -- make an appearance or perform some public service, Kersey (and a few other players, Porter notably among them) would. Kersey would do it at the drop of a hat, and not for the photo opp or the kudos or whatever he could get out of it.
"If you needed something he was the first one to do it, he never really said no," Blazers President/CEO Chris McGowan said Thursday, marveling at Kersey's tireless energy at helping out the organization or people in need.
Harry Glickman, the Blazers co-founder who has worn just about every important front-office hat with the team over the years, managed to joke Thursday that he knows of only one person Kersey ever disappointed -- "my 9-year-old granddaughter, who got very upset when he got married instead of waiting for her."
Glickman recalled how the Blazers' two main basketball operations figures at the time, general manager Stu Inman and chief scout Bucky Buckwalter, came upon Kersey before the 1984 NBA draft.
"Bucky insisted that we needed more athletes," Glickman said. "We had Clyde (Drexler), but he thought we needed at least one more guy who could run and jump. Every time Bucky would come back from a trip, we'd have a list (of candidates), but he wasn't that thrilled (with them). But then he went to see Jerome Kersey, and fell in love with him. He said, 'I think he'll be there in the second round, and we've got to have him.' Stu liked another guy, whose name I don't even recall."
On draft day, Glickman's job was to tell the league which player Portland was taking with each pick. When it came to round two, pick No. 46 overall. Inman and Buckwalter were still debating, with Glickman holding the telephone.
"I wish you guys would make up your mind -- we only have 30 seconds," Glickman finally said.
Right then, Buckwalter flatly declared: "We gotta have Kersey."
"All right, damn it, take Kersey," Inman said.
Still, coach Jack Ramsay wondered if Kersey was ready for the NBA, and Glickman said Ramsay asked if "there was any way we can send this guy to Europe for a year."
Kersey would have none of it, Glickman said. "Jerome said, 'Hell, no, I'm going to come to training camp and I'm going to make your team.'"
He made the team all right, in more ways in one. He made that era great, and special.
On Wednesday night, as his former teammates grieved, Porter spoke with Drexler and the other surviving starter of that Blazers era, power forward Buck Williams.
"We talked about that starting five (which included the late Kevin Duckworth at center) and how much Jerome meant," Porter said, "all the intangible things he did for us, what he did for this community, how this community embraced this team and made us all sons, almost."
Porter reckoned that maybe God traded up in the heavenly draft.
"Maybe he was missing an energy guy. Maybe he needs an intangible guy on his team," Porter said.
Kersey played the game harder than anyone I've ever seen truly earning the nickname "Jerome Crazy" with his fearless, attacking, all-out style. And he lasted 17 years in the NBA. You have to be really, really good to do that.
He worked on all facets of his game, and he got better at various things as time went on, while transitioning into an elder statesman on the court. As he got older and lost a lot of his high-flying abilities, he compensated in other ways, such as on defense, while always giving 100 percent and playing a team game.
I've always felt that he was underrated as a player. He could do a lot of things. And he was a fierce competitor who wore his heart on his sleeve and would battle the other side -- even in practice -- to the end.
Kersey just had that charisma, which is one reason why, long after his playing days were over, people loved him so much. And not just the people who had the thrill of seeing him play. Young people gravitated to him, as well.
And, of course, he had the love and respect of his teammates and NBA brethren. That's why the likes of former Blazers Brian Grant, Bob Gross, Steve Johnson, Greg Smith and Michael Harper were at Thursday's press conference.
"Our organization is still in shock," McGowan said. "His legacy is never going to be forgotten."
"He was," Schonely said, "one heck of a guy."