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Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Jerome Kersey (center) was seemingly everywhere as a Trail Blazers ambassador, representing the team in the community. Here, he shares a moment with fans at the 2013 Special Olympics Oregon event.When I got the call Wednesday night that Jerome Kersey had passed away, I was at my family vacation home in Lincoln City.


My first thought: It can't be.

And then, the irony. When Kevin Duckworth died seven years earlier, I was also taking a few days off at Lincoln City.

A flood of memories came to mind as I tried to fathom the loss of Kersey on a personal level.

I covered the Trail Blazers as a beat reporter for three seasons, beginning with the 1989-90 season, Rick Adelman's first full season as head coach.

Kersey already was established as a starter and key cog on a team that would serve as the premier team in the Western Conference for the those seasons, making it to the NBA finals in 1990 and '92. The 1990-91 team, though, was the best, winning 63 regular-season games. I truly thought those Blazers would give Portland its second world championship, but they were shanghaied by the Los Angeles Lakers in the West finals.

When a reporter is covering a team on a regular basis, the professional and personal relationships with the coaches and players become blurred. It was especially true with that group from 1989-92. It was a rare collection of great talent and wonderful people, and Kersey was at the top of the list.

I remember the camaraderie of that group, the "us-against-the-world" mentality they fashioned as a means of bonding together toward their unified goal to win a title. Kersey was at the center of all of it -- an important player, and a "glue" guy as a personality, as teammate Buck Williams calls him.

Kersey and I had a couple of tense moments about stories in which I had been critical of his performance -- I don't remember the specifics -- but the antipathy never lasted. We enjoyed a great professional relationship that somehow became more than that through the years.

Only once in four decades in the sportswriting business have I invited a player whom I covered to my house for dinner. It was Kersey, in 1994. He brought his girlfriend and their infant daughter, Kiara, and we enjoyed a nice evening, much to the delight of my three young sons. The youngest, Drew, recalls it as "one of my greatest memories as a kid," a time when he went through the neighborhood telling anyone who would listen about Jerome Kersey's special visit.

Kersey's teammates often kidded him about his alma mater, Longwood College, being a women's college. It was true to a point. Longwood had been a female-only school through the years until 1976, four years before Kersey began his storied career there. He took the ribbing in stride.

The Blazers had two nicknames for Kersey in those years. One was the "Rundown Man," for his penchant for hustling downcourt to block a shot from behind of an unsuspecting opponent going up for a breakaway layup or dunk.

The other was "Romeo." I always thought it was a hybrid of his first name and the fact that he was a young guy enjoying the fruits of his bachelorhood.

The latter "is where 'Romeo' came from, trust me," says long-time teammate Clyde Drexler with a laugh. "He was happily single for many years."

Kersey was never the focal point of the Blazers in those years -- Drexler and Terry Porter got the most headlines -- and he rarely had offensive plays run for him. Kersey scored mostly off hustle plays and putbacks and finishing on the fast-break, the latter in which he was one of the best around.

"He was fantastic in the open court, very James Worthy-like," says Bucky Buckwalter, who served as general manager and director of player personnel during Kersey's time in Portland.

Small forward was a strong position in the West in those years, and his battles with such as the Lakers' Worthy, Phoenix's Tom Chambers, Eddie Johnson (with both Phoenix and Seattle) and San Antonio's Sean Elliott were fierce.

The rivalry I remember, though, is with Seattle's Xavier McDaniel. "The X-Man" and Kersey didn't like each other -- familiarity breeds contempt -- and made no attempt to hide it. They went at it tooth and nail several times in 1989-90 and 1990-91, coming to blows on more than one occasion. McDaniel was tough and intimidating, but there was no backdown from Kersey, who gave as well as he took.

Kersey raised his game to another level when the chips were down. He was sensational during the playoffs several times during those three seasons, leading the Blazers in scoring in 16 games and in rebounds in 16 games while providing the intangibles that were a given.

He was at his best during the 1990 playoffs, going for 25 points and 16 rebounds in a series-opening victory over San Antonio, then 29 and 11 in a Game 2 win over Phoenix in the conference finals. Kersey went for 34 points in a Game 2 triumph over Utah in the 1991 West semifinals and scored 29 in a crucial Game 5 win over the Jazz in the West finals the following year.

"He was an armored car with a Ferrari engine," says Geoff Petrie, the Blazers' general manager following Buckwalter, and indeed Kersey was, a blend of muscle and strength with lickety-split legs and a hustle button that never turned off.

I wrote several stories on Kersey following his Portland days and into retirement. Last September, Jerome and his wonderful wife Teri allowed me into their Lake Oswego home for a story on her 10-year battle with multiple sclerosis. She had recently decided to come public with the disease, with the encouragement of her husband.

Jerome, she told me, "has been a huge support. … there have been days when he has literally picked me up and carried me. He's a nurturer. When I'm not feeling well, he's at his best."

I thought that was a suitable metaphor for Kersey's role as a teammate. When he was needed most, Kersey was often at his best as a player.

Kersey never spoke to me in a condescending way, as is the case with some professional athletes who consider them in a superior position to just about everyone. A conversation would include my thoughts, not just his. He was always interested in another opinion, and always willing to offer his. No question, he enjoyed a good debate.

In recent months, we had appeared several times together on Comcast Sports Net Northwest's "Talking Ball" postgame show. It was fun to reconnect with him on a personal basis. And I noted how well he dealt with an admiring public, shaking hands, exchanging chit chat, signing autographs, posing for pictures, flashing his famous smile.

Many of the Blazers of Kersey's era enjoyed unusually long NBA careers. Kersey, Williams and Terry Porter all played for 17 seasons. Chris Dudley went for 16, Drexler for 15, Wayne Cooper 14. Cliff Robinson lasted for 18 NBA campaigns.

The common denominator was -- along with extraordinary talent -- hard work, determination and an ability fit into a team framework. Kersey was at the top of the list in those categories.

The current Blazers will wear a "JK" patch on their uniforms for the rest of the season. It's a fitting tribute.

But the organization should do something else to honor its fallen warrior. Kersey's No. 25 should be retired and flown in the rafters.

Though he wasn't really a numbers guy, Kersey's name is among the top 10 in franchise history in most meaningful statistical categories -- fifth in scoring, second in rebounds, third in steals. He ranks second behind Drexler in games played. He was a key member of some of the most successful teams in Trail Blazer history.

"His body of work speaks for itself," Williams offers. "He's one of the top players to ever put on a Trail Blazer uniform."

"Jerome's number absolutely should be retired," Drexler says. "Please quote me on that. For what he did as a player, and after he retired. I always called him 'Mr. Portland Community.' He never left the city."

It's too bad Kersey isn't alive to hear the wonderful tributes paid to him by those who knew him best. My hope is, in his heart, he knew what his status in Portland was. One of a kind. Never to be forgotten.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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