He played college ball at Longwood College in Virginia, by no means a basketball powerhouse. Longwood really isn't a powerhouse of any kind. The only other notable alumnus of Longwood College is Jason Mraz and he never even went to classes. ["Longwood College, home to NBA legend Jerome Kersey and Jason Mraz's fleeting intention to attend classes."]
In 1984, in the second round, the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Kersey. The second round of the draft is a trip to Goodwill; sometimes you find something worth keeping, but mostly you don't. The Blazers didn't know what they had in Kersey—at 6'7” and 215 pounds, he was undersized and considered a long-shot to make the team. Kersey made the team, and with a line-up that included ball-dominant guards Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler, Kersey found his fit on the team by playing a rugged brand of ball. He scrambled. He struggled. Struggle never made Kersey bitter. He was one of the kindest men I've ever met.
Success can make a person entitled and cold and Jerome Kersey certainly had his share of success. He was a pivotal piece of one of the most iconic eras of Blazers basketball. His hustle helped the team get to the finals in 1990 and 1992. Any reasonable person would gleefully proclaim that Jerome Kersey was a legendary figure in the franchise's history, not only for what he did on the court—and he's all over the team's record books (fifth in all-time scoring, third in steals, eighth in assists, third in rebounds, sixth in blocks)—but also for what he did off the court.
Kersey was an ambassador for the team, both in title and in spirit. Kersey wasn't from Portland, but he made his home here. The team used to practice at the Jewish community center where I went to preschool. According to my mom, he was sweet and engaging with the kids, the parents, and the old Jews who had no idea who he was. He's a Blazer who stayed after his basketball career was over, which is so rare, and he didn't just stay in Portland, he became a part of Portland. You would see him at games, ducking into the frame of a fan's cellphone camera. He was a fixture in the community, speaking at schools, colleges, Boys and Girls Clubs. He was an important person by any metric, but he never carried himself like he was more important than anyone else. Success can make a person entitled and cold, but success never made Kersey entitled and cold. He was one of the most welcoming, egalitarian men I've ever met.
I shared a desk with Jerome Kersey on the Blazers post game show Talkin' Ball for about two years. We didn't work together until my third show, and when I found out he was going to be on the panel, I was as nervous as I've ever been in my life. You grow up in awe of your favorite athletes, they almost don't seem like real people. They exist on television, they emerge from the depths of the arena and gift you with the spectacle of their athleticism, they give us frame to dress with meaning and community, and then they disappear back into the tunnels. When you're a kid, the players exist in your imagination, epic figures who you inhabit as you dribble recklessly in front of the hoop thats positioned at the base of your cul-de-sac, or as you drift off to sleep.
When I met Jerome Kersey he was... well, normal. He was down-to-earth and earnest and conversational and then the cameras started rolling and I actually made him laugh and it remains one of the coolest moments of my life. We saw each other regularly over those next couple years, at games, in the studio, and he always remembered details about my life. He asked how my career was going, how my family was doing. Jerome Kersey made me feel special. Then I found out Jerome Kersey was like that with pretty much everyone he met. He made everyone feel that special and I don't know if I can adequately express how much that means, how massive a gift of a human being he was.
If you look at sports with too much logic or rationale it begins to seem ridiculous, right? It's just a bunch of genetic freaks wearing our team's laundry in exchange for unthinkable paychecks. Whether the Blazers go 82-0 or 0-82, it doesn't really change the way the world turns. Fandom is easy fodder for the cynical. Still, right or wrong, sports fans pour so much of themselves into their teams. The hope that exists at the beginning of every season is a tangible hope, it wont pay your mortgage, but it might make your house a warmer place to live. It might give you something in common with your neighbors. Our culture is splintered and specialized and commonality is so fleeting and rare. Portland is a tug-of-war between broke hipsters and rich Lake Oswego boat owners and rich hipsters and broke Beaverton cell-phone salesman and transplants and fifth-generation-and-can't-wait-to-tell-you-about-it drunks and sometimes all we have in common is wet socks and the Trail Blazers and that's enough.
We pour so much of ourselves into sports, and Jerome Kersey was the rare, rare, so very rare athlete who gave of himself right back. I'll miss him so much. The city will miss him so much.