Behind the scenes: Blazers pay tribute to franchise legend Jerome Kersey
PORTLAND, Ore. -- "Crisis management" has become a sports fixture in the social media age, a term that comes up every time there's an ugly off-the-court incident or a regrettable Twitter post. But how does an organization respond when confronted with a true crisis, like the shocking death of a team employee who also happens to be one of the most popular players in franchise history?
Last week, the Portland Trail Blazers found out. The phone rang, just like in the movies, and the voice on the other end confirmed the devastating news. Jerome Kersey, a Blazers icon and fixture in the Portland community, had died suddenly, just hours after leaving his office at the team's Northeast Portland headquarters. Now what?
Blazers president Chris McGowan received that nightmare call last Wednesday, shortly after media reports first indicated that Kersey had died. McGowan and his staff had already been deluged with requests for comment, but they were totally blindsided. They hadn't officially heard word from Kersey's family or the local area hospital about what had happened, and they were forced to react to vague, but unequivocal reports appearing online.
Kersey served as the Blazers' director of alumni relations—tasked with coordinating public appearances with his fellow former players—and he worked at the team's headquarters. Shortly after seeing Kersey on Wednesday afternoon, Portland's VP of corporate communications Michael Lewellen took his own nightmare call while standing in line at a local grocery store. One minute he was ordering soup; the next minute he was trying to process the death of his coworker.
All the franchise knew for sure at that point was that Kersey had been in his office earlier that afternoon, but it became clear in short order that the reports were not a hoax. Equally clear: Kersey's impact in Portland, which began when he was drafted in 1984 and carried on well after his retirement in 2001, required immediate and significant action. "You find out that you just lost a friend, and there's the emotional, shock side of things," McGowan said. "Then you realize that he's such a special person in this organization that you've got to ramp up."
The Blazers' communications team and human resources officials quickly assembled at the team's offices in Northeast Portland, and began following the organization's predetermined protocol. Like most large companies, the Blazers have a detailed blueprint to follow in the event that a tragedy occurs involving a player, employee or other official related to the organization. "You can't 'crisis manage' the sincerity [of your organization's response], but you can 'crisis manage' the process," Lewellen said. "We have a plan for all types of crises, so we are prepared. But there's no practice."
The top priority was making contact with Kersey's wife, Teri, which eventually happened thanks to the help of Terry Porter, Kersey's former teammate and close friend. Once the news of Kersey's death had been confirmed, the Blazers waited to ensure that Teri Kersey had enough time to contact other family members around the country. Once those notifications took place, the organization felt ready to confirm the death with a company-wide email, sent by Lewellen, and a formal press release. Both Porter and Teri Kersey approved of the press release's text before it was sent out to the media.
McGowan also made contact with Paul Allen, who had owned the Blazers since 1988. Allen was in his now-familiar courtside seat back when Kersey was the starting small forward on Blazers teams that advanced to the 1990 and 1992 Finals. According to McGowan, Allen's initial reaction was "shock, just like everyone else." Allen's directive to his staff was straightforward: make sure the organization was doing whatever it could to support Kersey's family. “Today we lost an incredible person and one of the most beloved players to ever wear a Trail Blazers uniform,” Allen's prepared statement read. “My thoughts and condolences are with the Kersey family. He will be missed by all of us. It’s a terrible loss.”
• MORE NBA: Classic photos of Blazers legend Jerome Kersey
As Blazers players, including All-Star guard Damian Lillard, expressed their condolences on Twitter that night, the management team was already hard at work conceptualizing a tribute. Unfortunately, the Blazers have found themselves mourning far too often in recent years. Kevin Duckworth, the center of those early-90s teams, died in 2008 of heart failure. Legendary coach Dr. Jack Ramsay died last year after battling cancer. Dale Schlueter, a member of the original 1970-71 Blazers, also succumbed to cancer last July. In a scary scene last November, a fan suffered a medical emergency during a Blazers game and was rushed to a hospital, where she died. Kersey's death hit particularly close to home for Lewellen, whose son, Elliott, died suddenly in 2008 at the age of 21 after suffering cardiac arrest.
Even though they hadn't had any time to process the events, the clock was already ticking. The Blazers were poised to exit the All-Star break, with their first game set for Friday in Utah. Blazers officials knew they faced a hard deadline: their next home game, Sunday night against the Grizzlies. Logistically, whatever they wanted to do would need to be accomplished in two business days -- Thursday and Friday -- or by using vendors that were capable of delivering on the weekend. More importantly, whatever they did would need to resonate with Kersey's family and with thousands of fans who had encountered Kersey throughout his time in Portland.
"We wanted to honor his legacy and make it authentic for fans," Lewellen said. "Something that could be pulled off tastefully and something that fans could connect with during an emotional time. You don't want to go over the top and you don't want to shortcut, either."
The franchise's Twitter account began getting flooded with messages from fans, describing their interactions with Kersey, whether it be at an autograph, a selfie in the arena, or a random encounter at a mall or a coffee shop. The Blazers' managing editor of content and social Kris Koivisto found himself reading the messages and sharing the sentiment as he looked back on pictures taken with Kersey during promotional road trips around the state of Oregon. Even in small towns like John Day—population less than 2,000—Kersey would be mobbed by fans when he appeared at a Lions Club meeting or an elementary school gym.
Koivisto, like many Portland fans in their late 20s and early 30s, had grown up watching the early 1990s Blazers. Then, on the road trips, he listened as fans across the state welcomed Kersey with the words "Mercy, Mercy, Jerome Kersey," the famous catchphrase coined by longtime Blazers broadcaster Bill Schonely. Koivisto marveled at Kersey's determination to throw down a dunk every year on his birthday, noting that the 17-year pro could still get up enough to complete the task at age 50.
"Eight years ago I met Jerome Kersey for the first time, and soon after I confidently told friends and family that we were boys," Koivisto wrote on Facebook. "Later I came to find he had that same effect on everyone he encountered -- which is a very rare gift. Anyone who spent more than five minutes with Jerome truly believed they were his friend. And they probably were. There are very few people in the world like that. It still hasn't hit me that he's gone."
Tears were shed by team employees on Wednesday night and McGowan could feel the collective shock in the office on Thursday. There were signs that Kersey had indeed passed away -- his office was empty, condolence flowers began arriving at the reception desk—but everyone was too stunned to make sense of things. Grief counseling was made available to all employees and it was decided that Kersey's office would remain untouched. A formal press conference involving Porter, Schonely, McGowan and Blazers founding president Harry Glickman took place Thursday. "He was the best teammate you could have," Porter said, as he tried to keep his composure. "He would run through walls for you. He got every ounce out of his talent that was humanly possible."
So many flowers piled up from fans that the organization decided to construct a makeshift memorial in front of the Moda Center's main fountain. Kersey's jersey and a large, framed photo were put up next to the organization's "Rip City" sign. By Thursday afternoon, multiple outlets were reporting that Kersey had died after blood clots in his leg traveled to his lungs, causing a pulmonary thromboembolism. Blazers GM Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts addressed the media at that time. By Friday, Teri Kersey had posted her own tribute on Twitter, writing simply: "I miss you."
Longtime Blazers writers were as stunned as the team's employees and fans. CSNNW's Dwight Jaynes, who had covered the Blazers throughout Kersey's tenure, remembered when the Longwood University product first broke into the league was dubbed "Jerome Crazy" by his teammates because he was so out of control. "He was always trying to jump over people," Jaynes said. "He took some really bad falls along the way because he was always trying to pull off some death-defying play." Over the years, Kersey's energy and athletic ability would make him an invaluable contributor—as he ranks fifth in franchise history in scoring and third in rebounding— and it even led him to participate in multiple Slam Dunk Contests. The Oregonian's Jason Quick would rank Kersey, who spent 11 years with the Blazers, at No. 8 in his rundown of the Top 40 Blazers of all time in 2010.
The memories poured forward for Jaynes, who fondly recalled Kersey's physical battles with the likes of Xavier McDaniels. Jaynes called Kersey "the best chasedown shot-blocker I've ever seen," and told his favorite story, about how Kersey was so elated when he signed his first big contract with the Blazers that he called Jaynes to share the good news. Jaynes, who regularly sat side-by-side with Kersey on post-game television show panels in recent years, received text messages from his children this week, reminiscing about the time Kersey had come over to their house, wearing green snakeskin shoes, to watch one of the Wrestlemanias on pay per view. "I feel like all those guys were my sons," Jaynes said. "I feel like I've known Jerome since he was a kid."
Kerry Eggers, a writer for the Portland Tribune, also covered the bulk of Kersey's career. "[Kersey] was great for the camaraderie and chemistry," Eggers said. "He would do all the little things because no plays were ever run for him. He had to score on the break and putbacks. [Former Blazers coach] Rick Adelman joked that they would just throw the ball at the rim sometimes because Kersey, Buck Williams and Clyde Drexler were such good offensive rebounders." Eggers penned an extended, heartfelt essay about Kersey this weekend.
Multiple NBA teams held moments of silence for Kersey, and remembrances came in from the likes of TNT's Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, and Adelman, who called Kersey a "warrior" who "never quit." Drexler, the face of those early-1990s teams, told Jaynes that Kersey "was the greatest guy, the nicest friend, teammate and brother." In a scary coincidence, Heat forward Chris Bosh was also diagnosed with blood clots on his lung last week and ruled out for the season. Even Cavaliers forward LeBron James noted the eerie timing.
Online, "#JK25" became a popular hashtag, with fans sharing photos and stories on various social networking sites. One great find: a full-page newspaper spread from the early 1990s that ran down Kersey's stats, his favorite play and his strengths and weaknesses. "We wrote so much on those guys," Eggers said, looking at the spread more than 20 years after it was published. "They were such a quality group of guys and Kersey was right at the top."
Internally, tribute preparations continued as the weekend approached. Members of the Blazers' broadcasting team, legal department, game operations staff, building operations staff, basketball communications, player relations and the marketing department all joined McGowan to mull over the plans. The eventual fruits of their labors were overwhelming in their breadth.
A young Kersey, wearing a white jersey, graced the cover of the game program.
The Blazers lined up roughly 20,000 black and white placards that read "JK25" -- Kersey's initials and jersey number -- on one side and "Mercy Mercy" on the other. A placard was placed on every seat in advance of Sunday's game.
Black patches with "JK25" in white letters inside a red ring were added to Portland's jerseys and worn by McGowan and his executive team on their suits. Commemorative t-shirts were worn by the players and coaching staff during warm-ups and the Blazers all wore black socks. Guard Steve Blake even changed his jersey number from No. 25 to No. 5 for the rest of the season—with NBA league office approval—out of respect to Kersey.
A team of Blazers employees, headed by Director of Production Billie Olson, began planning a video tribute on Thursday, and they were still grinding away on Saturday night. McGowan provided oversight, while director of game operations Todd Bosma gave his creative input. All told, 10 to 12 employees pitched in, weighing key questions like how the video should balance Kersey's playing career or his post-retirement involvement in the community. Porter's emotional comments at Thursday's press conference became a must-include addition, as did Schonely's memories of Kersey. The video was viewed as the centerpiece of Sunday night's game presentation.
"The stuff on the court was only a small part of what he did," Olson said. "We wanted a mix of basketball and community. It was really important for us to convey how important he was to Rip City. How he was so much bigger than the player -- because people fell in love with him. We wanted to show how big he got."
Personal efforts emerged alongside the corporate work. Before Sunday's game, Teri Kersey, wearing a black dress, quietly entered a Moda Center elevator, accompanied by a team staffer. The elevator's operator, seated next to the control panel, pushed the "door close" button and slipped Teri Kersey an envelope that read, in careful writing, "To the family of Jerome Kersey." She nodded her thanks and carefully placed the card in her black purse.
Before the player introductions, public address announcer Mark Mason held a 25-second moment of silence for Kersey, referring to him as a "beloved figure" and a part of the "nucleus" of Portland's Finals teams, as a graphic showing Kersey dunking a basketball and smiling at a community event flashed on the jumbotron. The crowd—some of whom wore Kersey throwback jerseys and carried signs that read "Win it 4 Jerome" and "Mercy, Mercy, there's no one like Kersey"—erupted in cheers after the moment of silence.
Then, in the night's most emotional sequence, the JumboTron played video of Kersey singing the National Anthem in 1989.
Teri Kersey clutched her chest during the anthem, as captured by Portland photographer Bruce Ely.
Finally, midway through the first quarter, it was time for the tribute video. The comments from Porter and Schonely ran alongside highlights from Kersey's career, including a thunderous dunk against the Lakers. Images of post-retirement Kersey dancing alongside the cheerleaders and interacting with fans followed. Then, footage from an old interview in which Kersey declared: "It's just been a love fest with this city, and I guess I've been transplanted as an Oregonian." The video ended with "Jerome Kersey: 1962-2015" remaining on the screen for an extra beat as Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You" played at low volume over the sound system.
"I thought it went great," Olson said, after watching the video on the screen along with the sellout crowd of 19,782. "You can tell based on the noise level of the crowd. Sometimes there's chit chat, but I didn't hear a lot of talking. People were very engaged."
The contrast in sound became fully apparent once the tribute closed: Mason announced that Arron Afflalo was set to check into the game and the newest Blazers player, acquired from the Nuggets at the trade deadline, received a loud standing ovation. Only then was it clear how silent the arena had been during the extended video.
And so the show went on, albeit without Kersey there to smile with fans on the concourse or to gripe about the lack of toughness in the modern NBA. Various shows went on around the building. McGowan returned to shaking hands around the arena and getting to work on plans for a public remembrance. Lewellen went back to managing media requests and coordinating interviews. Koivisto repeated how stunned he still felt, before covering the night's action from media row. Jaynes lamented the Blazers' lack of Kersey-like energy before taking his customary seat on CSNNW's set, without Kersey there to flank him. Many in attendance wondered whether Kersey's No. 25 jersey might soon be retired.
Although the Blazers lost to the Grizzlies 98-92, the fans didn't leave empty-handed. As the crowd streamed up the stairs to the concourse in relative silence, Blazermaniacs of all ages clutched their "JK25" placards.
"Jerome Kersey was the superstar and the legend," McGowan said. "But he was also the guy in the office every day, earning the respect of his coworkers. He never said 'No' when it came to representing the Blazers. We wanted to do the tribute the right way."