From out of nowhere: Unsung Jerome Kersey leads Blazers into NBA Finals
Editor's note: This story appeared in the June 8, 1992 edition of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
Picture yourself in a 48-foot powerboat on Portland’s Willamette River, with velvet green hills in the background and azure skies, and you'll have an idea of the idyllic afternoon that Portland Trail Blazer forward Jerome Kersey spent last Saturday.
At the helm of The Golden Greek, owned by his friend Nick Raptor, Kersey tooled along the waterway that bisects the city, as he scanned the landscape through designer shades. The sight of him stirred bikini-clad women lying on the sun-splashed decks of other vessels to their feet, while men riding jet skis sped alongside The Golden Greek and raised their fists in salute. Kersey roared past a huge portrait of himself rebounding—elbows out, jaw set—on the side of a five-story waterfront warehouse.
The 6’7”, 225-pound Kersey will probably have to loom similarly large if the Blazers are to succeed in their quest to wrest the NBA title from the Chicago Bulls. True, he is the only Portland starter who has never appeared in an All-Star Game; true, he is the only starting small forward or shooting guard in the Finals who has not been named to the Olympic team; and, true, he makes only walking-around money ($500,000 this season) by the standards of most of his peers. But Kersey is not the type to let himself be overlooked.
From his opening tips against the Utah Jazz's 7’4” Mark Eaton in the Western Conference finals—he won four of the six—Kersey jump-started the Blazers to a series victory with his explosive leaping and relentless effort. Though nary a play was called for him, he averaged 19.5 points on 55.1% shooting. He also had 7.0 rebounds a game.
In the series against Chicago, Kersey will have to be at his best against Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan. Pippen, against whom Kersey will most frequently be matched up, has struggled through parts of the playoffs, particularly against the Knicks' combative Xavier McDaniel. Kersey's style is similar to Brand X. "I know I can't let Scottie run around," he says. "If he does that, he'll kill you. I have to be aggressive."
In the past Jordan has occasionally covered Kersey to get a breather from guarding Clyde Drexler. How much pressure Kersey can apply to Jordan could also be important. "I'm going to make him box me out, make him work on the offensive boards," Kersey says. "If you beat anyone enough, you can start to wear him down. Even Michael."
No one, in the estimation of Portland coach Rick Adelman and Kersey himself, makes more baseline-to-baseline plays than Kersey. His signature play is to run down would-be fast-breakers and swat away their shots from behind. In back-to-back wins to close out the Jazz last week, Kersey had eight blocks.
The 29-year-old Kersey has made a career of appearing out of nowhere. The Trail Blazers are a serious stretch from Kersey's alma mater, Longwood College in Farmville, Va., where in 1983-84 he was the leading rebounder in Division II. Portland selected him with one of its second-round picks in 1984 and kept him as its 12th man because of his boundless energy and raw potential.
"He was a unique player because he was always active on the court," recalls Geoff Petrie, the senior vice-president of operations for the Blazers. Something he wasn't in his first years with Portland was a good shooter, but he helped remedy that by taking 500 jumpers a day during one summer, developing a consistent release point and a more compact form. His touch came around, and Kersey is streaky, but fairly reliable from 18 feet out.
Now Kersey will give the NBA title his best shot. "The people in Portland don't want anything less, and we don't either," says Kersey. "If we don't win it, they're going to say, 'Here they go again.' Despite all of our accomplishments."
So Kersey has visions of taking the Blazers to the ultimate height. "The weirdest dreams I have are the ones where you jump, you float in the air, you do all these things, and you never come down," he says. "It's tiresome; I wake up in the morning and I'm like … whew!" Kersey pauses. "But you know, you've got to believe you can jump that high to have that dream."