A Tribute to Jerome Kersey

Jerome Kersey

Image courtesy of abcnews.go.com.

Many NBA fans under the age of 30 don’t remember Jerome Kersey’s indelible impact on the NBA and the Pacific Northwest. For too many younger folks (myself included), we remember Kersey as a consummate role player on the ’99 Spurs championship squad, that featured several other former stars in the twilight of their respective careers, including David Robinson, Mario Elie, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson and Steve Kerr. Last Wednesday, one of the most durable, unsung players of his era passed away suddenly at the age of 52.

Consider that Jerome Kersey was selected with the 2nd to last pick in the 1984 draft, in what many argue is the best draft in NBA history (the class of ’96 & ’03 still have something to say about this claim). The ’84 draft was no doubt decorated, with Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton all selected in the first round. Durable sidekicks/starters such as Alvin Robertson, Sam Perkins, Kevin Willis and Otis Thorpe played a combined 55 years (Willis accounted for 21 of those years and was the last player standing from this draft, having played as recently as the spring of 2007). Players such as Fred Reynolds, Greg Wiltjer, Anthony Teachey, Tony Costner, Victor Fleming and Eric Turner were all selected ahead of Kersey….each and every one of these players failed to log an NBA minute.

Kersey meanwhile was the 3rd longest tenured player from this draft, outlasting everyone with the exception of Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton. Kersey played 7 more years than the #2 pick Sam Bowie and 8 more years than the #6 (Melvin Turpin) and #8 picks (Lancaster Gordon). Although Kersey was never an All Star, he was the rare specimen who had the size to guard big 3’s on the block (6’7″ 215 lbs) while also being nimble enough to cover 2’s streaking around screens on the perimeter. Remember that Kersey came into the league just 4 years after the 3-point line was instituted. He arrived on the scene in the absolute heyday of the sport. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would own most of the 80’s, only to hand over the reigns of the league to the upstart Detroit Pistons and soon enough, to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

Kersey is best remembered for his incredible 13-year run with the Portland Trail Blazers, during which he never missed more than 19 games in a season. In his first 8 seasons, he never played less than 73 games. He was Mr. Reliable for a team that featured Clyde Drexler in his prime, Kevin Duckworth, Terry Porter and Sam Bowie. He was also a very, very skilled wing and complement to Drexler during his entire tenure in Portland. For 7 straight seasons, from ’86-’87 – ’92-’93, he scored between 10.6 and 19.2 PPG and never averaged less than 6.0 RPG. He also averaged 1.5 SPG and nearly 1 BPG during this time.

Don’t forget, Kersey also went toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan in the 1987 Slam Dunk Championship in Seattle, losing to Jordan in what would be Jordan’s first of back-to-back Slam Dunk championships. Take a look.

To put Kersey’s career in proper perspective, let’s stack up Kersey’s best 7-year stretch above with the best stretches of more recent NBA players.

  • Anthony Mason – Mason was a late bloomer, with his best stretch coming in his age 29 – 34 seasons, during which he averaged between 11.6 and 16.2 PPG and never averaged less than 8.5 RPG.
  • Charles Oakley – Oakley’s best stretch was in his age 23 – 27 seasons (5 seasons) and then again in his age 30 – 33 (4 seasons) seasons with the New York Knicks. During these separate runs he averaged between 10.1 and 14.6 PPG and never averaged less than 8.7 RPG. Oakley couldn’t jump over a roll of toilet paper…he never averaged more than 0.6 BPG in his career. Jerome Kersey averaged 0.6 BPG on 11 different occasions. Kersey had 47 blocks in 72 games in his age 37 season – speaks to how athletic the guy was even in the twilight of his career.
  • Paul Millsap (age 30) – While Millsap is still squarely in his prime, his most recent 7-year stretch is eerily similar to that of Jerome Kersey’s best 7-year stretch.  During the last 7 seasons, Millsap has averaged between 11.6 PPG and 17.9 PPG. He has never averaged less than 6.8 RPG during this span. Millsap has also averaged 1.0 BPG and 1.2 SPG during his career (9 years)…Kersey is at 1.2 SPG and 0.7 BPG. Again, eerily similar. Millsap is a 72.0% FT shooter for his career…Kersey is at 69.0% for his career from the FT line. At 6’8″ 245, Millsap is a slightly bigger and better shooter than Kersey but when you boil down the numbers, their careers look awfully similar (at least through Millsap’s age 30 season). Kersey’s last 10+ PPG and 6+ RPG came in his age 30 season, in ’92-’93. Although, it’s not really a fair comparison given the 20 year difference in medicine, advanced statistics, access to better technology, etc. Plus, Kersey was chasing around Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and James Worthy on a nightly basis for the first 10 years of his career.

For me, I’ll remember Kersey’s twilight years on the San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks. At the time, I was acutely aware that media pundits and analysts held Jerome Kersey in the highest regard and for good reason. He was one of the lynchpins of one of the better teams of his era (the 80’s & early 90’s Blazers) and by all accounts was an even better person. Heck, in his age 37 season (his 2nd season in San Antonio), he started 18 games for the defending champion Spurs. Jerome Kersey was a winner through and through, even in the final full season of his career on the Spurs (Kersey suited up for only 22 games in the ’00-’01 season for the Milwaukee Bucks, his final season in the league).

Like Patrick Ewing, Barkley and Karl Malone, his career neatly overlapped with the most talent rich era of basketball we have ever seen (mid 80’s – mid 90’s). Kersey brought home a ring as a valuable role player on the ’98-’99 Spurs. What if he had been drafted 5 years later…10 years later? We might be talking about Kersey as the Robert Horry of his era and one of the best teammates of all time. Even while playing during the most grueling era of the NBA (pre hand-check, pre post-up rules), he suited up for at least 63 games in each of his first 13 seasons.

As Bill Simmons coined in his book, The Book of Basketball (2009), there were certain NBA players you wanted in your NBA ‘foxhole.’ Jerome Kersey was a guy I wanted in my foxhole.

About Jim Armstrong

Jim is a life-long sports fan and split his childhood between the ‘burbs of Chicago and central NJ, while throwing in a summer living outside of Boston into the mix. This explains his passion for the 90′s Bulls, late 90′s/early 00′s Knicks and late 00′s Celtics (he will explain in a future post). Jim never played a minute of college basketball or football but did complete a Tough Mudder recently and continues to play in basketball leagues year-round. If this doesn’t make him an expert, then I don’t know what does. Jim crunches numbers for a living and enjoys applying these analytical skills to his sports obsessions. In his free time, Jim enjoys spending time with his family, fishing and writing.

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