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One For The Books: Kersey's Breakout Game

Wayne Thompson, the original beat-writer for the Portland Trail Blazers takes the fans back to an important point in team history and brings that game back to life with his "One For The Books" articles, which go beyond the box score. This installment of "One For The Books" was taken from the October 2003 issue of Rip City Magazine where Wayne relives Jerome Kersey's coming out party as a Trail Blazer. Once Jerome got the chance to start over Vandeweghe, the rest, they say, is history. Without further ado, enjoy "Kersey's Breakout Game"

By Wayne Thompson

In the fall of 1987, Jerome Kersey was looking for more playing time and a chance to show that he was ready for prime time.

Beginning his fourth season with the Trail Blazers following a solid performance the year before, Kersey had one conspicuous obstacle standing in his path to stardom: Kiki Vandeweghe.

The NBA’s fifth leading scorer (26.9) and top three-point marksman in 1986-87, Vandeweghe wasn’t about to relinquish his starting job; he scored 32,33,26,24 and 41 points in five of Portland’s first seven games and was the league’s second leading scorer when fate intervened.

Back spasms sidelined Vandeweghe on Nov. 20, opening the door for what was to become Jerome Kersey’s breakout season.

Vandeweghe’s nagging back problems (Kiki played only 37 games that season) gave the 6-foot-7 athletic Kersey the opportunity he needed to show Coach Mike Schuler her was ready to take his place among the game’s top small forwards.

Vandeweghe, however, returned to action on Feb. 2. Coming off the bench, Kiki had an immediate impact in his first three games; scoring 85 points in 92 minutes, including a game-high 33-point performance in a 139-123 Blazers win over Seattle.

So the speculation began: Would three-time all-star Kiki Vandeweghe regain his staring position, sending Kersey to the bench?

The day after Vandeweghe dropped 33 points on Seattle, The Oregonian’s Blazers beat writer Dwight Jaynes put the question to Schuler: “You’ve made it clear,” Jaynes asked Schuler, “That you didn’t feel it was fair for a starter to lose his job because of injury.

“So when do you plan to put Kiki back in the starting lineup and send Jerome to the bench?” Jaynes asked.

“I did say that,” Schuler replied, “But this is a little different. There is a certain length of time involved in that. And we’re playing pretty well, so I just can’t see any point in making a change right now.”

That really didn’t settle the issue, though, because it left Vandeweghe and Kersey and Blazers fans thinking that at some point, Vandeweghe, and offensive machine with more than 12,000 points and a career scoring average of 24 points per game, would be starting again at small forward and Kersey would be vying for playing time off the bench.

Then Kersey took matters into his own hands two nights later (Feb. 12) in a game at the Memorial Coliseum against the Denver Nuggets.

Kersey scored 34 points (two points shy of his all-time high) and snared a career-best 20 rebounds to lead the Blazers to a convincing 120-106 win over the Nuggets.

“I remember that game very well,” Kersey said recently. “I felt a lot of pressure with Kiki coming back to claim his spot, but everything worked for me that night. I was beating Denver down the court on fast breaks; I was hitting just about every jump shot I took. The basket looked like the size of a bathtub. It was just one of those nights when you get into a zone and everything goes your way.”

In 40 minutes of action, Kersey connected on 12 of 20 field goals and added 10 of 11 free throws for his 34 points.

Of his 20 rebounds, seven were at the offensive end.

“They want to run, so sometimes they don’t box out on the boards,” Kersey told Jaynes after the game. “I was able to make some plays by being aggressive and keeping the ball alive (for put backs).”

His performance, which included four assists, two blocked shots and two steals, left Schuler feeling confident that he made the right decision by sticking with Kersey as the starter.

“Jerome was so aggressive. He was good all night,” Schuler said. Asked again if Kersey had solidified his hold on the small forward position Schuler answered with a wink: “We need his energy. That’s pretty obvious isn’t it?”

To punctuate Schuler’s reasoning, Vandeweghe, in his 33 minutes off the bench, scored only eight points and thus was losing the battle to regain his starting job.

Kersey blossomed as a starter after his dominating performance against the Nuggets, averaging a career high 19.2 points per game.

Jerome had improved his half-court game and his decision making that season, but he was at his best in the open court where he said, “I can use my speed and jumping ability to my advantage.”

Against the Nuggets he seemed to be everywhere—in the passing lanes, banging bigger defenders for the boards, running the court ahead of Nugget defenders.

He was especially devastating in the fourth quarter, when the Blazers blitzed Denver, 32-17, to break open a nip-and-tuck game.

“I thought we played good,” said Denver coach Doug Moe. “But when we went cold, whammo! They were off and running and Kersey and Clyde Drexler won the track meet.”

Kersey’s offensive explosion overshadowed a brilliant performance by Drexler, who had 29 points on 13 of 18 shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists. Kevin Duckworth also had a breakout game, with 28 points in 29 minutes—all of them coming in the first three quarters.

This was not an easy victory, however. Denver’s Alex English, who spent the afternoon at Portland’s Lincoln High School, reading his own poetry to a student assembly, scored a game-high 37 points, including a near-record 24 points in the third quarter.

Kersey was the victim of some of English’s poetic artistry and he acknowledged that English, one of the NBA’s greatest all-time shot makers, was one of the toughest players he ever had to guard.

“You think you have him cut off, then he shoots under you with a scoop shot, or over you with a quick, pull-up jumper. He has so many slick moves and a quick first step on his baseline drives,” Kersey said.

English scored Denver’s first 14 points of the third period, had two shots blocked by Kersey, then hit two more in a row. He was 10 of 12 in the quarter, prompting Schuler’s praise: “He’s such a great scorer. You know what he’s going to do, but he gets his shot off so quick that there’s not much you can do to stop him.”

If English’s rampage exposed Kersey’s overzealous defensive tactics, it was even worse when Vandeweghe tried to guard him. Never known for his defensive skills or his footwork, Kiki became a target as coach Moe ran play after play for English the minute Vandeweghe entered the game.

That, too, helped solidify Schuler’s decision to keep Kersey in Portland’s starting lineup.

Asked later about Kersey’s defense against English, Blazers assistant coach Rick Adelman said, “Yes, the third quarter was an amazing display of scoring by English and he seemed to get off too many easy shots.

“But the thing is, he takes them against everybody. He just catches and shoots it before defenders can react.” Adelman said.

Adelman, however, also pointed out that English was just 4 of 14 in the first half when the Blazers took a 54-48 lead. And in the fourth quarter, with Kersey back in the game for Kiki, English made an early fourth quarter layup, but then was shut out for the rest of the period.

The Nuggets got a triple-double from ex-Blazer Fat Lever (19 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists)—his league-leading seventh of the season—but his play and English’s scoring were just about all the offensive fuel that Denver had in its tank.

For Kiki Vandeweghe, it was the beginning of the end of his domination as one of the league beset scorers and pure jump shooters. Continually plagued by back problems that eventually cut short his career, Vandeweghe was traded to the New York Knicks the following season.

The Denver game Feb. 12, 1988 was Kersey’s coming-out party—arguably the turning point in a career that was to last for 17 seasons.

It also marked the end of the Kersey versus Vandeweghe debate.

Kiki started only one more game as a Trail Blazer.
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