Rip City Magazine: Jerome Kersey Q&A
The following interview with the late, great Jerome Kersey, conducted by Rick Metsger, appeared in the April 1993 edition of Rip City Magazine
If he were ever a construction worker, Jerome Kersey would probably be the only man on the job without need of a hard hat. Stubborn, hard-headed, driven -- just three of the words that have been used to describe the playing style of the Blazers powerful small forward.
It has been his relentless pursuit of success that has taken Kersey from a future in a Virginia textile mill, and placed him, instead, in the glow of the NBA limelight.
Rick Metsger: You come from a small town in Virginia called Clarkesville. Just how small is it?
Jerome Kersey: Small. Basically there are just two industries there, and if I hadn’t gotten into basketball, I probably would have ended up working at one of them. I always tried to get a summer job when I was growing up there bagging groceries at the supermarket. But they would never hire me.
Q: Tell me about your family.
A: My parents weren’t married when my mother conceived me. She was very confused at the time, and opted to leave me with my grandmother, Elizabeth, and grandfather, Herman
They raised me as their own until the day I left the nest. They had eight kids of their own, counting my mother. And now, for all the right reasons, I call my grandmother "mom," and I call my biological mother by her first name, just like she was one of my sisters.
Q: When did the move into basketball begin?
A: I got into basketball though my late great uncle, Clifton Kersey. He bad a son, Clifton Jr., and we did a lot of things together. For whatever reason, we always competed against each other.
I admit to this day that he was a better athlete. In school, they used to call him "cannonball" because he was so stocky and strong. There was jealousy there.
His dad treated me like his own son. Clifton Sr. had an upholstery shop and he would give me odd jobs around there. His son never really showed any interest in carrying on the business. I would help him deliver chairs and stuff and he would give me $20.
Q: Maybe that’s why Clifton felt so competitive with you?
A: Yeah, but his dad was great. He organized our first basketball team when we were in elementary school. He set up the games, drove us to the games in his pickup truck, even made all of the uniforms himself. I mean, he financed the whole thing.
Clifton Kersey Sr. was the most prominent person in my life as far as basketball goes. I often think about him because he never got a chance to see me play professional ball in person. He died of a heart attack about four years ago.
Q: You obviously continued your basketball in high school.
A: That’s when I started to grow. I always had to work harder than the next guy because I wasn’t as talented as some people. But I had the ethic to really work hard. I got a lot of that from my grandmother - seeing her go to work at night, even when she was sick.
Q: She raised nine kids and held down a job too?
A: She worked at a candy factory cleaning the machinery. She went to work at midnight and came home at 8 a.m., just in time to get us all off to school.
My dad worked at the local sawmill when I was young. I used to help him on Saturdays with the lumber and stuff. I guess it helped make me stronger. Sunday mornings it was off to the barber.
Q: Sounds like a weekend ritual.
A: It was. I still remember the barber’s name -- Charlie Scott. At 6 a.m. I’d get up, go to Charlie and get my hair cut right down to the razor line. It was the only haircut he knew.
Q: But it probably made you more wind resistant as you drove down the court on a fast break.
A: (laugh) Heck, I played guard all through high school. Clifton Jr. played basketball too, and we competed there also. People would always egg us on. I think we probably had more fights than anyone. Sometimes I think we fought just because we hadn’t fought that day.
We’ve talked about that since I moved into the NBA. Last year, when we played back east, Clifton and I got together and talked about it. It was a very emotional thing. We both cried. It was like we never told each other that we loved each other.
Q: But you say he was the better athlete. What made you successful?
A: I think it was because I kept my head on straight and worked harder. There were days when I would go outside and shovel the snow off the blacktop and then start practicing my layups. People would come by and say, "Hey man, you’re crazy." I just wanted to be better.
Things haven’t changed. I don’t have the most talent around. I have to work harder. There is a lot of talent being wasted in the league. They show it to you now and then, but they don’t give it to you every night. That is something I can’t live with. It just isn’t me.
Q: What happened after high school?
A: I got some college offers to places most people never heard of before. They were basically all small colleges. I remember one time my high school coach got me to visit Winston-Salem and their coach, "Big House" Gaines. The coach and I sat down and he said, "I’1l give you a partial scholarship." I was blown away.
But then Longwood College came along and offered me a full ride. It was only about an hour and a half from home. I liked that.
For me, then, it was school, practice, then home.
Q: That was it?
A: That was it. I didn’t even date. I didn’t go to any proms or anything.
Q: Come on now Jerome.
A: No, really. Nobody ever asked me.
Q: What position were you recruited for in college?
A: That’s the funny part. I was 6-foot-3, 190 pounds when I visited Longwood College. I was going to be a guard, just like in high school. I came back in the fall. and was almost 6-7. The coach looked at me and couldn't believe I was the same guy. "Is that you?" he asked.
Q: Before long, you were on your way to being a two-time All-American.
A: Yes, and that’s when I first thought about the NBA. My coach knew Marty Blake, the NBA scout, and introduced me to him.
He asked me if I ever thought about pro basketball, and I told him I hadn’t. I figured I would play in college and then go back to Clarksville and go to work in one of the industries. But Marty got me in some NBA scouting camps. I played well, and that's where I got started.
Q: Did you think you would be drafted?
A: No one really called me and told me they were interested in me. I heard rumors and that was about it.
Q: It must have been a real thrill, though, when your name was called in the second round.
A: That’s the sad part of the story. I got drafted during the TV commercial! I didn’t even get to hear my name called. They came back with one of those, "While you were away," kind of things. I was the 48th pick-- the last one of the second round -- and I guess they decided that was a good time for a commercial break.
Q: Didn’t they know who they were dealing with?
A: Hey, I was a nobody to them. After the commercial, John Thompson (Georgetown University’s coach), came on doing the commentary for ESPN. When they asked him about me, he just rolled his eyes, slapped his head and said, "Oh no. What is Portland doing?"
Every time I see him now, I slap my head and go, "Oh no. It's you." We just laugh and laugh.
Q: But you still had an uphill battle to make that Blazers team.
A: Tell me about it. Five of us were sent down to San Diego where Coach Jack Ramsay worked us out. After the week was over, he got together with all of us and told us what he thought about our chances. Ramsay told me that I worked hard, but that I wasn’t ready for the NBA. He suggested I take a couple of years, go to Europe or the CBA, then come back and try it again. That just made me more hard-headed than ever.
I went home, worked out real hard, and came back in the fall and said, "Here I am. I’m going to work myself onto this team."
A: Was your stomach up in your throat when the day for the final cut came?
Q: I was real nervous. You know how it is on cut day. You shoot around in the gym keeping one eye on Coach Ramsay and the other on Stu (then personnel director, Stu Inman). If they start moving towards you, you start moving around to another basket to keep ahead of them. It only means one thing, and it’s not good news.
Q: When did Ramsay tell you that you’d made the roster?
A: Actually, he never did. I was in my room the night before the final cut when Bernard Thompson and Steve Colter came in to see me. I was really worried. They told me they’d just been out to dinner with the team psychologist and he had told them I was going to make the team. I didn’t believe it -- told them they were lying. But they said no, he really said that. I remember jumping out of the bed and going over to the window and just staring outside. I remember thinking, "Boy, I’m a long ways from home."
A: Besides earning recognition as a player, Jerome, you’ve also earned a reputation as one of the league’s most dapper dressers.
A: I’ve always liked clothes, but I couldn’t afford them when I was younger. I’ve worked hard to keep fit and have a good body, and sharp clothes help show it off. Basically, my body hasn’t changed over the years, so l’ve started to build up quite a wardrobe.
Q: Speaking of which, I understand you have a shoe collection that would make Imelda Marcos’ collection pale by comparison.
A: (chuckle) You have to keep up with fashion you know. I have about 65 pairs of shoes, I guess. A lot of them have probably only been worn once. It’s a hobby of mine in a way. When I see a pair of shoes I like, I figure I better buy them now or I may not find them again. I’m always on the look out for more.
Q: Might make it hard to ever have a garage sale though. I bet there aren’t that many people with a need for a size 13 shoe in your neighborhood. Any other hobbies?
A: I like boa constrictors. A friend of mine loaned me his for a while. They’re real strong but they’re not poisonous. They just squeeze and I’m strong enough to wrestle with ’em if I have to. But being on the road and stuff, it’s hard to have one of my own right now. I like animals, especially ones that not everyone else has.
Q: You don't have to worry about that. Any other pets?
A: I have a dog, a rottweiler, but again, I have to leave it with a friend during the season so it doesn’t tear up the house or something while I’m gone.
Q: On a more serious subject, I know you and Terry Porter remain active in the Boys & Girls Clubs here in Portland.
A: Yeah, that’s a real special time for both of us. The kids really look up to you and it’s important that they know you care about them. We had an auction on Valentine’s Day that raised over $300,000 for the club, if you can believe that. We have a lot of generous people around here.
I love spending time with the kids. I remember how important that kind of attention was when I was younger. It really makes you feel good inside knowing you can give of yourself. I try to spend as much time with the kids as possible.
We also have an exchange program with other cities bringing kids here to Portland and letting our kids visit other NBA cities. They need that kind of boost, having people make them feel that they’re important.
Q: Now you’re about to enter another playoff season. It’s been rough sometimes this year for the team in many ways. The team has, at times, lacked the fire it has displayed in the past few seasons. Has your time for an NBA championship come and gone?
A: No, not at all. With all the new people we have on the team, I think we’re going to be a whole lot stronger come playoff time.
We’ve had so many lineup changes, people learning how to play with each other, that it’s hard, at times, to get the consistency you need to be successful. But as we work together more, that will come around. We have so many components to this team. We can adjust to a lot of different situations that other teams throw at us.
Q: I’m not so sure that fans are as confident as you are.
A: You have to remember that the other teams are a lot stronger now. We’re the defending Western Conference Champions, and because of that, everyone’s gunning for us. They want to knock us off. That goes with the territory. But I think we’re a lot wiser team now. We know what to expect come playoff time, and I don’t think we’ll be bothered by all the distractions that may have plagued us in the past.
Q: Who are you most concerned about in the Western Conference right now?
A: I think San Antonio. They play an up-tempo game. They have a lot of talent, and they have been playing very well. Probably San Antonio and Phoenix will be our toughest challengers.
Q: I notice you didn’t mention Seattle, although they’ve manhandled you a couple of times already this year.
A: I’m not concerned. Don’t get me wrong, they have a good team, but we really haven’t competed against them all the times we’ve played them this year. They’ve taken the game to us and we haven’t responded like we’re capable of doing. That will not be a problem come playoff time.
Q: Then maybe you can finally go back to Clarksville and show off an NBA championship ring. You might even get hired for that grocery bagging job.
A: (laugh) It’s funny. I go back now, and all those people who wouldn’t hire me before feel like they own me. The same guy still manages the grocery store, and one time last summer, I went in and he told me kiddingly, "You can have that grocery bagging job now, but I imagine you probably don’t want it." I said, "No, not just now. But I’ll let you know if things change."