I was in San Jose, California, volunteering my time as an assistant coach for a local Bay Area high school, and something told me to check my phone during halftime. In a flash, I was saddened by the notification I received on my mobile device.
Jerome Kersey, a legendary staple of the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1980s and 1990s, was dead at the age of 52. Kersey, a second-round selection by Portland from Longwood University in 1984, was a menacing 6’7″ athletic mountain of a man. When I watched the Blazers play, I was always enamored how a dude that stocky could move so well. Kersey was the real deal, and I could do nothing but shake my head at learning of the news.
At that moment, I was reminded of a particular episode of NBA’s Classic Moments that I’d watched on numerous occasions, and I can vividly remember Kersey being in the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest. I remember it for a couple of reasons:
- My grandfather constantly kept ESPN Classic on the television. I’m convinced it helped him go to sleep. As a result, I watched that channel a lot. Mostly because the remote was sometimes wedged in between his leg and the side of the recliner chair and I didn’t feel like getting it to change the channel. Oh, what could’ve been of me.
- The music. Let it be known that while music nowadays is a corporate shill-fest for artists to amplify their brands, the ’80s provided a musically synthesized soundtrack that that made a wayward juvenile like myself feel electrified.
- I wanted to see MJ, ‘Nique and Glide. Formally known as Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler (as well as Terence Stansbury), I was all in for seeing guys I knew could throw down do so in such an exhibition like the dunk contest. Unfortunately, Dominique Wilkins was a scratch due to injury … and that’s how we got Jerome Kersey into the dunk contest.
With Dominique out and no Spud Webb there to defend his title, it looked like the path to another title for Jordan would be significantly easier. That is, until Kersey began to throw down ferocious dunk after ferocious dunk, like Dominique’s spirit jumped into him. A couple of call-outs to mention in regard to the legendary ’87 dunk contest.
- MJ’s dunk contest slams are legendary. In ’87, he brought out the following: Rock The Cradle, Free Throw Dunk, Duck Your Head, Kiss The Rim (2x), 2-hand Reverse Clutch Dunk, Air Jordan Dunk. Yikes.
- Terence Stansbury brought out the “Statue of Liberty” 360-degree dunk on his first attempt!
- Gerald Wilkins did not represent the Wilkins family name all that well in this dunk contest.
- Seriously, Kersey dunked the ball really hard. All the time.
- Clyde Drexler was a notorious copycatter of Jordan’s dunks, only he couldn’t do them nearly as well.
Here’s the beautiful footage of all the (important) dunks in the 1987 Dunk Contest.
A couple of tidbits here …
Jerome Kersey had no chance of actually winning the Slam Dunk Contest over Michael Jordan, as the powers that be would never let that happen. However, it was noted that MJ’s dunks in the ’87 contest, while iconic, were a bit repetitive. From Kersey in an interview with Blazer’s Edge in 2014:
That year I think I did. The thing about that is they said we couldn’t repeat dunks and Jordan ended up repeating the same dunks. It was a good match but actually I think Terence Stansbury should have ended up in the finals against myself.
Kersey would actually go on to lose in the dunk contest four years in a row from 1985-88, with ’87 being his best result. Meanwhile, Jordan’s motivation for winning the dunk contest was noted in an 1987 article in the Chicago Tribune that Jordan notified the team that if he won the contest, he would take the winnings ($12,500 for first place) and give each of his teammates $1,000. Per Bob Sakamoto of The Tribune:
“I could hear ‘Oak’ (Charles Oakley) hollering at the TV, ‘That’s a thousand for me!’ […] I’m doing this because my teammates have been so understanding. There’s been a lack of animosity, and they have all been very caring. They’ve been my teammates and my best friends. They’ve worked so hard this first half of the season and I get all the publicity and credit. These guys deserve something. It’s like a quarterback in football taking care of his offensive linemen. I couldn’t do it without these guys.” — Jordan
There’s no doubt that folks in the Pacific Northwest have sad hearts with the news of Kersey’s passing. Many will remember his time in Portland, and others will look back at his nomadic post-Blazers career that included him winning an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. Still others will remember Kersey for his community service and providing a positive influence for a younger generation of Blazers players. For me, I’ll always remember Kersey for the ’87 Dunk Contest. The nerve of this guy thinking he could channel Dominique Wilkins and win the Dunk Contest over Michael Jordan. Jerome Kersey made me pay attention to him.
RIP, Jerome “Mercy” Kersey.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”