Jess Kersey stood at midcourt at Appalachian State's old Varsity Gym in Boone, N.C., shaking like a leaf before officiating his first professional basketball game, a 1974 exhibition between the Carolina Cougars and the New York Nets of the defunct ABA.
Kersey was so nervous that his initial jump ball toss sailed directly behind him, prompting Nets center Billy Paultz to look down and say, "Man, do you need a lot of work."
Thus began a career that spanned more than three decades, that put Kersey, a Newport News native, front and center for professional basketball's ascent from regional presence to international force.
"It's the greatest job in the world," Kersey said. "You only have to concentrate for two hours-and-a-half. But it was the greatest job in the world. It really was. I wouldn't have ever thought that that's the type of career I would have had, but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Because it was the best."
Kersey's career provided him with many humbling and special moments, none greater he said than this weekend's induction into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
Kersey, 71, is part of a class that includes former Virginia women's coach Debbie Ryan, ex-VCU star and NBA player Gerald Henderson, former Virginia Tech football star and NFL player Antonio Freeman, ex-Ferrum standout and Major Leaguer Billy Wagner, former stock-car racer Ray Hendrick, and former Daily Press sports writer and auto racing scribe Al Pearce.
"Not in a million years would I have ever thought that I would be looked upon by a Hall of Fame committee as a candidate for induction," Kersey said. "It makes everything that I have been involved in in sports and in life that much more special. When that phone call came that I had been inducted, it was very hard to speak. The happy tears were abundant. It was such a special feeling.
"You sit back and take a deep breath and say, wow, all those miles that you traveled, all those games you worked, all the speeches you made and causes that you worked for, it makes it all worthwhile. I feel like I hit the top of the mountain."
Kersey worked the top of the basketball mountain for more than 30 years. He officiated 2,200 NBA games, including 190 playoff games, 19 NBA Finals series and five All-Star games. He witnessed the game's evolution, from Walt Frazier and Bob Lanier, to Kareem, to Magic and Bird, to Jordan, to Kobe and Shaq, and to LeBron.
NBA commissioner David Stern wrote, in a letter of recommendation to the state Hall of Fame committee, "While (his statistics) alone are impressive, the truest measures of Jess's success are the consistent excellence, integrity, and work ethic he displayed in one of the most difficult jobs in all of sports."
Kersey has a thousand stories, some with photos for illustration. He famously separated Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak in the 1986 playoffs, as the Rockets upset the defending champs.
Kersey worked the wild last days of the ABA before the merger with the NBA. He saw Larry Bird and Magic Johnson make everyone around them better and take their teams to championships. He witnessed the entire career of Jordan, who he described simply as "unbelievable."
"To work a game in Chicago Stadium in that era," Kersey said, "you could not hear yourself think. You couldn't hear your own whistle blow, it was so loud in there."
Kersey began blowing a whistle almost by accident. As youth athletic director for the city of Newport News, he officiated games himself because referees were hard to find. Well regarded local official Otis "Cootie" Almond took Kersey under his wing and taught him the basics.
From there, he progressed to high school and then to college officiating in the old Southern Conference, where he was hired, coincidentally, by J. Dallas Shirley — the only other referee enshrined in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
A chance conversation with then-ABA official Joe Gushue got Kersey invited to the league's preseason referees' camp and resulted in a contract offer. He learned the pro game from the likes of Gushue, Norm Drucker, John Vanak and Earl Strom.
"It wasn't my goal to become a professional basketball referee," Kersey said. "But once I got in it, and the veterans I had teaching me, I really wanted to succeed."
Kersey succeeded with a style that was both disarming and serious. He conversed and joked easily with players and coaches, but tolerated little fussing and whining. He admitted his mistakes and moved on, expecting players and coaches to do likewise.
"If I missed more than one call a night, I didn't sleep very well," he said. Of his officiating style, he said, "You have to always let plays start, let plays develop and let plays finish. Then you decide whether or not you have a whistle. You can't anticipate calls."
Son Bryan Kersey, himself a top-shelf college official, admired his father's ability to manage games dispassionately.
"He was always very cool," Bryan said. "Nowadays, people call it poise, but he never seemed to be affected by anything. Jordan was flying through the air, changing hands and shooting it off the other side of the basket, or Julius Erving was shooting that wild, reverse stuff he'd do, and dad just stayed calm and professional. That's the way I try to work games. The best ones make it look effortless, and that's the way he was."
Jess Kersey's officiating career essentially came to an end on the night of April 10, 2007, in Oklahoma City. Corey Maggette, then with the L.A. Clippers, ran over him in a transition sequence when Kersey was unable to get out of the way.
"With me being 5-10 and 160 pounds and Corey being 6-5 and 225 pounds, I did not win that battle," Kersey joked.
Kersey suffered left hip and leg injuries. He underwent hip replacement surgery and, at age 67, was unable to rehabilitate suitably in order to continue officiating.
Four years later, he isn't certain that he'd be officiating today if not for the Maggette collision, but he was still in great shape at the time and said, "I know I could have made 70."
In retirement, he has been able to spend more time with sons Bryan and Todd and dote on his grandchildren. He visited Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time last season, accompanying Bryan who was officiating a Duke game. He attended a game at the Dean Dome, as well.
Kersey also has embraced several causes, one of which, with help from the NBA, funneled school supplies and athletic gear to children in a town in the Philippines. He routinely talks to groups of young officials, trying to pay forward what he learned through the years.
Though one athletic chapter ended, he believes that there are others to come. His Hall of Fame induction, he said, is one big exclamation point.
"It gave me chills, it gave me tears, it made me smile," he said. "It's like the last shot, when you know the play is designed and there's the moment. The ball's in your hands and you either pass it or shoot it, and I guess I can say that I made it."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times