Portland’s Secret Was Well-Kept : Rookie Jerome Kersey Comes Off the Bench to Spark Trail Blazers

Times Staff Writer

You probably have never heard of Jerome Kersey, which is understandable since he spends most of his time sitting on the end of the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench next to the water cooler and towels.

That figured to be where you’d find the 6-7 rookie forward again Sunday afternoon when the Trail Blazers met the Lakers in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series. In the first three games, all Trail Blazer losses, Kersey saw playing time only after the Lakers had built big leads.

So, when Portland Coach Jack Ramsay looked down his bench in the second quarter Sunday and pointed for Kersey, you did a double-take at the scoreboard. The Trail Blazers were only trailing by seven, 30-23, and yet here was Kersey entering the game.


Once he stepped on the court, though, Kersey was not easily overlooked. Playing his first significant minutes of the series, Kersey scored 10 points in 15 minutes and was a major reason why the Trail Blazers’ half-court zone trap was so effective in their 115-107 win.

In his first five minutes of action, Kersey had three steals and helped force several other Laker turnovers. As a result, Portland had a seven-point halftime lead. When Ramsay again went to Kersey and the trap at the start of the fourth quarter, he continued the defensive pressure and also showed some excellent offensive moves.

“He doesn’t get a lot of minutes,” Portland’s Mychal Thompson said, “but he makes the most of them. All year, Romeo has come off the bench to give us a lift.”

Thompson, who has a nickname for all of his Trail Blazer teammates, calls Kersey “Romeo” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. “Well,” Thompson says, “let’s just say it’s because he’s a lover--off the court and on, too.”

Perhaps a better nickname for him would be Unknown Jerome.

Occasionally in the NBA, a little- known player from a small college will find his way onto a roster. That’s the case with Kersey, who played at tiny Longwood (Va.) College, a Division II school with no basketball tradition. In fact, Longwood was an all-girls’ school until nine years ago. The enrollment is still predominantly female, which might be why Thompson calls Kersey “Romeo.”

Obviously, it’s a longshot that any player from Longwood could be drafted in the second round. No doubt when the Trail Blazers made the selection, people around the NBA whispered, “Who’s that.”


Portland assistant coach Bucky Buckwalter had scouted a post-season tournament for top small-college players, and it was there that he found Kersey. Kersey was playing center even though he was 6-7, but something about his style impressed Buckwalter.

“He hit a couple of turnaround jumpers and ran the floor real well, even though he was used to playing with his back to the basket,” Buckwalter said. “It was an unusual situation. Why would a player with his basketball ability to go a former all-girls school?”

Kersey was asked the same question by a group of reporters after Sunday’s game.

“I had a friend who played baseball and he went there,” Kersey said. “We had been together since high school, and it also seemed to be a nice campus. I got a good education.”

But since Kersey had longed to be an NBA player, he had been told many times what a mistake he had made choosing Longwood as his college.

“Everybody said I couldn’t make it to the NBA from there,” Kersey said. “I’m the only guy who’s done it. I think playing in that tournament helped get me exposure. I was told a week before the draft that Portland was interested. I heard New Jersey and Washington were interested, too. I just wanted someone to draft me.”

Obviously, the Trail Blazers are glad they did. Although he played only about 12 minutes a game, Kersey averaged 6.1 points and was the catalyst of Ramsay’s half-court zone trap.

But in the first three games of this series, the Trail Blazers haven’t been in a position to use the trap. They fell behind early in the first two games, and the tempo in Game 3 Friday was such that a trap didn’t figure in Ramsay’s plans.

Portland had to do something Sunday to avoid elimination, so he turned to his “quick” lineup--Kersey, Steve Colter, Sam Bowie, Jim Paxson and Audie Norris.

“I just wait for my opportunity and, when it comes, I try to make the most of it,” Kersey said. “When you don’t play much, you’ve got to be ready.”

In addition to his defensive prowess, Kersey displayed several impressive offensive moves. In a two-minute span early in the fourth quarter, Kersey made two spectacular baskets.

The first came on a tip in from a seemingly impossible angle after Clyde Drexler had missed a layup. Kersey took off from the middle of the key and batted the ball straight up about two feet. It fell through the hoop. A little over a minute later, Kersey drove the baseline and found Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his path. Instead of pulling up for a jump shot, Kersey twisted his body and shot around Abdul-Jabbar, making the basket and drawing a foul.

“Jerome plays uninhibited, but that’s just the way he plays,” Ramsay said. “The easiest scoring play he had--we lobbed him the ball for a dunk--he pulls up for a three-foot shot and misses it by two.

“He’s contributed this year, and he’ll get even better next year.”

That’s providing Ramsay can find him the playing time for him.