Jerry Abernathy, one of the most important players in Brandon University Bobcats men’s basketball history, died Monday at age 66 after a long battle with cancer.
A six-foot-10 product of Brooklyn, N.Y., Abernathy played four seasons with the team from 1978 to 1981. His former head coach Jerry Hemmings said the three-time Great Plains Athletic Conference all-star helped turn the program around with his shot-blocking and rebounding.
"Jerry Abernathy was really the foundation for our program and the good Bobcats teams to follow," Hemmings said. "That first year when he came in we were 9-27, and then all of a sudden with Big Ab we went from the outhouse to the penthouse all in one year because the next year we were 27-9.
"He was a difference maker, he was a great defender, shot blocker, an extraordinary rebounder."
The interesting thing is that Abernathy wasn’t even the player that Hemmings was recruiting in November 1977. The team was struggling, and the player Hemmings was looking at turned him down because he wasn’t interested in moving that far.
As it turned out, he did something even better than coming. He put Hemmings in touch with Abernathy, and the big man was in Brandon’s lineup for the second term of the 1977-78 season.
Variously known as "Big Ab," "Abbey" or "The Eraser," Abernathy said in a 2009 speech after being inducted into the Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame that Hemmings had told him Brandon was just outside Winnipeg. The New Yorker remembered his first ride with his coach to the Wheat City.
"We get in the car and we start driving and he said we kept driving and all of a sudden there’s the halfway tree," Hemmings remembered Abernathy saying. "He remembered all these years later the halfway tree. I’m from New York City and deer are crossing the road and it’s in the middle of winter-time."
The team briefly put him in the Beaubier Inn while they found housing for him, and deadpanned that suddenly the big city guy was scared.
He had an immediate impact on the court, leading the team in rebounding all four seasons he played, setting a Bobcat record with 29 rebounds against the Lakehead University Thunderwolves.
Abernathy averaged 17.3 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots per game in his first full season in Canada, 1978-79, scoring a career-high 38 points against the University of Winnipeg Wesmen.
"He told me many times ‘Coach, you don’t need to run the offence through me. Let me rebound the basketball and outlet the fast break and block shots and I’ll be happy,’" Hemmings recalled. "We had guys like Fred Lee with us then, Jude Kelly, Keith Streiter, so we had a really good team."
In his third season, the Bobcats lost in the national championship game in 1979-80 and Abernathy was named a tournament all-star.
Kelly played three seasons with Abernathy.
"He was six-foot-10 but on the court it seemed like he was seven-foot-10," Kelly said. "He had long arms and he had great timing."
Kelly chuckled when he said that Abernathy would get upset with his teammates if they didn’t gain possession of the ball after one of his many shot blocks, which he always punctuated with the words "Got it!" Even though they were guarding their own men, Abernathy’s words instantly sent them in pursuit of the ball.
An honourable mention all-Canadian in 1979, he was named to the all-Canadian second team in 1980 and 1981.
"He was an ambassador for us on and off the basketball court," Hemmings said. "I can’t remember one person having a bad word to say about Jerry Abernathy."
One year the Bobcats put a float in the Christmas parade, and they dressed him up with a bonnet on his head and put him in a giant carriage as the world’s largest baby.
"He was that kind of guy," Hemmings said. "He was an outstanding person both on and off the court."
Abernathy wore size 19 shoes and loved to visit schools for assemblies, where kids would sometimes put drawing paper on the floor and trace his shoes.
Since winter boots were hard to come by in his size, a First Nation artist made him a custom pair of moccasins that he wore all winter.
Kelly said Abernathy’s personality always ensured the team was treated well on the road because he seemed to know somebody everywhere they went.
After Abernathy returned to New York, he played for a time with the Harlem Wizards, a team similar to the Globetrotters, something that was perfect for him with his wide smile and slightly high-pitched voice.
The married father worked as a drug counsellor for the Board of Education.
Hemmings kept in contact with Abernathy as he was inducted into what is now known as the Dick and Verda MacDonald Sports Wall of Fame in 1987 and the provincial basketball hall of fame in 2009.
"We spoke occasionally," Hemmings said. "We always had a good relationship. I put on my Facebook page that at the end of every conversation he would always say ‘Love you, coach.’"
Kelly also chatted with him from time to time and attended his wedding. They last spoke in March, and Abernathy told him then that he was going to branch into a new sideline as a rapper.
"He was the first real character guy that I ever met," Kelly said. "When I say character, a guy that instantly you knew there was something special about him. I felt honoured to be around him. He was always funny, always engaging and humble. He was a magnificent storyteller; just a super guy."
Abernathy’s funeral is on Monday. While Kelly is unable to attend, he will instead visit Abernathy’s family on an upcoming trip to New York.
"I’m planning to go and pay my respects to his family and see his grave and tell him how much he meant to me as a person," Kelly said. "I miss him terribly right now. He was like a big brother to me."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson