Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Punch

It has been almost thirty years now (December 9, 1977) since a single ten-second snippet of NBA history forever changed the way that the game of professional basketball is played. On that evening in Los Angeles, Houston Rockets star Rudy Tomjanovich was almost killed by a single punch thrown by Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, no one realized the tremendous impact that Tomjanovich’s injury would have, not only on the lives of the two men directly involved, but on the league itself. John Feinstein’s The Punch explains how the paths of Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington crossed that night in what was really more an accident than a fight and how they have become forever linked in the minds of basketball fans, something about which neither man is happy.

In one very important sense, the NBA of the 1970s resembled the game of hockey as it is played in the NHL. NBA teams depended on superstars to score points and to convince people to buy tickets. Team owners and managers realized that those superstars needed to be protected because their injury or ejection would make or break a team’s whole season. For that reason, NBA teams almost always had someone on the floor to serve as the team’s enforcer, someone who would make sure that their superstar was not injured in a fight, someone who would often fight the superstar’s fight in his place, in fact. Kermit Washington, a fine player in his own right, also served as enforcer for the Los Angeles Lakers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Washington found himself coming to Abdul-Jabbar’s rescue again on that fateful night, something he was used to doing on a regular basis for the hot tempered Abdul-Jabbar. As the players were running from one end of the basketball court to the other, Washington noticed that Abdul-Jabbar was becoming frustrated with the pushing and shoving he was receiving under the basket at the hands of Houston’s Kevin Kunnert so he stayed close to the two men rather than running to the other end of the floor. Tomjanovich, Houston’s team captain, noticed from his end of the court that his teammate was being manhandled by two Lakers and rushed in to break up the fight. As he approached Washington from behind, with his hands down, Washington turned suddenly and threw a single punch at Tomjanovich. The combination of Washington’s strength, the speed at which Tomjanovich was approaching Washington’s fist, and the exact location of the punch left Tomjanovich on the floor in a huge pool of blood.

Tomjanovich, who doctors say was lucky to survive the kind of punch that dislodged his skull, did not play again that season. Washington was suspended without pay for sixty days and his career was never really the same again. NBA rules governing player fights grew out of what happened that night because it made league officials aware of the great danger of letting men the size of professional basketball players take swings at each other. The league tightened up to such an extent that even players on the periphery of a fight were subject to fines and suspensions, especially those coming off the bench to involve themselves.

Just as importantly, the lives of Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich would never be the same. No matter what either player ever achieved on or off the court, each would always be remembered first for “the punch.” Each of the men played for several more seasons, and Tomjanovich even coached the Houston Rockets to two NBA championships in the nineties, but both of them are still haunted by what happened during ten seconds of one of the thousands of basketball games they played during their lives.

John Feinstein was able to get both men, their families, and many of the players and coaches who were on the floor that night to share their memories. Rudy Tomjanovich, try as he might, cannot get over the feeling that everyone he meets thinks of him as the player “who got nailed.” Kermit Washington has spent his life trying to convince people that he is not a thug who almost killed someone with a sucker punch in a fit of anger.

Feinstein gives equal time to both men, exploring their childhoods, their days as amateur basketball stars, and their professional careers. He does not take sides or make excuses for what happened that night. Instead, he lets both men tell their versions of what happened and how that has affected their lives ever since. Strangely enough, it is Kermit Washington who seems to be having the hardest time dealing with the whole thing. Washington seems to have become somewhat paranoid about what he did and still blames the hit his reputation took that night for everything bad that has happened to him since then. As pointed out by John Lucas, an ex-player who made plenty mistakes of his own, Washington needs to finally just say, “I’m sorry. I screwed up.” He will never find the closure that Tomjanovich seems to have found until he stops saying, “I’m sorry, but…”

Rated at: 4.0

2 comments:

  1. I'm not a big sports fan, but I always enjoy Feinstein's commentary on NPR. Maybe I'll get this for my Dad :) Have you read any of Feinstein's other books?

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  2. It is a well written book, Gentle Reader, and if your dad is a sports fan I'm pretty sure that he will enjoy it.

    I've not read other Feinstein books but I'm curious now to see what else he has written.

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