The Punch : Tomjanovich and Washington Both Still Feel the Pain From That Terrible Moment

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<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

He saw nothing and felt nothing. He lost consciousness when the punch shattered the left side of his face. When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, he had to ask someone what had happened.

As Rudy Tomjanovich was being helped off the court, he realized his nose was broken. The pain wasn’t severe yet, but he knew he would not be able to play any more that night, and he was angry. His shots were starting to fall, and he was mad because he couldn’t be there for the rest of the game.

It wasn’t until the doctors began attending to him in the emergency room that Tomjanovich realized he had more than a broken nose. The anger melted away and fear flooded through him when he was told he might not survive.


On the night of Dec. 9, 1977, the Houston Rocket forward had suffered a fractured skull, broken jaw, broken nose, other facial injuries and leakage of spinal fluid when he was struck by the fist of Laker forward Kermit Washington.

When the swelling subsided, surgery was performed to reconstruct his face. Tomjanovich eventually recovered and played for three more seasons before he retired in 1981.

Washington, after being fined $10,000 and suspended 60 days by the National Basketball Assn., also resumed his career and became an all-star. A back injury forced his retirement in 1982.

Both men have tried to put behind them what happened that night at the Forum more than seven years ago. But the legacy of The Punch remains a part of their lives, just as it serves as a reminder to current players of what can happen in a fit of rage.

“As tragic and unfortunate as it was, it gave meaning to the phrases we utter about the ability of our athletes to do great harm to each other,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said.

“You can’t discuss violence in any sport without thinking about what happened between Rudy and Kermit. It crystallized and focused and forever emblazoned on the consciousness of all athletes what can happen.”


The fight--frightening both for its ferocity and the suddenness with which it happened--erupted in the opening minute of the second half of a game won by the Rockets, 116-105.

After a missed shot by the Lakers, Houston’s Kevin Kunnert got into a jostling match with Washington as the players ran upcourt.

“He was holding my shorts and I was just trying to knock his hand away,” Kunnert said in a recent interview.

According to published reports, it appeared that Kunnert elbowed Washington and struck him with two grazing punches.

Then came a flurry of blows from Washington before Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moved in and pinned Kunnert’s arms. Another punch, and Kunnert slumped to the floor with cuts under the right eye.

It was then that Tomjanovich, who had been standing near the free-throw line at the other end of the court, got involved. Attempting to help his teammate, Tomjanovich was the recipient of a blow that sent him reeling backward, flailing his arms and striking the back of his head on the floor.


Kunnert, who is now retired, feels some bitterness over his role in the fight.

“I didn’t start it,” he said. “Kermit has had a smear campaign against me, but I didn’t do anything. I resent it being pinned on me. I don’t feel guilty.”

There are several ironic twists associated with the altercation. Tomjanovich and Washington are both sensitive, thoughtful men who might have been friends had they been teammates. Both were tutored by Pete Newell, the former college coach, NBA executive and part-time instructor who runs a summer camp for young NBA players. And both are back in basketball, on similar paths that could lead to head-coaching jobs.

Tomjanovich, 36, is an assistant coach with heavy scouting responsibilities for his old team, the Houston Rockets. He still suffers sinus headaches as an after-effect of The Punch, and says he is out of shape because of his extensive traveling. But he still loves to sneak into a gym, have a kid feed him the ball and shoot those rainbow 20-footers that were his specialty.

When he was contacted by a reporter, he said it had been years since he had given a long interview, and he preferred it that way. However, he talked freely and openly for more than an hour.

“‘Whenever I see a replay of what happened, I almost feel like it’s not me I’m watching,” Tomjanovich said. “I don’t have nightmares. It was a stumbling block in life, but I endured it, and maybe I’m better for it.

“I don’t know, it’s hard for me to grade my life. I know that I got through it (the incident) without being angry at the world--or at Kermit.”


The agonies of his recovery were matched in a different, but equally demanding way, by the stress Washington felt as he tried to put his life back together.

Washington, 33, who is now an assistant coach at Stanford, felt abandoned in the aftermath of The Punch. Shortly after he was reinstated by the NBA, he was traded to Boston, where he knew no one. Loneliness, heckling and threats accompanied him for the rest of the 1977-78 season, and into the future.

“The fight happened so fast,” Washington said recently. “I felt bad that Rudy was hurt, and I know it was bad for basketball.

“Thinking back, I wasn’t mature enough to let someone hit me and then walk away. I would have felt like a coward if I had walked away.

“I know now it would have been more virtuous to just walk away. Back then I was just too young and insecure. I was known as an aggressive player. If other guys thought they could push me around or intimidate me, I might have been out of the league in a year.”

Washington, who was an honor student at American University in Washington, D.C., and has a degree in psychology, seems to be at peace with his self-image.


“The game of basketball was everything to me,” he said. “It was Kermit Washington. It was my whole identity. If I did poorly, I was hurt to my heart.

“The thing with Rudy woke me up. There was this anger people directed toward this image they had of me as a thug. . . . I always had this illusion of being able to make everybody like me. I had to learn to like myself for what I am. I stopped trying to please everybody. A lot of people aren’t worth it.”

In trying to measure the meaning of what happened to these men, and the impact it had on professional basketball, it is hard to refrain from moralizing or passing judgment.

But Newell, one of the game’s elder statesmen and a friend of both Tomjanovich and Washington, was able to put forth a reasonably balanced assessment.

“There will always be fights, and there probably have been a lot of them where there was more intent to harm (than Washington had),” Newell said. “People remember what happened, and it seems to have curbed some of the fighting.

“In that sense, I guess it had a positive effect. But the potential for violence is still there.

“It was the unique circumstances of the moment that caused the Tomjanovich-Washington fight. Rudy ran at Kermit from 40-feet away. Kermit swung on reflex. It was like being back in the ghetto, and having his arms pinned back as a kid. . . . I liked the two of them so much, and I was a part of their careers. It was just so painful.”


Some of the pain has faded, but Tomjanovich and Washington could not be considered friends.

After Tomjanovich returned to action in 1978, the men met once on a basketball court. It happened when Washington was playing for Portand. In the pregame warmups, a Tomjanovich shot went out of bounds. He pursued the ball, not really paying attention to where he was going. When he looked up, there was Washington.

A brief, strained conversation followed. Washington was friendly and apologetic, as Tomjanovich recalls the meeting. They parted after a few moments, and never pursued the matter further.

A lawsuit growing out of the incident was settled out of court in 1979. The Rockets filed a $1.8 million suit against the Lakers for the loss of Tomjanovich’s services. Part of the settlement was an agreement to withhold information on money to be paid by California Sports Inc., parent company of the Lakers, to the Rockets.

They don’t forget a face. Or do they?

Rudy Tomjanovich had his collar turned up against a cold wind whipping down the street in New York. He was looking at the sidewalk and was startled when a voice said, “Hi, Rudy.”

The little encounter was over as suddenly as it developed. Tomjanovich had no idea who had spoken to him.


It’s rare for him to be identified by a casual basketball fan, as happened that day in New York.

For the most part, Tomjanovich can pass freely through airports, hotel lobbies and arenas without being recognized. Occasionally, someone will spot him. Sometimes, people will hear the name and remember.

“Somebody will say to me, ‘You’re the guy who got hit,’ ” Tomjanovich said, matter of factly. “That’s the way it is. The real fans, they know me as a guy who was a good shooter. The kids coming out of school now, they know nothing about me. I like it better not being recognized.”

Recently, he paused in the midst of a week-long excursion that took him to Philadelphia, New Jersey, Dallas, Tulsa and Seattle, and reflected on his life in basketball. When he retired four years ago, he had some problems getting accustomed to the life of a scout. He had so much nervous energy as a player, and suddenly there was no outlet for it.

But he has learned to adapt. His wife, Sophie, whom he met as a sophomore at the University of Michigan, is accustomed to the long separations. They have a summer place in Galveston, and by the time September arrives, she is ready for the basketball season to begin.

“I’m gone so much, but I’m learning the game,” Tomjanovich said. “I missed not being there when we won eight in a row at the start of the year. I missed feeling part of it, but I knew I had helped. I’ve still got that love for the game . . . and I want to try coaching.”


His old friend and teammate, Calvin Murphy, believes Tomjanovich will become an NBA coach.

“People like and respect him, and he’s too dedicated to take a backseat forever,” said Murphy, now director of development at Texas Southern University.

Newell also thinks Tomjanovich is destined to succeed as a coach.

“I’ve watched him scouting--he really works at it,” Newell said. “He’s getting the background he needs, and I think he is even more inclined than Kermit to become a head coach.”

Tomjanovich has a remarkably sanguine outlook.

“Too many people look at the NBA and just see problems, like drugs,” he said. “But, hey, my dream came true. Maybe I am naive. But I got to play against guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. I thought it was a great way of life.”

Tomjanovich loved the game as a kid. The son of a shoemaker, he grew up in the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck, a working-class neighborhood. He can remember his father taking out a little black ledger and recording 25 cents for a boot heel. The boy wondered how the family would make it.

“My friends were always black kids who lived in the projects, and they were worse off than we were,” Tomjanovich said. “We always got Christmas presents.”

A bigger concern for the boy was baseball. He was a good player, but not good enough to please an uncle, who supplied equipment for the Little League team. Tomjanovich prayed for rain so he wouldn’t have to attend practice.


He preferred basketball but wasn’t so good at first. A second-string player on the junior-high team, he was cut from the freshman team and had to challenge the coach to a game of one-on-one. The coach, an ex-football player, thought it was a fumble each time the ball hit the floor, and pounded the boy mercilessly, but wound up taking him on the team.

That year he sprouted from 5-11 to 6-4. A measure of his progress was seen on the playgrounds, where he graduated from side basket to center court. He could shoot the ball, and in the afternoon the guys coming home from the factory in their heavy boots would stop to watch.

This was the Cazzie Russell era at Michigan, and Tomjanovich dreamed of playing for the Wolverines. He grew four more inches, and by his junior year he was named to an NBA coaches’ list of top prospects.

The 1970 draft was one of the richest in NBA history, replete with names such as Pete Maravich, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens, Calvin Murphy and, of course, Tomjanovich. In fact, he was the second player taken, right after Maravich. The then-San Diego Rockets selected Tomjanovich, but the local papers were not impressed. “Rudy Who?” read the headlines.

The Rockets moved to Houston a year later, and Tomjanovich became a starter. After learning there was more to Texas than tumbleweed, he grew to appreciate the place--and Murphy.

“We were opposites, but we became instant friends,” Murphy said. “Rudy was never the aggressor in any situation, where I’m the type to force my way into a situation.


“I consider him a brother. I used to be thin-skinned and get upset when people referred to us as salt-and-pepper. But we never pacified each other. We cared enough to be honest. I could count on him for the square lowdown.”

Tomjanovich, who became an all-star forward and the second-leading scorer in Rocket history, would stay up all night talking basketball with Murphy. When the conversation warmed up, they couldn’t sleep. Murphy doubted anything could ever diminish his friend’s love for the game.

“What happened was so unbelievable,” Murphy said. “I never saw Rudy ball up his fist in his life. In fact, he would argue with me about my temper. He tried to talk me into being more peaceful.

“That night at the Forum, he was trying to be the peacemaker. I was standing about 10 feet to the right of Kermit, and I saw it all developing. I saw Kermit turn and plant himself.”

Tomjanovich was attempting to intervene on behalf of Kunnert, who was fighting with Washington. His eyes were on his fallen teammate as he came running across the court--headlong into Washington’s fist.

“When I woke up, I remember Jerry West was staring at me with shock on his face,” Tomjanovich said. “I had no idea what was wrong until our trainer told me.


“Then, when I got to the hospital, and they told me I might not make it, I tried to be positive and put all my energy into believing I would recover.

“I didn’t want this thing to cause me to retire. I still had things to prove. And, to be honest, I was so happy to be alive. I still had my family, you know. This made me see basketball wasn’t everything. I still had all the things people talk about having after a tragedy.”

What he also had, somehow, was a sense of compassion. That amazes Murphy, who delivered Christmas presents to the Tomjanovich household while Rudy was recuperating from surgery.

“I don’t spend much time talking basketball now, but I would do anything for Rudy, so I’ll tell you this,” Murphy said.

“He holds no malice toward Kermit Washington, but you can’t imagine what my attitude would be. I could never be so forgiving. I couldn’t live with it and be the forgiving type.

“Rudy today is the same person I met 15 years ago. His outlook hasn’t changed. Maybe he appreciates life more. He used to spend time listening to music. Now he’s more productive and less content to just sit.”


If Tomjanovich has one regret, it’s probably that he doesn’t have the opportunity to get into a gym as often as he used to. Tomjanovich is lyrical when he talks about what shooting a basketball can do for him.

“It’s like being in a trance,” he said. “It’s a feeling of being all-powerful. When I get a string going, I can get lost in that feeling. I know the shot is going in. It’s automatic when I get in sync. It’s a fantastic feeling.”

Kermit Washington was traded to the Boston Celtics Dec. 27, 1977, but he didn’t report until his suspension ended in February. He said goodby to his wife and a 9-day-old son, then boarded a plane for Boston. He arrived during a blizzard. Then it really got cold.

“I was public enemy No. 1,” Washington said. “It was scary and nerve wracking. I knew every eye was going to be on me. I felt they all wanted me to play poorly.”

Washington was staying on the 20th floor of a hotel in downtown Boston. Each morning when he got up, he would run up and down the 20 flights of stairs five times. He did it again before going to bed at night.

“I had to be able to believe in myself again,” he said. “I had to punish myself so hard, so nobody else could be as hard on me. I would almost faint on the steps. I didn’t want to run.


“The maids in the hotel all got to know me. Every flight, I had a name of a forward in mind, like Truck Robinson or Maurice Lucas. If I didn’t run, that guy would beat me. Sometimes I fell. But I told myself, ‘You gotta do it, Kermit. This is your life. This is what you want.’ ”

Washington said he was upset that he was part of the Tomjanovich incident, but it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to him. His life has been full of tragedies, he said, and he skimmed over some of them.

His mother suffered a nervous breakdown when he was 3. For the next five years he lived with a great grandmother, who was 85. In the fourth grade, he went to live with his father and stepmother, who was insensitive to him. He grew indifferent to life.

Later, there were deaths that wounded him. A brother committed suicide. Both his mother and grandmother died.

“I felt hurt as a kid, always being told I was no good,” Washington said. “I have always had the desire to prove I’m a worthwhile person. . . . I know that people identify me with the fight, but it means nothing to me now. I’m trying to be the best person I can be.

“I still have to push myself. Psychologically, I always need a challenge. I need a purpose, or I’m lost. My dream is to find a kid who wants to be the greatest ever, and who will work with me. That would give me joy. And if publicity about me can help some kid become good, that’s what I want.”


Stanford Coach Tom Davis, who helped recruit Washington for American University 16 years ago, refers to his protege as inspiring. There is this chasm between the public image of the man, and the person he has become.

“I’ve never heard him swear or say a harsh word,” Davis said. “When I was looking for someone to fill this job (assistant coach), I wanted a guy who could inspire, teach and recruit. I remembered how he made himself into a player at American.

“This was a guy who didn’t even start in high school and two years later was the No. 2 rebounder in the country behind Artis Gilmore.”

Davis questioned whether Washington understood what being a college assistant was all about: recruiting, letters, calls, office work. So far, Washington has been superior, Davis said.

Washington likes to think of himself as a training assistant. He loves to lift weights with the Stanford players. For a year after he retired, he worked out at a gym in Los Angeles. He is now 6-8, 270, 40 pounds of muscle over his playing weight, with arms Mark Gastineau or Howie Long would envy.

“Give me a young man who wants to become the greatest basketball player of all time, and I will lift weights with him 10 hours a day, and show him all the things I learned from Kareem and all the other guys I was around,” Washington said.


“As long as I can lift, play half-court and practice with these kids, I would rather be an assistant than a head coach. When you’re in charge, you separate yourself from the players.

“The way it is now, I’m not nervous when I’m sitting on the bench during a game, because my identity isn’t threatened. I’ve always been easygoing, and never get upset with anything that didn’t deal with my identity.”

He never knew himself as a kid and never experienced much joy until he went to college and became a star basketball player.

But when he was drafted by the Lakers in 1973, it was back into the old rut. He had to play out of position, as a backup to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he wasn’t very effective. After two unhappy years, facing the expiration of his contract, he sought out Newell to help become a power forward.

“I think of Kermit as an over-achiever, if that word still has meaning,” Newell said. “He has had to work through a lot of pain and disappointment.

“When he came to me, he didn’t have much dimension in his game. He had never had to pass, or put the ball on the floor or run the court. But he realized he had limitations, and he knew he had to change if he was going to stay in the league.”


Washington spent several summers working out under the tutelage of Newell. After practices, he rode his bike through the hills of Palos Verdes, where both men lived, and would stop to chat with construction workers. He kept Newell informed about the price of new homes.

“Kermit is a deep and sensitive person who wants to be liked,” Newell said. “No player had more respect from his peers than Kermit did. He spared himself very little when he was working with me.”

Not surprisingly, Newell sees a future in coaching for Washington, if he decides to pursue it.

His current mentor, Davis, said Washington has the stuff athletic directors are looking for: motivation, knowledge, the ability to mix with people. The thing he must add, Davis said, is a philosophy, a style of play.

Washington may not have command of the X’s and O’s, but he has some insights into people. He felt excluded from life as a kid, but he developed an ability to read people that he still carries with him.

“I think I can tell what is going on in a person’s mind,” he said. “I can read their facial expressions. I can tell what they really want.”


And with his imposing physique and his polished way of expressing himself, he does have an inspiring presence.

Sometimes, people expect too much.

“Too many, including some in my own family, think I can just reach in my bag of tricks and help them,” Washington said.

“Well, I’m not Santa Claus. I can’t give everybody what they want. All I can do is try to supplement what is already there. I can’t be responsible for all the world’s failures.”