One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight
That Changed Basketball Forever
Little, Brown: 368 pp., $25.95
On Dec. 9, 1977, Kermit Washington landed a punch on the face of Rudy Tomjanovich, a punch that divided both men’s lives into what author John Feinstein simply and aptly terms Before and After.
Before, Tomjanovich was a Houston Rocket on the rise, an NBA All-Star raised in the grinding poverty that can break a man or drive him. Before, Washington was the Los Angeles Lakers’ power forward, enforcer for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, reaping at last the benefits of a protracted struggle out of the impoverishment to which he was born and of the long, difficult search to find his game.
That Tomjanovich was white and Washington was black had nothing to do with the before, although, in Washington’s view, it has had everything to do with the after.
After the punch, Tomjanovich became familiar with operating rooms during the five surgeries required to repair his dislodged skull and put his face back together. He would return to the Rockets but without the abandon that had sparked his playing. After the punch, Washington became the object of hate mail and of jokes on “Saturday Night Live” about the aggression of black males. Traded to the Boston Celtics, then to the Portland Trailblazers, he no longer had the swagger and that hint of danger that had made him dominant.
Both Washington and Tomjanovich had had their share of on-court skirmishes with others. As it happens, the night that Washington punched Tomjanovich, his real fight was with the Rockets’ 7-foot center, Kevin Kunnert. But Tomjanovich came running down the court to help his teammate, and Washington -- having learned as a child that a man coming up fast behind you is an enemy -- turned and prepared to land his punch. Only at the final millisecond did he realize whom he was hitting.
Thus, what was assumed to be a battle between black and white wasn’t, although it is worth noting that Washington is convinced that had a white man decked a black man, there would not have been the widespread public anger he confronted), . Possibly worth noting too is that while Washington’s life was wrecked by the punch, Tomjanovich went on to coach the Rockets and lead them to two NBA titles. But who can say whether this is the fallout of race or of the difference between throwing a punch and taking one?
“The Punch” is the 13th book from Feinstein, author of “A Season on the Brink: A Year With Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers” and “A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour,” and a writer prolific and popular enough to be, to sports journalism, what Joyce Carol Oates is to fiction. Nonfiction books can be only as good as their reporting, which, in turn, can be only as profound as the trust that the books’ subjects have for their authors. Clearly, Feinstein inspires trust, and it may be that his salient talent is for putting athletes so at ease that they abandon the toughness that is their preferred macho stance, and the stoic silence that accompanies it, and delve into dicey emotional issues they customarily avoid. Feinstein’s cast of characters includes all the major witnesses to the punch and its aftermath: from the blunt and incisive Jerry West to Dick Vandervoort, the Rockets’ trainer who helped Tomjanovich off the court, to Dr. Paul Toffel, the young specialist in head injuries who, summoned from a black-tie fund-raiser to the hospital, put operating room scrubs over his tuxedo as he examined his new patient.
Although Feinstein makes good use of this material, he presents it at times in a manner that suggests someone was asleep at the wheel. An account of the punch in the book’s early pages turns up again 40 pages later. The moment when Toffel tells Tomjanovich that he will not be playing for the rest of the season is also repeated. The doctor’s words, set in quotation marks, differ in each instance: “No Rudy you can’t play tomorrow,” or “Rudy you aren’t going to play in Phoenix tomorrow night.”
A more significant matter is Feinstein’s claim that, after the punch, the NBA was never the same: A hollow conceit if ever there was one. True, the punch prompted NBA owners to raise the fines levied on fighting players from a maximum $500 and five days’ suspension without pay to $10,000 and an indefinite, unpaid suspension. But this was not a seismic shift, nor was it stringent enough to deter Shaquille O’Neal from taking a swipe at Brad Miller last season, nor to deter Rick Fox from storming into the visitors’ tunnel in October to mix it up with Doug Christie during a preseason game. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the punch was that it demonstrated the dangers inherent in an increasingly brutal game in which unprotected bodies clash continually, yet is somehow not considered a contact sport.
What “The Punch” does illuminate, perhaps unwittingly, is that if truth is stranger than fiction, it is rarely as satisfying. Consider what Tomjanovich thought as he was led from the court moments after Washington punched him, the bitter taste in his mouth caused by leaking spinal fluid: “Why would he hit me? I wasn’t even fighting with him.” For the punch to have the impact of -- well, a punch -- the reason that Washington hit Tomjanovich has to be apparent. In the absence of a reason, this terrible randomness makes the punch a cataclysm without meaning, one of those hideous, life-changing accidents, better suited to the musings of ironists and absurdists than of sports reporters.
In today’s world, the themes of “The Punch” -- lives suddenly and permanently altered, a man turning himself into a weapon -- are topics much with us, and they give Feinstein’s story a metaphorical aspect that could not have been intended when the project was conceived several years ago. But Feinstein, as a nonfiction writer, is constrained from making the punch anything other than what it was. The randomness at the heart of this incident keeps “The Punch” from becoming a great book, but it allows for a good, engrossing one, which Feinstein has written.