Book Excerpt: 'The Punch'

On Dec. 9, 1977, Los Angeles Lakers player Kermit Washington punched Houston Rockets' player Rudy Tomjanovich to the floor, delivering a blow that would change the two players' lives, and pro basketball, forever. "Doctors likened the collision of Washington's fist and Tomjanovich's face to a collision between two locomotives traveling at full speed," John Feinstein writes in The Punch.

The following is excerpted from The Punch.

Chapter 1: What Hit Me?

December 9, 1977

He had always worried about the scoreboards. That morning, during shootaround, Rudy Tomjanovich caught himself staring up at the scoreboard in the Los Angeles Forum, wondering if the thing was really safe.

"I always thought about it in the empty arenas," he said. "For some reason, I worried that one day one of the damn things would break and it would come crashing down on us during a game." Now it had. At least that's what he thought when he came to, lying flat on his back, that night in the opening minute of the third quarter. The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers had been tied 55-55 at halftime, and he was having a great shooting night: 9-for-14 from the field. His jumper, one of the NBA's sweetest, felt perfect every time he released the ball. The only surprise was that he had actually missed five times.

The Rockets had gone up 57-55 to start the second half. There was a missed jump shot at the other end, and Kevin Kunnert, the Rockets' 7-foot center, grabbed the rebound. Tomjanovich began sprinting down the right side of the court, knowing that Kunnert would feed the ball to John Lucas, his team's point guard, and there would be a chance to beat the L.A. defense down the court. He was on the right wing, looking to see if Lucas was going to feed him the ball, when he heard a whistle behind the play.

He turned and saw Kunnert, who had made it to midcourt, being wrestled from behind by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Another Laker, Tomjanovich wasn't sure at that moment who it was, had his back to Tomjanovich and was throwing a punch at Kunnert. Tomjanovich saw Kunnert sag to one knee as the punch landed, and he started running in the direction of the fight. "All I knew," he later said, "was one of my guys was in trouble. I just ran toward the fight, not sure what I would do when I got there."

He sprinted toward the skirmish, arms down, thinking he would perhaps wrap up the Laker who had hit Kunnert and pull him away, just as Abdul-Jabbar appeared to be doing with Kunnert. That's the way most NBA fights began and ended: an elbow or a profanity thrown; a square-off; a punch, maybe two; and then cooler heads prevailing. Tomjanovich was always one of the cooler heads. Calvin Murphy, his 5-foot-10-inch roommate, was not. Murphy was also running back in the direction of the fight. Somewhere, in the deep recesses of his mind, Tomjanovich knew that if Murphy arrived before he did, it would not be as a peacemaker. He was at full speed as he approached center court. That was when the scoreboard fell on him. "Tricky, what happened?" He was lying in a pool of blood, Tomjanovich knew that. He could see Dick Vandervoort, the Rockets' trainer, leaning over him, holding a towel to try to stanch the blood gushing from his nose. "Lie still, Rudy," Vandervoort — Tricky to all the Houston players — was telling him.

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