Book Excerpt: 'The Punch'

Still dazed, Tomjanovich sat up just a little bit, and the first person he saw was Walter Matthau, the actor, who was sitting in a front-row seat. He repeated his original question. "What happened, Trick, did the scoreboard fall on me?"

"Kermit hit you." Kermit Washington was the Lakers' 6-foot-8-inch power forward. He was listed in the media guide as weighing 240 pounds, all of it rock-hard muscle from years of weight lifting. On that night Washington's weight was down to 222, the result of hours of tireless off-season rehab work he had done after undergoing knee surgery the previous season. At any weight Washington was one of the league's strongest men, a self-made player who used strength, intensity, and work ethic to make up for a lack of offensive skills.

Washington often joked about his shooting ability. "I would always say to the referees, 'Hey, I'm being fouled, call a foul,'" he said. "And they would look at me and say, 'Kermit, if we call the foul, you're just going to miss free throws and embarrass yourself. Keep playing.'"

So he played. Very hard. He was part of a generation of enforcers, players whose job it was to protect their team's star. Abdul-Jabbar was the Lakers' star. Washington was his protection. That meant he did the dirty work defensively and on the boards, and if any kind of skirmish broke out, it was his job to make sure nothing happened to Abdul-Jabbar. There were limits to what he could do. On opening night in October, Abdul-Jabbar, frustrated by the physical play of Milwaukee Bucks rookie center Kent Benson, had hauled off and slugged Benson, breaking his hand. He had missed 20 games and the Lakers had struggled to a 9-14 start.

It was Washington whom Tomjanovich had seen throw the punch at Kunnert. As Kunnert's knees buckled and Abdul-Jabbar, who had been trying to separate Kunnert from Washington, swung him away, Washington became aware of someone approaching from behind.

"I saw a blur of red," he said. "I grew up in the streets. You learn there that if you're in a fight and someone is coming up from behind you, you swing first and ask questions later."

He turned and swung, a straight right hand that landed just under Tomjanovich's nose. At the very last instant, as Washington turned and faced him, Tomjanovich sensed danger. He tried to throw his hands up to protect himself, but it was too late.

"I don't have any memory of throwing my hands up," Tomjanovich said. "The only reason I know I did is because I saw it on the tape. The last thing I remember is running toward the fight. Then I looked up and saw Tricky. There's nothing in between."

In between was a punch that landed with devastating force. It was thrown by a very strong man, pumped up on adrenaline from being in a fight, at a man running full speed right into the punch, completely unprotected. Describing what happened later, doctors likened the collision of Washington's fist and Tomjanovich's face to a collision between two locomotives traveling at full speed. The doctor who worked on Tomjanovich later that night, a specialist in head and neck trauma, said the injuries Tomjanovich suffered were not unlike those suffered by someone thrown through the windshield of a car traveling 50 miles per hour.

"I'll never forget that sound," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I had turned Kunnert away from Kermit, and suddenly I heard this crack, like a melon landing on concrete. It's twenty-four years ago, but I can still hear it."

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