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.
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."
The punch knocked Tomjanovich straight backward, and he landed on the back of his head, out cold within a second. Every person on the court and almost every person in the Forum that night remembers the next few minutes as if they were played out in slow motion.
Upstairs in the press box, the writers looked at each other almost as soon as the punch landed and then began heading downstairs — almost unheard of in the middle of a game.
"It was the sound," Thomas Bonk, then the Rockets' beat writer for the Houston Post, remembered. "No one had ever heard a punch that sounded like that. Even from where we were, all the way upstairs, the sound resonated. Punches aren't supposed to do that. It was frightening.
"We were used to fights. Back then, fights broke out in the NBA every night. When Kermit and Kunnert squared off, your first response was, 'Oh look, another stupid NBA fight, what else is new?' And then in an instant it all changed and it became terrifying."
While most of the writers used the stairs behind the seating area that would take them directly to the hallway where the team locker rooms were, Ted Green of the Los Angeles Times bolted out of his chair and ran directly down the center aisle of seats to get courtside.
"The first thing that was stunning was that you could actually hear the punch from where we were," he said. "None of us had ever heard a punch from where we sat. The second thing was the blood. It started spreading around Rudy's head almost as soon as he hit the floor. I'd never seen anyone shot in the head, but if I had, that's what I imagined it would look like."
Green estimates that it took him about forty-five seconds to sprint from his seat to courtside. He got to within twenty-five or thirty feet of Tomjanovich and saw him lying there, blood all over him and the court, while players milled around in shock and Vandervoort worked on him.
"He wasn't moving," Green said. "He probably didn't move for a total of two minutes, maybe three. But it felt like hours while I was standing there. I remember thinking, 'He's dead. My God, he's dead. How could this happen? How could this possibly happen?' It was completely out of context, this whole scene I was looking at, and it was absolutely horrifying all at once."
No one was more horrified than Jerry West. A Hall of Fame player in his second year as the Lakers' coach, he had seen his share of fights. But never anything like this. "I was in shock when I saw it," he said. "Absolute, complete shock. It was an awful feeling. I felt sick to my stomach."
Abdul-Jabbar felt the same sensations. "There was just so much blood," he said. "I kept thinking, 'How can there be so much blood from one punch? Something is wrong here.' The only thing that kept me from panicking completely was that his legs were moving a little. Otherwise I would have been worried that he was dead. It looked that bad."
The whistle Tomjanovich had heard had been blown by Bob Rakel, the referee trailing the play. Rakel had seen Kunnert and Washington square off, and when Washington threw the punch at Kunnert he blew his whistle, in part to call a punching foul, in part to try to get the players to back off. Ed Middleton was the other official, and he had been in full sprint trying to get to the other end of the court to pick up the completion of the Rockets' fast break. He was almost at the baseline when he heard his partner's whistle and turned to see what had happened. When he saw the melee at midcourt, he turned and followed Tomjanovich in the direction of the fight. The next thing he knew, Washington had spun around and thrown the punch and Tomjanovich was on the floor.
At that moment, everything stopped. No one on either team had any desire to fight anymore. While Rakel was telling Washington he was ejected from the game, Middleton stood behind Vandervoort, who had raced off the bench the minute Tomjanovich went down. "I remember telling someone we were going to need more towels to mop up all the blood," Middleton said.
"Then I looked down and got a good look at Rudy's face. I had to go over to the scorer's table and lean over to get my breath back. I was afraid I was going to be sick."
Calvin Murphy, the little guard whom no one in the NBA wanted to fight, had raced past Washington to get to Kunnert, who was staggering in Abdul-Jabbar's arms. When he heard the punch and saw Tomjanovich go down, he left Kunnert and reached his best friend's side no more than a second or two before Vandervoort. Washington was a few feet away, being ejected by Rakel. Murphy stood rooted to the spot, staring first at his unconscious teammate, then at Washington.
"My first thought was, 'I'm going to kill the sonofabitch,'" Murphy said. "There was no question in my mind about it. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. I couldn't believe he had done that to Rudy. I saw the security people starting to take him off, and I took a step toward him, because I was going to kill him. That was absolutely my intent: kill the sonofabitch who had done that to my buddy."
But when Murphy tried to put one foot in front of the other, he found he couldn't move. His legs were rubbery. It certainly wasn't fear. Murphy was one of the league's smallest men, but he was every bit the enforcer that Washington was. He had been a Golden Gloves boxer as a teenager, and unlike most of the league's players, he actually knew how to fight. Unofficially he had been in seventeen full-fledged fights during eight years in the league and had never lost. The fight that people remembered most was one against Sidney Wicks, then of the Boston Celtics. Like Washington, Wicks was 6-8 and about 225. Murphy had jumped into the air, grabbed Wicks by his Afro, pulled him down to his level, and punched him into submission.
Now he stood frozen as Washington left the court. "It was an act of God," Murphy said years later. "It had to be. On any other night I would have killed him. But something happened and kept me there, right where I was. It had to be an act of God. There's no other explanation."
John Lucas had been in the lane when the whistle blew. He continued to the basket, put an uncontested layup through the hoop, and caught the ball as it came through the net. He turned and ran back to the scene with the ball still in his hands. "My first instinct was to turn and run," he said. "I saw Rudy, I looked at Kermit, and I thought, 'Oh my God, what has happened here?'" he said. "I remember I had the ball in my hands, and the first thing I thought was that I just wanted to get out of there. I just didn't want to be at that place. It was too gruesome."
Tomjanovich knew none of this when he came to. He wasn't in that much pain when Vandervoort got him into a sitting position, but he was confused. It hadn't been the scoreboard; it had been Kermit Washington. "I was dazed and woozy, and Tricky was telling me Kermit hit me. All I could think was, 'Why would he hit me? I wasn't even fighting with him.'"
Nowadays, he wouldn't have been allowed to move. He would have been told to stay down and a stretcher would have been brought out for him. But this was 1977. He got up slowly, aided by Vandervoort, with a towel over his face to try to stop the blood. Getting up, he looked right at West. It was then that he understood for the first time that this was more than a bloody nose.
"He just had this look on his face," Tomjanovich said. "It was the kind of look you see when someone can't believe what they're seeing. I remember thinking I must look pretty bad. But I had no idea how bad."
Tomjanovich had no idea how fortunate he was that Vandervoort had figured out very quickly that he had a serious injury. As he left the court with Vandervoort, Tomjanovich was trailed by Dr. Clarence Shields, one of the Lakers' team doctors. Washington had already left, escorted by security and by Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Lakers' senior team doctor, who went back to the locker room with him to examine his hand.
As he walked off, Tomjanovich could hear a man directly over the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms screaming profanities at him. "He should have killed you, Tomjanovich," the man yelled. "Should have killed you."
Standing in front of the man, eyes filled with tears, was a youngster Tomjanovich recognized as someone who had come to his basketball camp years earlier. Tomjanovich wasn't sure whether the boy was crying because of what he looked like or because of what the man was yelling. Either way, he went from wobbly to furious in an instant.
"Let's get this done fast, Trick," he said. "Put some gauze in my nose or whatever and get me back out there."
Vandervoort said nothing. Once they were out of the arena and in the hallway under the stands, they had to walk past the Lakers' dressing room and around a corner to where the visitors' dressing room was located. The first person Tomjanovich saw in the hallway was Washington. By then the media was in the hallway — Bonk and George White from Houston and two of the three Lakers beat writers — Rich Levin of the Herald-Examiner and Mitch Chortkoff from the Orange County Register. Green was still on the court.
"Kermit was still wound up," Bonk said. "He was pacing up and down in the hallway, just all pumped up on adrenaline, when Rudy and Vandervoort got there."
Seeing Washington, Tomjanovich turned in his direction. "Why'd you hit me like that?" he demanded. "What?" Washington screamed back. "What? Hit you? Ask Kevin Kunnert. Ask him what happened." "I'm asking you, you sonofabitch," Tomjanovich yelled back, and he started toward Washington.
He didn't get far, though, because Vandervoort and the security people intervened. "Good thing," Tomjanovich said later. "If I'd gotten near him, he probably would have killed me." In fact he almost certainly would have killed him.
Once it became apparent to Tomjanovich that he wasn't going to get to Washington, he and Vandervoort proceeded to the locker room. Dr. Shields had already gone ahead and placed a call to the pager of Dr. Paul Toffel, a thirty-four-year-old who specialized in head trauma. Toffel was at a pre-Christmas fund-raiser for the University of Southern California Medical Center at a hotel not far from the arena. When he called Shields back, Shields told him there had been a fight during the game at the Forum. "I've got a guy here who appears to have a severely broken nose and other facial injuries," he said. Toffel told him he would meet the player in the emergency room at Centinela Hospital as soon as he could get there.
"Do me a favor and tell them to get started right away on X rays," he told Shields. "That way I can see what we're dealing with as soon as I arrive."
At that moment Tomjanovich was sitting on a training table, with no intention of going to a hospital. He had a game to finish. "If my nose is broken, hook me up with a mask," he told Vandervoort. Firmly, Vandervoort told him there would be no mask and no more basketball on this night.
"There's an ambulance outside," he said. "Ambulance?" Tomjanovich said. "What the hell is that about?"
A few minutes later he was in the ambulance. Then he was in the hospital and they were making X rays. He wondered what he must look like, because the looks he was getting from the people in the emergency room were not that different from what he had seen on the court from Jerry West. "And these were people who were used to seeing stuff," he said.
Dr. Toffel arrived a few minutes later, still in his tuxedo. When he was given the X rays, his eyes went wide. "Oh my God," Toffel said to the emergency room doctor who had given him the X rays. "This isn't a sinus injury. The posterior portion of his face is way out of alignment." (Translation: the top part of his skull was actually about an inch off line from the lower portion.) "Who is this guy?" Toffel asked. "Rudy Tomjanovich. Plays for the Rockets." Toffel knew the name, knew Tomjanovich was a very good player.
Tomjanovich was wondering when he was going to get to call his wife back home in Houston when Toffel, now wearing scrubs over his tuxedo, walked in carrying X rays. He introduced himself, put a glove on one hand, and told Tomjanovich that he was going to see if he could move his upper jaw.
"It moved very easily," Toffel said later. "Which confirmed what the X rays had shown. I knew then this was a very serious situation."
Tomjanovich was still trying to figure out the quickest way to get out of the hospital. He asked Toffel if whatever he was going to do was going to take long and, more important, if he couldn't play any more basketball that night, how soon would he be back? The Rockets had a game in Phoenix the next night. Could he play there?
Toffel looked Tomjanovich in the eye. "No, Rudy, you can't play tomorrow," he said. "You aren't going to play basketball for a while. You aren't going to play any more this season."
Tomjanovich, whose eyes were already swelling shut, looked at Toffel as closely as he possibly could. Even though they were slits, his eyes told him that Toffel was completely serious. Any pain he was feeling disappeared, replaced by rage. "Not play this season?" he repeated. "Okay, look Doc, I know you gotta do what you gotta do, but give me an hour. I promise I'll come right back. I need to go back and find the guy who did this to me."
In Tomjanovich's mind at that moment, he was about to walk out of the emergency room, hail a cab, and go back to the Forum. Not play for the rest of the season? Now he really wanted to get Kermit Washington, regardless of the consequences. "I can't ever remember being angrier than I was at that moment," he said.
Toffel's face didn't change expression. His voice was very soft. "Rudy, let me ask you a question," he said. "Do you have any kind of funny taste in your mouth?"
Tomjanovich's eyes opened slightly. "Yeah, I do," he said. "It doesn't taste like blood either. It's very bitter. What is it?"
"Spinal fluid," Toffel said. "You're leaking spinal fluid from your brain. We're going to get you up to ICU in a few minutes and we're going to hope your brain capsule seals very soon. Do you know what the ICU is, Rudy?"
Tomjanovich nodded. He knew what ICU stood for: intensive care unit. The rage was gone. It had been replaced by fear.
"You're in trouble, Rudy," Toffel said. "We're going to work very hard to get you through this. But you can't be negative right now about anything or anyone. You have to work toward getting better, a little bit at a time. We don't need any anger or anything negative. Do you understand?"
Tomjanovich nodded again. By now he was in shock. Less than an hour ago, he had been a basketball player, doing what he loved and being paid a lot of money to do it. Now a doctor was telling him his life was hanging in the balance. He was twenty-nine years old, with a wife and two young children. At that moment all he wanted to do was see them again. Nothing else mattered.
While Tomjanovich was being taken to the hospital, Kermit Washington sat on a table in the empty Lakers locker room as Dr. Kerlan put stitches in his hand. A few minutes later he showered, dressed, and went home. His wife, Pat, who was almost eight months pregnant, was there with their two-year-old daughter, Dana.
He had been in fights before. In fact the previous season in Buffalo, he had decked John Shumate during a scuffle on court and then taken on most of the Braves' bench. He had fought with Dave Cowens, the Boston Celtics' star center, in another incident. But something told him this was different. Dr. Kerlan had said they were taking Tomjanovich to the hospital and that he had a badly broken nose and some facial injuries. He had seen the blood on the court, had felt the punch land. He wondered if he would be suspended by the NBA, which had passed new antifighting rules before the start of the season in response to a spate of fights in previous years.
As he walked to his car he heard someone calling his name. It was the man who patrolled the players' parking lot during games. He didn't know the man's name, but they always exchanged greetings before and after each game.
"Kermit," the man said as Washington opened his car. "I saw it. I saw what happened." Washington nodded, not really eager to get into a conversation at that moment.
"Kermit," the man said, "you're in a lot of trouble. Big trouble." Washington's stomach twisted into a knot. He wasn't sure why, because at that moment he didn't know how badly Tomjanovich was hurt, but something told him the man was right. He was in a lot of trouble.
Excerpted from The Punch by John Feinstein, Dimensions, Copyright 2002.