Book Excerpt: 'The Punch'

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."

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