Book Excerpt: 'The Punch'

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."

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