Book Excerpt: 'The Punch'

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?

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