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 It had been replaced by fear.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.