How One Punch Changed Professional Sports

ByABC News via via logo

Dec. 9, 2002 -- In one night, a single confrontation changed the lives of two professional basketball players — and their sport — forever.

They were two men living out their dreams of playing professional basketball. Kermit Washington, 26, grew up in inner-city Washington, D.C., and was a power forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, playing alongside star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Rudy Tomjanovich, 29, from blue collar Detroit, was an All-Star forward for the Houston Rockets.

On Dec. 9, 1977, the two men's lives collided. There was a fight on the basketball court at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Tomjanovich rushed to the aid of teammate Kevin Kunnert, who had tussled first with Abdul-Jabbar, then with Washington.

Tomjanovich ran up right behind Washington, who turned around to deliver a nearly fatal right-hand punch to Tomjanovich's face that knocked him to the floor, leaving him in a pool of blood.

Basketball was a tougher, more physical game then. But since that one punch, the NBA and other professional sports organizations began cracking down on fighting with penalties for players. John Feinstein has written a book called The Punch, which chronicles what happened that night, and the impact it had on both men's lives.

Blow Was Nearly Fatal

On that night, Washington said that he just reacted, throwing the punch without knowing who was coming toward him.

"I saw something from the corner of my eye — it was Rudy running at me 100 miles an hour," Washington said. "And I swung and that was a mistake that I made in judgment."

Tomjanovich, who crumpled to the floor, almost died that night of injuries that were akin to being thrown from a car going 50 miles per hour. His skull was dislocated and spinal fluid was leaking from his brain. He recalled being able to taste the fluid in his mouth.

The punch, captured in a horrifying video clip that has been shown countless times, became one of the most frightening moments in NBA history.

"Hollywood couldn't have made an uglier monster," Washington said. "I could sort of see myself in there, but it wasn't me."

The NBA reacted quickly to the public outcry. Washington was suspended for 60 days without pay and fined $10,000, but many players thought it still wasn't enough.

Tomjanovich's eye was blackened, and his jaw was wired shut when he spoke to reporters after the incident.

"I still don't think anyway he could convince me or anyone else could convince me that what he did is excusable," Tomjanovich said in a 1977 interview.

He was determined to return to the NBA. He didn't want "the punch" to knock him out of basketball.

Forgiving the Inexcusable

But his career was never the same, and he retired as a player in 1981. After years of turmoil, and a bout with alcoholism, Tomjanovich recovered and thrived. Now 54, he has become the successful coach of the Houston Rockets, leading them to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. He also coached the 2000 Olympic team to win a gold medal.

Washington has struggled to leave "the punch" behind. His NBA career faltered after that night in 1977, and despite his resume filled with positive credentials, that one negative remains. His hope for an NBA coaching position never materialized.

But he has the forgiveness of the man who now calls him his friend: Tomjanovich. What once seemed inexcusable has long ago been forgiven. Tomjanovich now calls Washington his "brother."

"This is no big deal that I just forgave Kermit or anything," Tomjanovich said. "That happened a long time ago."

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