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The Punch : Tomjanovich and Washington Both Still Feel the Pain From That Terrible Moment

January 28, 1985|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

He saw nothing and felt nothing. He lost consciousness when the punch shattered the left side of his face. When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, he had to ask someone what had happened.

As Rudy Tomjanovich was being helped off the court, he realized his nose was broken. The pain wasn't severe yet, but he knew he would not be able to play any more that night, and he was angry. His shots were starting to fall, and he was mad because he couldn't be there for the rest of the game.

It wasn't until the doctors began attending to him in the emergency room that Tomjanovich realized he had more than a broken nose. The anger melted away and fear flooded through him when he was told he might not survive.

On the night of Dec. 9, 1977, the Houston Rocket forward had suffered a fractured skull, broken jaw, broken nose, other facial injuries and leakage of spinal fluid when he was struck by the fist of Laker forward Kermit Washington.

When the swelling subsided, surgery was performed to reconstruct his face. Tomjanovich eventually recovered and played for three more seasons before he retired in 1981.

Washington, after being fined $10,000 and suspended 60 days by the National Basketball Assn., also resumed his career and became an all-star. A back injury forced his retirement in 1982.

Both men have tried to put behind them what happened that night at the Forum more than seven years ago. But the legacy of The Punch remains a part of their lives, just as it serves as a reminder to current players of what can happen in a fit of rage.

"As tragic and unfortunate as it was, it gave meaning to the phrases we utter about the ability of our athletes to do great harm to each other," NBA Commissioner David Stern said.

"You can't discuss violence in any sport without thinking about what happened between Rudy and Kermit. It crystallized and focused and forever emblazoned on the consciousness of all athletes what can happen."

The fight--frightening both for its ferocity and the suddenness with which it happened--erupted in the opening minute of the second half of a game won by the Rockets, 116-105.

After a missed shot by the Lakers, Houston's Kevin Kunnert got into a jostling match with Washington as the players ran upcourt.

"He was holding my shorts and I was just trying to knock his hand away," Kunnert said in a recent interview.

According to published reports, it appeared that Kunnert elbowed Washington and struck him with two grazing punches.

Then came a flurry of blows from Washington before Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moved in and pinned Kunnert's arms. Another punch, and Kunnert slumped to the floor with cuts under the right eye.

It was then that Tomjanovich, who had been standing near the free-throw line at the other end of the court, got involved. Attempting to help his teammate, Tomjanovich was the recipient of a blow that sent him reeling backward, flailing his arms and striking the back of his head on the floor.

Kunnert, who is now retired, feels some bitterness over his role in the fight.

"I didn't start it," he said. "Kermit has had a smear campaign against me, but I didn't do anything. I resent it being pinned on me. I don't feel guilty."

There are several ironic twists associated with the altercation. Tomjanovich and Washington are both sensitive, thoughtful men who might have been friends had they been teammates. Both were tutored by Pete Newell, the former college coach, NBA executive and part-time instructor who runs a summer camp for young NBA players. And both are back in basketball, on similar paths that could lead to head-coaching jobs.

Tomjanovich, 36, is an assistant coach with heavy scouting responsibilities for his old team, the Houston Rockets. He still suffers sinus headaches as an after-effect of The Punch, and says he is out of shape because of his extensive traveling. But he still loves to sneak into a gym, have a kid feed him the ball and shoot those rainbow 20-footers that were his specialty.

When he was contacted by a reporter, he said it had been years since he had given a long interview, and he preferred it that way. However, he talked freely and openly for more than an hour.

"'Whenever I see a replay of what happened, I almost feel like it's not me I'm watching," Tomjanovich said. "I don't have nightmares. It was a stumbling block in life, but I endured it, and maybe I'm better for it.

"I don't know, it's hard for me to grade my life. I know that I got through it (the incident) without being angry at the world--or at Kermit."

The agonies of his recovery were matched in a different, but equally demanding way, by the stress Washington felt as he tried to put his life back together.

Washington, 33, who is now an assistant coach at Stanford, felt abandoned in the aftermath of The Punch. Shortly after he was reinstated by the NBA, he was traded to Boston, where he knew no one. Loneliness, heckling and threats accompanied him for the rest of the 1977-78 season, and into the future.

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