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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

"The fight happened so fast," Washington said recently. "I felt bad that Rudy was hurt, and I know it was bad for basketball.

"Thinking back, I wasn't mature enough to let someone hit me and then walk away. I would have felt like a coward if I had walked away.

"I know now it would have been more virtuous to just walk away. Back then I was just too young and insecure. I was known as an aggressive player. If other guys thought they could push me around or intimidate me, I might have been out of the league in a year."

Washington, who was an honor student at American University in Washington, D.C., and has a degree in psychology, seems to be at peace with his self-image.

"The game of basketball was everything to me," he said. "It was Kermit Washington. It was my whole identity. If I did poorly, I was hurt to my heart.

"The thing with Rudy woke me up. There was this anger people directed toward this image they had of me as a thug. . . . I always had this illusion of being able to make everybody like me. I had to learn to like myself for what I am. I stopped trying to please everybody. A lot of people aren't worth it."

In trying to measure the meaning of what happened to these men, and the impact it had on professional basketball, it is hard to refrain from moralizing or passing judgment.

But Newell, one of the game's elder statesmen and a friend of both Tomjanovich and Washington, was able to put forth a reasonably balanced assessment.

"There will always be fights, and there probably have been a lot of them where there was more intent to harm (than Washington had)," Newell said. "People remember what happened, and it seems to have curbed some of the fighting.

"In that sense, I guess it had a positive effect. But the potential for violence is still there.

"It was the unique circumstances of the moment that caused the Tomjanovich-Washington fight. Rudy ran at Kermit from 40-feet away. Kermit swung on reflex. It was like being back in the ghetto, and having his arms pinned back as a kid. . . . I liked the two of them so much, and I was a part of their careers. It was just so painful."

Some of the pain has faded, but Tomjanovich and Washington could not be considered friends.

After Tomjanovich returned to action in 1978, the men met once on a basketball court. It happened when Washington was playing for Portand. In the pregame warmups, a Tomjanovich shot went out of bounds. He pursued the ball, not really paying attention to where he was going. When he looked up, there was Washington.

A brief, strained conversation followed. Washington was friendly and apologetic, as Tomjanovich recalls the meeting. They parted after a few moments, and never pursued the matter further.

A lawsuit growing out of the incident was settled out of court in 1979. The Rockets filed a $1.8 million suit against the Lakers for the loss of Tomjanovich's services. Part of the settlement was an agreement to withhold information on money to be paid by California Sports Inc., parent company of the Lakers, to the Rockets.

They don't forget a face. Or do they?

Rudy Tomjanovich had his collar turned up against a cold wind whipping down the street in New York. He was looking at the sidewalk and was startled when a voice said, "Hi, Rudy."

The little encounter was over as suddenly as it developed. Tomjanovich had no idea who had spoken to him.

It's rare for him to be identified by a casual basketball fan, as happened that day in New York.

For the most part, Tomjanovich can pass freely through airports, hotel lobbies and arenas without being recognized. Occasionally, someone will spot him. Sometimes, people will hear the name and remember.

"Somebody will say to me, 'You're the guy who got hit,' " Tomjanovich said, matter of factly. "That's the way it is. The real fans, they know me as a guy who was a good shooter. The kids coming out of school now, they know nothing about me. I like it better not being recognized."

Recently, he paused in the midst of a week-long excursion that took him to Philadelphia, New Jersey, Dallas, Tulsa and Seattle, and reflected on his life in basketball. When he retired four years ago, he had some problems getting accustomed to the life of a scout. He had so much nervous energy as a player, and suddenly there was no outlet for it.

But he has learned to adapt. His wife, Sophie, whom he met as a sophomore at the University of Michigan, is accustomed to the long separations. They have a summer place in Galveston, and by the time September arrives, she is ready for the basketball season to begin.

"I'm gone so much, but I'm learning the game," Tomjanovich said. "I missed not being there when we won eight in a row at the start of the year. I missed feeling part of it, but I knew I had helped. I've still got that love for the game . . . and I want to try coaching."

His old friend and teammate, Calvin Murphy, believes Tomjanovich will become an NBA coach.

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