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Violent Moment Changed 2 Lives

December 09, 2002|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

You might know where they are now. Rudy Tomjanovich coaches the Houston Rockets. Kermit Washington directs a charity called Project Contact in Portland, Ore.

You might remember where they were exactly 25 years ago when Tomjanovich and Washington were NBA players.

And if you were there at the Forum, when the Rockets played the Lakers the night of Dec. 9, 1977, you might never forget it.

Sometimes in sports, moments of great importance are distilled into a simple descriptive term that makes them instantly recognizable. For instance, Joe Montana's touchdown pass to Dwight Clark became "the Catch." Originally, "the Catch" was made by Willie Mays when he hauled in that booming World Series drive by Vic Wertz. California's improbable five-lateral scoring play against Stanford is "the Play."

What happened that night 25 years ago is "the Punch."

It is the most infamous punch in NBA history and it occurred at the end of a play, when Tomjanovich came running up behind Washington, who was scuffling with Rocket center Kevin Kunnert. Washington turned and hit Tomjanovich squarely in the face with his right hand that carried such power that Tomjanovich was out of action for more than a year.

The punch changed everything. Tomjanovich eventually returned to the Rockets, but was never the same player. Washington was suspended without pay -- and was never the same player.

Even now, 25 years later, for a reporter who watched it all happen, it is a memory that refuses to fade.

It's sort of odd, what you can dredge up.

Probably the sound, that's what comes first. The sound Washington's fist made as it crushed part of Tomjanovich's skull. You could hear it all the way up in the press box, halfway up the west side of the Forum. There wasn't courtside seating for the media in those days and reporters sat at a temporary working table.

Sitting in near darkness watching the court, it was almost like watching a movie. Tomjanovich fell backward, his head bouncing off the hardwood court. He started bleeding immediately and somebody brought towels to mop up the blood.

At the time, no one realized the consequences of the punch. Not even Tomjanovich, who walked off the court holding a towel to his head and believing he had only broken his nose. A few reporters left their seats, took the back stairs down to the locker room level and were stunned to see people preventing an angry Tomjanovich and an equally enraged Washington from tangling again.

Fights were not exactly new in the NBA and this one didn't seem so much different. In fact, Houston's 5-foot-9 Calvin Murphy had been involved in about half a dozen fights, usually because he was getting elbowed in the head trying to get through screens. In the NBA, Murphy's head was at elbow level.

The way Murphy saw it, the best way to fight was to make it short, which meant getting in the first punch.

Murphy and Tomjanovich roomed together on the road and no two players were closer, although they seemed to be an odd pair, the trash-talking African American guy from Norwalk, Conn., and the laid-back, 6-8 Polish guy from Hamtramck, Mich.

When Murphy learned that doctors had told Tomjanovich in the hospital that he could have died from the punch, Murphy cried.

He never got into another fight.

Maybe what got to him was finding out that Rocket trainer Dick Vandervoort had covered the mirror in Tomjanovich's hospital room with a towel so he wouldn't see how badly his face was damaged.

Tomjanovich was never in another fight either, but the important thing was that he did come back to play. He wore a clear, plastic mask, and he still had his usual jump shot, angling the ball off the glass. He was no longer as effective, though.

Washington? His reputation was soiled. He bounced around and soon was out of the league.

These days, the NBA has some of the strongest rules to prevent fights. Any player who leaves the bench to join in a fight is penalized. The threat of automatic ejection, suspension and heavy fines is surely a deterrent.

Tomjanovich is a successful head coach with two NBA titles in Houston.

Washington is looking for a job. He runs the nonprofit project, which raises money to set up free medical clinics in Africa.

He and Tomjanovich have talked about what happened and have established a relationship, but neither has forgotten his position that night 25 years ago. Washington was only protecting himself and Tomjanovich was trying to make peace.

And a quarter of a century later, there is renewed interest in the Rudy-Kermit incident, which is the subject of a new book by John Feinstein.

Its title? "The Punch."

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