The Lowdown: Kermit Washington

via Los Angeles Times

“Is that Kermit Washington? Oh my God, it’s Kermit Washington!”

Via Nathan Dolezal, wide-eyed basketball fan, former co-host of Ain’t it Funky Now!

Years Active: 1974 – 1982; 1988

Career Stats: 9.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 0.8 spg, 52.6% FG, 65.6% FT

Accolades: 1980 NBA All-Star, 2x NBA All-Defensive 2nd Team (1980-81)

So, there I was exiting American University’s radio station after another funky good time on Ain’t it Funky Now! with my good friend and c0-host Nathan Dolezal. As we’re strolling down the hallway, a gargantuan man with a friend of his own is walking a little aimlessly, clearly a bit lost. Instantly, we recognize this as legendary American University Eagle, Kermit Washington. He spots us and very politely asks where the student television station is. We point him in the right direction and he leave us with a simple, soft-spoken “thanks fellas.”

Now, if you know anything about Kermit Washington it’s most likely the punch he threw in December 1977. So let’s go ahead and get that out of the way. It was a terrible act that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich and turned Kermit into a villainous figure. Context, however, is golden. Admittedly, contextualizing a brutal act of violence is difficult, but then again the 70s NBA was a brutal place. If you think Charles Oakley was tough, and he was, then you would soil your Depends with the likes of Maurice Lucas and Bob Lanier prowling the court.

For their menacing behavior, these men were lauded, praised and adored as “enforcers”. It wasn’t just the enforcers who engaged in fisticuffs though. Physical, dirty play and fights were not beyond the pale. In fact, Kermit’s teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand punching Kent Benson (who cheaply caught Jabbar with an elbow) in a swing that was far more pre-mediated and meant to do harm than Kermit’s punch on Rudy T. For further priming on the nastiness of the 70s NBA, here’s an excerpt from the Kermit Washington documentary, Redemption:

In that rough and tumble environment, Kermit Washington exemplified himself as a prototype for tough, rugged power forwards. Not nasty or malicious. But stout and firm. During his playing days for American University, Kermit would become an AP All-American and averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds for his collegiate career. My research has only turned up Bill Russell, Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor and Paul Silas as the other players to accomplish that. It was a testament to Washington’s will to substitute hard work and desire for the natural talent and skill he lacked. Incessantly, he would lift weights to increase his strength and undergo drills to augment his speed and agility. This same attitude also propelled Kermit to Academic All-American status.

Drafted 5th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1973, Washington would languish on the bench for his first 3 seasons. Averaging just 4 points and 5 rebounds in 13.5 minutes a night during his rookie season, Kermit’s will was tested and he was clearly disenchanted with the situation:

“It’s really seemed like a waste of a year out of my life. I had certain goals when I came into the NBA and I haven’t fulfilled them. I’ve always been able to achieve what I set out to do in the past and this year has really hurt.

“My dream wasn’t to become a millionaire, it was to become successful on the basketball court. Not in the bank. I’m very competitive person and I like to do well at anything I do. I’m happiest when I’m doing well in the game.”

Happiness would come in the 1976-77 season. As veteran forwards like Connie Hawkins and Bill Bridges retired, the opportunity for playing time revealed itself. Furthermore, Kermit worked during the off-season with Pete Newell to improve his game. The final strike in Kermit’s favor was Jerry West replacing Bill Sharman as Lakers coach, since West was more amenable to playing younger players than Sharman. In the season’s first 53 games, Washington averaged 9.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in 25 minutes as the front court complement to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. However, Kermit would miss out on the team’s playoff run when he tore a patellar tendon midway through the season.

Returning in 1977-78, Washington continued the improvement with 11 rebounds and 11.5 points and his typical defensive prowess. However, that December came the aforementioned punch on Rudy T. and it would be Kermit’s last game as a Laker. During the 60-day suspension he received, Kermit was traded to the Boston Celtics.

Amazingly, Kermit actually played better upon his return. In 32 games with Boston, Washington averaged 12 points and 10.5 rebounds along with 1.3 blocks while shooting 52% FG and 75% FT. It was an excellent fit for Kermit:

His coach calls him inspiring and the fickle Boston fans love him… Washington Wednesday scored a season-high 18 points and grabbed 17 rebounds as the Boston Celtics defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-99.

[…]

On defense and off the backboards, it was all Washington; ten of his rebounds were from the offensive boards. “Kermit was inspiring. Not only did he inspire the fans, but he inspired us. He was outstanding off the boards. His style gives a lift to all of us,” [Coach Tom] Sanders said.

Despite the good situation, Washington was abruptly traded that off-season to the San Diego Clippers in a three-way trade so that Boston could  acquire Tiny Archibald. He performed well for the Clippers, playing all 82 games for the only time in his career and averaging 11 points, 9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. The Clippers had a very un-Clipper 43-win season which wasn’t good enough for the playoffs, but signaled a team on the rise.

Again, despite seemingly finding an on-court home, Washington was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers as compensation for San Diego signing Bill Walton. It was disastrous for the Clippers. Walton was the better player, but getting all of Kermit was better than the small doses of Bill they would receive due to injury.

Although approaching the final years of his career, Kermit would enjoy his best seasons in Portland. 1980 was his finest season in the pros: 13 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 55% shooting. Finally, Washington would receive notice and league-wide praise for his on-court abilities. When Kansas City Kings forward Scott Wedman went down injured, Washington was selected to replace him in that year’s all-star game. Kermit would also be named to the All-Defensive 2nd Team.

The next season, 1981, Washington again made the Defensive 2nd Team. The frontcourt of Calvin Natt, Mychal Thompson and Washington led Portland to the playoffs in 1981. During that postseason, Washington was magnificent in the face of an upset by the KC Kings. In the 3-game series, he averaged 9 points, 17 rebounds and 2.7 steals. However, the grizzled 30-year old called it quits midway through the 1982 season, citing back, hip and knee pain.

Physically, Kermit was strong as an ox, impossible to move out of position on the boards and, likewise, he could move you with impunity.Mentally, that determination pervades him still. The day I ran into Kermit Washington was really no coincidence. He had set up a camper on the campus quad to raise awareness, money and materiel for Project Contact Africa, a group he was working with to feed and clothe destitute Africans. He has also worked with NBA rookies on managing their money in a responsible manner:

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, he’s a real sweetheart, that Kermit.

Seth Carstens