There are lessons to be learned from John Feinstein’s book about Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington, The Punch.
Violence Begets Violence.
The violence that we seem to wholeheartedly celebrate in an earlier generation was curbed for a reason. It wasn’t The Punch. The Punch was simply the abscess that revealed the rot. This isn’t a “it looks really bad for the league” type rot. It’s a rot that made clears clear the league was headed for a full-on cave-in if it was not rectified. Most terrifyingly, Rudy Tomjanovich nearly became that cave in. Terrifying in the sense that Tomjanovich could have died. This is not exaggeration. This is not hypersensitivity.
Eleven pages into the opening chapter of Feinstein’s book, Dr. Paul Toffel is standing in the Emergency Room at Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles, talking to Rudy Tomjanovich, then a 29-year-old All-Star who very much wanted to return to the game. Toffel asks Rudy a question. Toffel is a head trauma expert called in the aftermath of the punch. The question at first seems odd, and then a feeling of dread passes over you, the way a sharp twist in a horror novel or film makes the hair on your arms stand up. It’s a simple question.
“‘Rudy, let me ask you a question,’ he said. ‘Do you have any kind of funny taste in your mouth?’
Tomjanovich’s eyes opened slowly. ‘Yeah, I do,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t taste like blood either. It’s very bitter. What is it?’
‘Spinal fluid,’ Toffel said. ‘You’re leaking spinal fluid from your brain. We’re going to get you up to ICU in a few minutes and we’re going to hope your brain capsule seals soon.’”
And with that, those who did not understand what The Punch was begin to know just how truly horrifying violence on the floor can be. We can sit on barstools, on television studio sets, around water coolers and talk about how the NBA has become full of soft players. And to be sure, the fierce physicality of the NBA carried on well past The Punch. But it set in motion the acceleration of a movement that was birthed the summer prior to The Punch, when the owners came to an agreement to give the commissioner the power to more heavily fine players and to suspend them indefinitely. The fights had gotten out of control, and that trend had continued when the ’77 season began.
There is an element of the story that drives home this lesson. In Buffalo during the ’76-’77 season, Washington had been involved in a fight with John Shumate of the Buffalo Braves. During that fight, members of the Braves had jumped on Washington’s back from behind. This put a significant fear of being attacked from behind in Washington. Less than a year later, Rudy Tomjanovich would approach the fight where Washington was involved from behind. Tomjanovich had not intention of leaping on Washington’s back, or fighting, really. But when the Braves bench became involved in that fight, it created a chain reaction that would partially influence what went through Washington’s brain before he swung. That’s what we’re left with. The more players fight, the better the chance that we face the possibility of an event beyond what we think is allowable. We like the idea of Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol trading elbows (yeah, that should work out well), but we certainly don’t want anyone to be seriously hurt. Do you recognize how insane that sounds?
“YES, OF COURSE I WANT GIGANTIC HUMAN BEINGS WITH MASSIVE POWER TO THROW VIOLENT SWINGS TOWARD ONE ANOTHER! I JUST DON’T WANT ANYONE TO GET SERIOUSLY HURT! WHY IS THIS SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND?”
So the next time your favorite player gets a little wound up and tosses a punch or throws a player and then gets suspended, consider that it’s a lot like throwing up debris to try and slow down a runaway train (never goin’ back). With enough velocity, nothing’s going to stop it (Ron Artest). That still means you try like hell to slow it down enough to keep it out of the ravine.
Don’t Judge A Book By Its Number Of Ejections
Which of the two players involved in The Punch was an Academic All-American?
The fact that I’m asking should give you a pretty good hint that it was Washington, and not Tomjanovich. This stunned me. I like to think that it wasn’t a racial issue, though I don’t have a frame by frame breakdown of my initial mental reaction to that fact to say for sure. I can say that it was more Washington’s reputation as an enforcer and his lasting image as the player that threw The Punch that led to that shock settling in. But it’s true. Washington graduated with a 3.37 GPA and a BA in Sociology. The guy that threw The Punch whipped my performance in college.
And after reading the book, you’re left with a number of changed perspectives about Washington. He never thought of himself as an enforcer, never took pride in that part of his game. It was simply an element he was called upon to do. He possessed the kind of work ethic that we constantly wish players would emulate. The book reveals a portrait of… a person.
Obvious right? Yes, Kermit Washington is a person. Thanks for that, Matt. My point is that to elaborate on how complex Washington is revealed to be is to underestimate how complex most people are. He’s simultaneously a devoted teammate and a moody player that’s unable to to deal plainly with his situation. He expresses very real remorse for what happened to Rudy while blaming Kevin Kunnert for starting the fracas that led to the swing, despite being Kunnert’s teammate for years. He’s not any more layered, likable, or pained than most of the people you know in your life, or you yourself. The book paints Washington as both selfish and selfless, considerate and insensitive, self-aware and oblivious. He’s the Nowhere Man, plastered on YouTube and history retrospectives for all time because of a poor decision.
A League Drawn Upon Itself Many Times Over
The book reveals Tomjanovich’s endless feeling of inadequacy and his drive to disprove that self-assessment. That same drive pushes him to be an All-Star in the NBA. Which leads to him starting. Which leads to the punch. Which leads to the timing that sets up his availability as a coach. Which contributes to both his NBA Championship rings and his battle with alcoholism.
That night in 1977, Jerry West was coaching the Lakers. Rudy Tomjanovich wound up coaching the Lakers for a season and still works as a consultant for the very team that unwillingly contributed to the shortening of his career. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is described in the book as being moody, difficult, and wary of physical contact. In 2009, media members criticized Lakers center Andrew Bynum for not finishing his training with Kareem, despite all of these well known issues with him. By “media members” I mean, me. The Braves were the team that jumped Washington from behind (though Washington was clearly an equal contributor to the fight). The Braves would later move to San Diego and rename themselves the Clippers, and then move to Los Angeles, where they continue to spread misery and pain, only now just to their fans.
Red Auerbach was a significant positive force for Washington, trading for him after The Punch.
That same move to San Diego? It was part of an ownership swap in the league that also sent several contracts, including Washington’s, to San Diego, from the Celtics. That same summer, the new ownership helped Auerbach sign a player that hadn’t entered the draft yet. AND HIS NAME… WAS LARRY BIRD. AND NOW YOU KNOW THE REST OF THE HIGHLY PREDICTABLE STORY.
The point is that we think of the league in eras. Players exist in a time frame, are dominant in a time frame, and then retire in the next time frame. But these same players and personnel have long reaching affects that impact teams, players, coaches, and personnel from generation to generation. And though Feinstein’s work is about the two players and how that night scarred them both, the book had me tossing it across the room several times saying “Whoa” like Keanu.
The Story Itself
It’s a sad book. You feel bad for everyone. The players that were there that night sound haunted by the events, especially Calvin Murphy, one of Tomjanovich’s best friends. The book ends, in ironic fashion, talking about how both players can’t stand how often it’s brought up. I feel guilty for even writing this review. But Feinstein’s work deserve to be noted for contributing to our history of the league. It’s a companion to “Breaks of the Game,” an insight into life as an NBA player, a history lesson, a portrait, and a parable. The book doesn’t come off as heavy-handed, nor overdramatic. It doesn’t subscribe to any higher arching themes. It’s the story of two lives that intersected in a moment of violence and terror that neither intended, and that both have had to live with for the rest of their lives.
There are points that Feinstein ignores out of consideration. He rarely touches the real damage Tomjanovich faced that night. He only briefly touches on the lasting denial Washington lives in throughout the book, though it’s enough to make an impact during the conclusion. He sometimes seems resolute in hammering home themes that don’t really serve to convince us of who both players were. But those same themes do ring true as part of the story, an element that lacquers their histories. An update to the book following the past 10 years, or really, just Ron Artest, would be fascinating, particularly through the lens of David Stern and his adjustments to O’Brien’s policies. But at the end of the day, Feinstein manages to captivate without losing perspective.
If you want a good story about how the league was altered by a single incident, you should read it.
If you want to learn more about who Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich really were, really are, you should read it.
If you want a damn fine basketball book, you should read it.
Score (out of 5): 4.5
Tomjanovich and Washington meet following publication of The Punch
Washington speaks about Blount from Oregon
Washington’s Good Life
Buy it on Amazon