The above gif is from December 9, 1977, in a Sunday game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. The gif shows Kermit Washington’s punch of Rudy Tomjanovich 5 times. It’s the most excrutiating punch in NBA history, and I’d rather not watch it more than I already did while making it, so I refrained from looping it forever.
Picture running full bore ahead and then getting cold-cocked in the face from the opposite direction. It’s a bit like two cars crashing head on into each other, but with Rudy’s face and Kermit’s fist as the cars. Kermit* was a very strong and muscular 6’8” 230 pounds; it’s probably more accurate to describe that fist as a Mack truck.
“The Punch" was so bad Rudy almost died from the hit and it almost ruined Washington’s life in professional basketball. Rudy’s face was fractured about 8 mm (1/3") from his face, and he lay on the court in a pool of blood, unconscious. He did, later, get to his feet and walk off, but besides having his face fractured off his skull, he had a cerebral concussion, a broken nose, broken jaw, and his skull was fractured so that spinal fluid and blood leaked into his mouth. The doctor that performed surgery on him later said
"I have seen many people with far less serious injuries not make it."**
Washington was fined $10,000 and suspended for 26 games (at the time it was the longest suspension for an on-court incident in league history); SNL ran back footage of the punch multiple times as part of a gag about the incident; Walter Cronkite and CBS News investigated the punch and multiple columnists called for the lifetime ban of Kermit.
Replay footage did not include the scuffle that percipitated the punch. Tomjanovich was running into the fracas to break up a fight between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Kunnert, but Washington thought Tomjanovich was going in to help his teammate against the bigger Kareem. Months earlier, Kareem had broken his hand when he punched Kurt Benson, so the Lakers’ players were anxious about guys going after their all-world big man.
Perhaps the most revealing writing about the incident and aftermath can be found in David Halberstam’s seminal basketball book,*** The Breaks of the Game. In it, Halberstam details what happened that night to Rudy and the ensuing backlash against Washington. Not two weeks after the “The Punch,” Washington was traded to Boston. He received death threats laced with racial epithets (remember this was the 70’s), and police warned him not to order room service when he was on the road because they feared he would be poisoned. His wife was 8 months pregnant at the time of “The Punch,” and they became so ostracized around the country, their obstetrician refused to help her because she was married to Kermit.
I know I already blogged about the flagrant foul video earlier today and the Washington-Rudy hit was included, but this is just a reminder of what can happen when men the size of NBA players start throwing punches.
Violence shouldn’t be extolled precisely because of what happened between Kermit and Rudy, but hard-nosed play should be applauded. There’s a difference, however slight, but the next time you see two NBA players square off then walk away, maybe you’ll understand why rather than crow about the fragile contemporary game.
*Kermit attended and played basketball at my alma mater, American University. His number was retired while I was an undergrad.
**page 273 of The Breaks of the Game.
***The greatest basketball book ever written, in my humble opinion.