The Punch, Available at Barnes and Noble

The Punch, Available at Barnes and Noble

This is an interesting book to read.  The author describes in a very detailed manner exactly what happened that night and the nature of the injuries.  It was a tough situation and a tough time.  Fights were somewhat common in the NBA back then and certain players were the enforcers so to speak, to keep things in line and to retaliate when necessary.  Since then, there are much more severe penalties for fighting in the league, and the regular three officials on the court to help maintain order.  This incident led to these changes in penalties and the number of officials.

On December 9, 1977, during a game between the Rockets and Lakers, Kermit Washington was playing for the Lakers as their enforcer and part of his job was to protect Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Kareem got into a bit of a scuffle before the players broke apart from each other and while the player from the Rockets was going up court, Kermit grabbed his shorts to slow him down.  The retaliation from the other player was an elbow to get the arm off.  Then the fight was on.  Kermit and the other player were fighting and Rudy Tomjanovich ran down the cout to assist in breaking up the fight.

Kermit Washington due to prior experience saw someone running up behind him and thought he was going to be attacked simply turned around and punched Rudy in the face.  

This caused Rudy to fall to the floor unconscious and bleed profusely from his face.  The crowd was silent and people in the press box actually heard the punch land.  If Kermit’s punch had landed an inch in any other direction, there would be no need for the book and the later events.  

The punch was dead on right under Rudy’s nose in the middle of his face.  It caused the front part of the face to be broken off from the rest of Rudy’s skull and Rudy’s brain capsule was leaking spinal fluid.  What was a routine fight became a life threatening situation.  In cause you were wondering, spinal fluid has a sort of bitter taste to it if you ask Rudy about it.  I’d suggest you don’t.

Rudy was out for the season, he had five surgeries to repair the damage and was able to play the next season.  Kermit was suspended for 60 days and was given a $10,000 fine.  This was in the days before the million dollar salaries.

For both Rudy and Kermit, this one event has been used to define both of their lives.  Kermit (according to him and the people who know him well and worked with him regularly) never intended to hurt Rudy in that way.  The punch was just a reaction to his fear of being pinned from behind.  He was bullied and beat up that way when he was in elementary school and the year before he was attacked from behind in a game.  He was just reacting to a tense situation and hit the person running in.  It was a complete accident that the punch was so devastating.

Rudy had a great amount of healing to do.  Physically and emotionally.  He was told to not hate Kermit about what happened because the hate is like taking poison and hoping someone else dies.  That is a good way of putting it.  In spite of all of the other achievements Rudy has had since then, he is still known for a punch that nearly killed him over 30 years ago.

The book gives some biography about both Kermit and Rudy before and after the punch.  One of the recurring themes is that Kermit is always trying to point blame for the fight at another player instead of just apologizing and not justifying his acts.  Kermit continues to blame another Rockets player for starting the fight prior to the time Rudy came in to stop the fight.  It seems that he just can’t let it go.

Rudy had to deal with being reminded of the incident for all of his professional career.  As if his own memories of the event were not enough.  He had to deal with nightmares of his own death for years and finally overcame his alcoholism.  Rudy has had a spiritual awakening of sorts, and the final page of the book illustrates the point well.

The author was traveling back and forth between  Rudy and Kermit with intermittent interviews and information gathering and was talking to Rudy about Kermit getting a job coaching baskeball in China.  [Kermit had already referred to the unofficial “marriage” that he and Rudy have because of the punch so many years before, that their lives and history would always be connected from that event.]  When Rudy heard about the coaching job he wished that Kermit would do well at it.  The author asked Rudy why he wished Kermit well, was it because they were married, and Rudy said “No, its’ because he’s my brother.”

This statement is a reticent reminder of how we are all related to each other.  What is not clear is whether Rudy was referring to the relation just between Kermit and Rudy because of the punch, or whether Rudy has reached the  spiritual maturity to accept Kermit as a fellow child of God.  

The book is a pretty good look at two lives devastated on the same night.

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