New start from old wounds
By David Leon Moore, USA TODAY
PORTLAND — Monday morning, 25 years after the ferocious punch that changed both their lives and forced the NBA to get serious about penalizing violence, Rudy Tomjanovich is again coming up from behind Kermit Washington. As he gets within arm's length, Washington wheels and ... extends his right hand. "Hey, Kerm," Tomjanovich says, smiling warmly. "Hey, Rudy," Washington replies.
Rudy Tomjanovich (left) says he forgave Kermit Washington years ago.
By Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY
Tomjanovich and Washington, on opposite ends of probably the scariest incident in NBA history, shake hands.
"Sorry about yesterday," Washington says, referring to the game the Houston Rockets, coached by Tomjanovich, blew Sunday in Los Angeles to the Clippers.
"That's life," says Tomjanovich, in town for the Rockets game tonight against the Portland Trail Blazers.
They sit down, make small talk for a few minutes, then over the next hour in an exclusive interview talk openly and in-depth for the first time in one another's company about the night of Dec. 9, 1977, at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., when Washington, in a game between his Los Angeles Lakers and Tomjanovich's Rockets, nearly killed Tomjanovich.
The familiar, horrifying video clip has been shown thousands, maybe millions, of times.
Tomjanovich, then a 29-year-old, 6-8 All-Star forward with a feathery shooting touch, rushing to the aid of teammate Kevin Kunnert, who tussled first with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Washington.
Washington, then a 26-year-old, 6-8 power forward, feeling someone rushing up behind him, turning and delivering a frightful right-hand punch that basically shattered Tomjanovich's face and left him lying motionless in a pool of blood.
Those who saw it will never forget it.
Abdul-Jabbar didn't see it but has said he will never forget the sound of the impact.
Or the sound afterward, as everyone waited for a sign of life.
"It was the loudest silence you have ever heard," former Rockets guard Mike Newlin recalled in the recently published The Punch, author John Feinstein's riveting story of the fight and the lives of the two men involved.
The book has brought the incident back into the public eye and has brought together Tomjanovich and Washington, who never had a substantial conversation with one another until they read proofs of the book and started up a relationship that is getting more friendly with each passing day.
For years, both were haunted by that night. And both have traveled difficult roads since then.
For years, it seemed, Tomjanovich, who had five surgeries in all, was known only as the guy who got nailed.
Washington, who was fined $10,000 and suspended 60 days without pay, was the hulking villain who nearly killed the popular Rudy T.
Tomjanovich, who retired as a player in 1981, is now 54 and has rebounded wonderfully, coaching the Rockets to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995 and, a few years later, launching a life-altering recovery from alcoholism. He coached the 2000 Olympic team to the gold medal.
Washington, who retired in 1982, is 51 and has struggled in recent years, losing a lot of money on several business ventures, going through a divorce, failing to land what he says he is perfect for — an assistant coaching position in the NBA.
There are those who know both who worried they would never be able to find closure from their fateful clash.
Tomjanovich seems to have found it, seeming at times way too blissful for someone engaged in the day-to-day NBA coaching grind.
Washington is hoping that the book and this interview with USA TODAY will help him get there.
"It makes me happy that it's really come to an end," Washington says. "With this article and the book, we won't be asked questions anymore."
"Well, there might be questions," he says. "But it will be more positive."
Washington can only hope.
"People are saying nice things to me now," he says. "I'm not used to people saying or writing nice things about me. I'm not as gun-shy as I used to be. The thing is, Rudy's happy. Rudy's gotten closure, so I've gotten closure."
Learning to let go
That was a gradual thing for Tomjanovich. An hour or so after the punch, he was in a hospital being told by a doctor that he was leaking spinal fluid from his brain, that he wouldn't play basketball the rest of the season, that he was headed up to intensive care, that indeed his life was in danger. Tomjanovich wanted to rush back to the Forum and get in a few punches of his own.
"The doctor told me, 'Wait a minute, man, I'm telling you something right now,' " Tomjanovich says. "You have to get on a path to healing, and any negative thoughts are going to hurt you. That was the first time I got into this sort of sticking to the positive.
Before and after
After the punch, Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington continued their NBA playing careers.
Tomjanovich, 29 at the time of the punch, played three more seasons with Houston. Washington, 26 at the time, played another five seasons with Boston, San Diego, Portland and Golden State. Their stats before and after the Dec. 9, 1977, incident:
Tomjanovich Before After
Games 580 188
Points 18.1 15.3
Rebounds 8.7 6.0
Washington Before After
Games 214 293
Points 6.3 11.3
Rebounds 6.7 9.6
"I was like anybody else. I had a lot of negativity in my life. Since then, over the years, I've learned to look at life a different way. I had to. When I had to recover from drinking, you have to have a psychic change. You have to change everything, from the inside out. That disease is such a negative killer. I had to learn to get rid of resentment, anger, being a martyr, being a victim. I've learned to let those things go."
Any bitterness Tomjanovich felt toward Washington evaporated over the years, even though for a long time Washington did not seek him out to apologize. Tomjanovich made that discovery when he was going through his treatment program in 1998.
"There's this step where you have to do a personal inventory on every resentment you have, every fear you have," he says. "I have to be honest with you, I didn't bring up Kermit. That's interesting now that I think back about it. I did not have Kermit on my list of people I was resentful for.
"Not to be too philosophical, but if you've got the right attitude, you don't have to forgive anybody. You're not judging all the time. You understand what I'm saying? People make mistakes. You know what? It ain't my place to pass judgment on Kermit.
"He did say he was sorry, and that's great. But even if he didn't say he was sorry, I had to let it go for my own sake. Or else I'm playing God."
Over the years, Washington has expressed his bitterness about being cast as the villain. He has complained that Kunnert should have shouldered some of the blame, Washington says, for starting the fight.
To some, he has come across as unrepentant.
In the book, Washington is taken to task by Tomjanovich's former teammate John Lucas for not apologizing for his attack more convincingly
"I wish he could just say, 'I'm sorry. I screwed up,' " Lucas says. "All the years, all I've heard over and over again is, 'I'm sorry, but ...' "
Lucas, coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is a recovering drug addict who has counseled drug abusers.
"There's no peace in 'I'm sorry, but.' You can't find peace until you truly understand that the only thing to say is, 'I'm sorry,' period."
Washington listens again to the quote and says, basically, he's sorry, period.
"Rudy realizes that I'm sorry, and I'm glad that he's forgiven me," he says. "People say, 'Why are you saying that now? Because you want people to like you?' No, I'm saying it because I'm really glad that he's doing well, and I'm glad that maybe when I die, they won't have on my grave, 'The guy who hit Rudy Tomjanovich.'
"This gives me an opportunity to tell people I'm sorry, publicly. Not 'I'm sorry, but.' "
But there is a "but."
Washington says his punch was simply instinct. He felt threatened. He responded.
"Rudy ran to help his friend, and I would have done the same thing," he says. "Unfortunately, I didn't know who he was and I turned and I swung and he was injured. That changed everything.
"All of a sudden, I was ostracized, and I can understand that. People hated me, which I understood. They really hated me. You could sense that. Their eyes were looking at you like, 'I'd like to kill you.'
"But I understood that. I dealt myself a certain hand. I had to live with that hand. I couldn't turn it in."
He's still playing that hand, and he says that's keeping him out of the NBA.
Looking to the future
Washington graduated with honors from American University. He was an assistant coach with Tom Davis at Stanford. He ran Pete Newell's Big Man Camp. He is an acknowledged expert in weight training.
"Who knows, I might be a horrendous coach, but with my resume, without the fight, I'd have to get a shot," he says. "I've even told coaches I would work for free for a year, because I know I can help players. If I'm no good, it costs you nothing."
Washington, who lives near Portland in Vancouver, Wash., took a coaching job last winter in China, where he got a long look at 7-5 Rockets rookie Yao Ming. But his team ran out of money, and he headed back home.
He currently is working with the McKinsey River Basketball Academy and Conference Center in Eugene, Ore., a basketball camp for high school, college and professional players.
And Washington travels once or twice a year to Africa with Project Contact, a charity he organizes that sends volunteer doctors and nurses to provide medicine and treatment.
Neither Tomjanovich nor Washington is getting any money from the book, but Washington is promoting a Vancouver bookstore (somanybooks.net) that is donating $2 a copy to Project Contact.
Washington is not sure where or when a career break might come.
But he believes he is making progress in restoring his image.
And he has a new friend.
"Rudy's a good guy, a very good human being, and I didn't know that before," he says. "Any time Rudy might need anything, I would be there — guaranteed — for him more than anyone else."
Tomjanovich, who has found peace, has high hopes for Washington.
"I can imagine a little bit what he's been through," he says. "For me, the punch was like an event. But for him, it was like a scar."
The conversation winds down, and there are pictures to be taken.
They are encouraged to smile.
"Say Yao Ming," Tomjanovich says, and they both laugh.
They shake hands again.
"Talk to you, Kerm," Tomjanovich says on his way out.
"Yeah," Washington says. "I'll come to your game tomorrow."