Thursday, September 16, 2010

On the Coffee Table: The Punch

In 1977, the Lakers' Kermit Washington punched the Rockets' Rudy Tomjanovich during an NBA game. He hit him so hard that he nearly killed him. To be sure, Mr. Washington did not intend to hurt Mr. Tomjanovich as badly as he did but there is no denying that the lives of both men and their sport would never be quite the same.

Photo from USA Today

In 2002, John Feinstein wrote a book entitled
The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever. (He's a professional writer and I'm not so I won't make too much fuss about the serial comma.) In the introduction, Feinstein tells the story of convincing Tomjanovich to cooperate for the story. Rudy T agreed, he later revealed to the author, because he felt he could trust Feinstein to "tell the story properly (p. xv)." I believe that he did.

Make no mistake, Feinstein's descriptions of the incident and aftermath are quite graphic. I readily admit that I don't have much of a stomach for such things. For instance, I have never actually watched the Joe Theismann leg-break video, even though I sure remember that it was all the talk at school the next day. I haven't watched the punch video either and am certain I won't - ever.

Rudy Tomjanovich Photo via

But the book really is about so much more. Both of these men have been haunted by the incident ever since. The punch is in paragraph one of Kermit Washington's wikipedia entry. A Google search for either man turns up both the punch video and a photo of Rudy T in his protective mask near the top of the list. And yet, Feinstein does a wonderful job of showcasing the lives that went far beyond that brief, horrible moment. Neither man is portrayed as a saint but both are revealed to be decent men, devoted to their sport of choice before the NBA became the megastar-studded showcase it is today.

Kermit Washington Photo via The Starting Five

But really, what's most interesting to me in reading the book is the constant revelation of how different things were 30+ years ago, in the sports world in general and the NBA in particular. 1977 was, after all, 7 years BMJ (Before Michael Jordan). The exposure of the league at the time was, frankly, a joke with CBS airing the league finals on tape-delay. In today's NBA economics, a five-time All-Star (Rudy) with a six-figure salary is unfathomable.

It was pre-ESPN, of course, too. When I started following sports in the early '80s, the morning paper was the most comprehensive source of immediate information readily available. Even a box score from a West Coast game such as the Lakers-Rockets tilt would have been a day late. At one point, George Michael, he of Sports Machine
and not of Wham, launched a dial-up sports info number for the DC area similar to the one you would call for the time or weather. But even for that, you'd just get a recorded listing of scores. Now, a punch in an NBA game would be on SportsCenter highlights even before the final buzzer. The news and the YouTube video would be passed along over facebook and twitter and die-hard fans in the Philippines would be well-versed experts on the incident within 15 minutes.

All of which leads me to wonder how much things will change in the next 30 years. How will the sports world be different when my daughter is my age?

Anyway, it's a great book, even if your stomach for blood is as weak as mine.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the "The Punch" when I read it a few years ago. As you mention in your post, it's fascinating to consider the incident in relation to the changing media landscape.

    Feinstein portrays two men haunted by one incident that, much to their chagrin, came to define their careers and in many ways their lives. Though Tomjanovich and Washington may find it hard to believe, I think things would be even worse today. The YouTube video would go viral in a heartbeat and expose the two men to even the non-fan. And there really would be no shaking it.

    Consider the case of LeGarrette Blount. I'm convinced his punishment was worse than it needed to be simply because video of the incident existed and so many people were exposed to it.

    Blount's act of poor sportsmanship came to define his character for many people and turned the incident into a test of Oregon's virtue as a program. And while there are other cases of Blount losing his cool, that single punch has become the storyline for his short career.

    Think anyone would've cared as much - or even known about - a single punch thrown in the middle of the night in Boise, Idaho, had it not been for ESPN & YouTube? And that punch did but a fraction of the damage of Washington's fateful punch.