“A Mistake I Made That Changed Everybody’s Life” – The Kermit Washington Story

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“A Mistake I Made That Changed Everybody’s Life” – The Kermit Washington Story


One punch that came out of nowhere changed the NBA for forever.

On December 9, 1977, during an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets, a scuffle broke out between several players at midcourt.

The second half had just started, Lakers guard Norm Nixon missed a shot. Houston’s Kevin Kunnert and Washington both went up for the rebound, Kunnert got it and passed to John Lucas. Their battle for the rebound was more physical than usual, however. Abdul-Jabbar became involved and wrestled with Kunnert. As a result, Kermit Washington stayed behind in the backcourt in order to watch over and make sure nothing happened. After the two disengaged, Washington grabbed Kunnert’s shorts in order to prevent him from getting back over on offense quickly. Kunnert threw an elbow that hit Washington on the upper arm and this move spun him around so that he was facing Washington. What happened next is disputed: Washington, several Lakers, and Rocket forward Robert Reid insisted that Kunnert punched him, Kunnert said Washington swung first after he attempted to free himself from Washington’s grasp. The referee who saw the action saw merely a “scuffle” between Kunnert and Abdul-Jabbar followed by the one between Kunnert and Washington then Washington’s punch. Both Washington and Abdul-Jabbar reject this account.

Abdul-Jabbar then ran up behind Kunnert and grabbed his arms to try to pull him away from the scuffle. But this only left him defenseless for Washington’s first punch, which hit Kunnert in the head and brought him down on one knee.

Washington saw Tomjanovich running toward the altercation. Not knowing that he intended to break up the fight, Washington hit Tomjanovich with a roundhouse punch. The blow, which took Tomjanovich by surprise, fractured his face about one-third of an inch away from his skull and left Tomjanovich unconscious in a pool of blood in the middle of the arena. Abdul-Jabbar likened the sound of the punch to a melon being dropped onto concrete. Tomjanovich had a reputation around the league as a peacemaker. Players involved say that right after Tomjanovich collapsed the absence of sound at the arena, which was filled with shocked fans, was “the loudest silence you have ever heard.” Reporters heard the sound of the punch all the way in the second floor press box, and some rushed to the playing floor in disbelief.

Tomjanovich was able to get up and walk around, however, and on the way into the locker room he saw Washington. Tomjanovich says that he became aggressive and asked Washington why he punched him. Washington yelled something inaudible about Kunnert, and they were broken up by two security personnel. Tomjanovich was in no condition to fight despite his aggressiveness; besides having the bone structure of his face detached from his skull and suffering a cerebral concussion and broken jaw and nose, he was leaking blood and spinal fluid into his skull capsule. His skull was fractured in such a way that Tomjanovich could taste the spinal fluid leaking into his mouth. He later recalled that at the time of the incident, he believed the scoreboard had fallen on him. The doctor who worked on Tomjanovich said “I have seen many people with far less serious injuries not make it” and likened the surgery to Scotch-taping together a badly shattered eggshell.

Washington was fined $10,000, and suspended for 60 days, missing 26 games; then the longest suspension for an on-court incident in NBA history. The Rockets were furious. Tomjanovich missed the rest of the season and they felt Washington should at least have done likewise.

Washington’s punch resulted in the league enacting strict penalties for on-court fights. Former NBA commissioner David Stern, then the NBA’s chief counsel, later said that the incident made NBA officials realize that “you couldn’t allow men that big and that strong to go around throwing punches at each other.”

As of 2010, any player who attempts to punch another—even if he misses—is automatically ejected from the game, and suspended for at least his team’s next game. The league added a third referee to its game crew after the season to stop such fights to start in the first place.


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