Thursday, December 9, 2010

December 9, 1977: The loudest silence you've ever heard

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It all started as the Lakers' Kermit Washington and Houston's Kevin Kunnert battled for a rebound. This rebound battle got a little more physical than most, with elbows flying and shorts being pulled. Kunnert went after Washington, and the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grabbed Kunnert to pull him away. But as Abdul-Jabbar had Kunnert's arms pinned behind him, Washington landed a punch that dropped Kunnert to his knees.

Players from both teams were rushing from the other end of the court to help, with players alternatingly throwing punches and trying to break up the fight. As players were being separated, Washington noticed out of the corner of his eye that someone wearing a Houston jersey was running toward him from the other end, so he swung and punched in one motion.

Everything stopped. Abdul-Jabbar heard a sound that he likened to a watermelon being dropped on concrete. The crowd, which had been fired up for the fight, drew deathly silent. One player described the mood in the Great Western Forum as "the loudest silence you've ever heard."

And in the middle of it all, Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich was laying flat on his back, his head resting in a pool of blood.

The punch Kermit Washington threw on December 9, 1977, was one of the most devastating punches ever thrown outside of a boxing ring. Washington didn't know that Tomjanovich was running back to act as a peacemaker - he thought he was being attacked from behind, so he swung and punched with all his force. Tomjanovich was running full speed into the punch, adding to the power. The results were stunning.

As Tomjanovich lay on the floor of the Great Western Forum, he tasted something funny in his throat - it was his own spinal fluid. He had suffered a fractured face, and in fact his facial bones had partially separated from his skull. He later said that as he lay half-conscious on the floor, he thought the scoreboard had fallen on him.

That Tomjanovich survived is a minor miracle. The doctor that operated on him said that people had died from less severe head injuries, and he described the surgery as using Scotch tape to put together a cracked egg shell. Tomjanovich somehow was able to return to the court five months later and resume playing at the caliber he had been before hand. Still, he had medical problems, and successfully sued the Lakers for being unable to control Washington, winning more in damages than he had originally sought.

For Washington, the single punch came to define him. As a black man who had nearly killed a white man during a game, he received countless letters containing racial threats. He was even advised to not order room service because of the fear he would be poisoned. The Lakers didn't provide much help, distancing themselves from him as much as possible and eventually trading him after his 28-game suspension was finished. He was able to resume his career, though, playing for four more teams before retiring in 1988.

While Tomjanovich eventually became a successful head coach, Washington struggled to deal with the aftermath of his punch. While he was able to get assistant coaching jobs and was offered other positions in basketball, he made claims that he was denied better opportunities because of his involvement in that fight. Whether that's true is debatable, but there's no telling that he has been personally affected by the punch, probably even more so than Tomjanovich.

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