On This Date in Sports December 9, 1977: Assault on the Court

In collaboration with the

Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets is seriously injured being punched in the face by Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers. Tomjanovich ran down the court during an altercation between the two teams when Washington turned and landed a roundhouse punch that knocked the Rockets star out. The injuries, which doctors said were nearly fatal, caused Rudy T to miss the rest of the season, while Kermit Washington was suspended for a record 26 games.

It had been a frustrating start for the Lakers coached by Jerry West in the 1977/78 season. On opening night against the Milwaukee Bucks, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand after punching Milwaukee Bucks center Kent Benson who had elbowed him in the stomach. The Lakers, including Kermit Washington, were involved in several brawls as they held a record of 9-14 as they prepared to face the Houston Rockets at the Forum. Early in the second half, Lakers guard Norm Nixon missed a shot, leading Ken Kunnert and Kermit Washington to contend for the rebound. Kunnert won the battle and passed the ball up, John Lucas. Back by the basket, Kunnert and Washington remained engaged in a physical battle which led to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar getting involved trying to take down Ken Kunnert. Washington swung an elbow at Kunnert. As the fight ensued, players ran towards the scuffle, including Rudy Tomjanovich. Not knowing Tomjanovich intended to break up the fight, Washington swung at full force, catching the Rockets forward by surprise.

Washington’s punch landing sound was linked to a watermelon hitting cement. The punch left Rudy Tomjanovich, unconscious in a pool of blood, as the silence at the Forum was deafening. Tomjanovich had a reputation as being a peacemaker, so it would have been hard to imagine him going down the floor to get in the fight. The damage to Rudy Tomjanovich was significant, as the doctor who treated him said he’s seen people with less severe injuries die. The Rockets would win the game 116-105, improving to 10-13 as Rudy T. missed the rest of the season.

Rudy Tomjanovich, who had played his entire career with the Rockets, beginning in San Diego, was a four-time All-Star. The punch caused severe damage to his face, having the bone structure of his face detached from his skull. He also suffered a cerebral concussion and broken jaw and was leaking blood and spinal fluid, which Tomjanovich said he could taste as he laid on the floor. Rudy Tomjanovich missed the rest of the season but fully recovered in 1979, making it to his fifth All-Star Game. After retiring in 1981, he became a longtime coach for the Rockets, leading them to two NBA Championships.


In his fifth season with the Lakers, Kermit Washington was forever tarnished by the punch. It became a national news story, with Walter Cronkite calling for him to be banned from ever playing basketball again. The NBA would fine Washington $10,000 and suspend him for 60 days (26 games), the most significant suspension for an on-court incident at the time. It would be his final act as a member of the Lakers as he was dealt to the Boston Celtics before the end of his suspension.  Years later, Rudy Tomjanovich reconciled with Kermit Washington forgiving him for the punch that nearly ended his life.  Also, as a result of the incident, the NBA added a third referee to control the game better when the intensity heats up.