On This Date in Sports December 9, 1977: The Punch
In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets is seriously injured after being punched in the face by Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers. Tomjanovich was running 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 and caused Rudy T to miss the rest of the season, while Kermit Washington was suspended 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, which led to Ken Kunnert and Kermit Washington contending for the rebound. Kunnert won the battle and passed the ball up to John Lucas. Meanwhile, back by the basket, Kunnert and Washington remained engaged in a physical battle which led to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar getting involved and trying to take down Ken Kunnert. Washington swung an elbow at Kunnert. As the fight ensued, players began running toward the scuffle, including Rudy Tomjanovich. Not knowing Tomjanovich’s intentions were to break up the fight, Washington swung at full force, catching the Rockets forward by surprise.
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 a fight. The sound of Washington’s punch landing was linked to a watermelon hitting cement. The damage to Rudy Tomjanovich was great, as the doctor who treated him said he’s seen people with less serious injuries die. The Rockets would win the game 116-105, improving to 10-13 on the season 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 detach 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 lay 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.
Kermit Washington, who was in his fifth season with the Lakers, was forever tarnished by the punch as 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 suspended him for 60 days (26 games), the largest 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 the third referee to better control the game when the intensity heats up.