The punch: When NBA’s Rudy Tomjanovich & Kermit Washington got into a fight on-court (1977)

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It’s not often you can point to a single fraction of an instant that changes the way a sport is run, but on the evening of December 9, 1977, a single punch altered the way the NBA regarded fighting forever.

It wasn’t uncommon in the 1970s for NBA players to scuffle, throw punches, and occasionally escalate to full-on bench-clearing brawls over injustices on the court — warranted or otherwise.

That December night in Los Angeles seemed like no exception to the rule, as the Houston Rockets’ Kevin Kunnert and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kermit Washington began scuffling after a particularly physical battle for a rebound.

As the melee began to escalate, the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich ran towards the scuffle, intending to play the role of peacemaker and break up the fight.

Not knowing his intention, and simply seeing a player from the opposing team rushing towards him out of the corner of his eye, Washington turned and delivered what would become known later as simply “The Punch.”

The blow, which Lakers’ star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would later compare to the sound of a melon being dropped on concrete, would leave Tomjanovich unconscious in a pool of blood on the court.

Originally reported as a “broken nose,” in fact, his face was fractured and essentially floating free on the rest of his skull. He would be out of basketball for five months, and was fortunate to even survive.

Washington would be fined and suspended for, what was at the time, the longest suspension in NBA history — 60 days and 26 games. The NBA would add a third referee the following season, who trailed the play to call fouls and stop play before situations that led to The Punch could escalate.

The league also enacted strict penalties for on-court fights, automatically ejecting players for throwing punches — even if they miss — and suspending them for at least his team’s next game.

Tomjanovich would go on to continue his successful playing career, though his injury would force an early retirement. He then coached the Rockets to back-to-back NBA Championships in the 1990s and now serves as a consultant to the Lakers.

Kermit Washington would struggle with both his career and life in the aftermath of the incident, though he would continue to play in the league through the 1981-82 season. As of 2013, he was a regional representative for the NBA Player’s Association. – AJW

Rudy Tomjanovich press photo (1970s)

Fight mars Laker game

From the Star News (Wilmington, North Carolina) December 10, 1977

Moses Malone scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the second half to lead the Houston Rockets to a 116-105 National Basketball Association victory Friday night in a game marred by a one-punch fight in which Rockets’ forward Rudy Tomjanovich suffered a broken nose.

Tomjanovich also was cut under his left nostril down to his lip when hit by Los Angeles forward Kermit Washington, who was ejected from the game following the incident early in the third quarter. Tomjanovich was taken to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.

The fight followed an exchange of elbows between Washington and Rockets’ center Kevin Kunnert. The Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tried to move Kunnert away from Washington and in doing so, grabbed him around the arms from behind.

Washington then delivered a series of short punches to the body of Kunnert. It appeared that Tomjanovich tried to break up the fight, at which time Washington whirled around and slugged the Houston forward.

Tomjanovich had 19 points before the fight, which occurred 48 seconds into the third quarter.

Malone missed all eight of his field goal attempts and had four fouls in the first half, but he was the difference in the second half.

The Lakers were led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 32 points. Calvin Murphy scored 28 points for the Rockets and John Lucas added 20 for the Rockets.

Malone finished with 15 rebounds and Abdul-Jabbar wound up with only seven, two in the second half.

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Washington fined $10,000, suspended 60 days

Delta Democrat Times (Greenville, Mississippi) December 13, 1977

New York — NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien levied one of the stiffest penalties in sports history Monday, fining Kermit Washington $10,000 and suspending the Los Angeles Lakers forward for at least 60 days for punching Houston’s Rudy Tomjanovich last week.

The suspension is the longest ever in NBA history and the fine is the maximum permissible under league rules. Washington may apply for readmission at the end of the 60-day period but the suspension could be extended for the rest of the season.

The action continued the strict policy against violence set this year by O’Brien, who earlier in the season fined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, also of Los Angeles, $5,000 for punching Milwaukee Bucks rookie Kent Benson.

“There must be some way I can take this to court,” Washington said when informed of the fine in New Orleans Monday afternoon. “That’s the only thing I can do. Otherwise, it’s the end of the season for me.”

Vintage Kermit Washington - Basketball - LA Lakers trading card (1974)

The powerful, 6-foot-8, 230 pound forward will miss at least 26 games and will not be paid for any of them. That means the suspension alone will cost him at least $43,560. If O’Brien decides Washington should stay out all season, he will be out a total of $95,940.

“Wow! This is stiff,” Washington said. “Sixty days, $50,000. Maybe there’s a bright side. At least the people who always ask me for money won’t anymore, I won’t have any.

“My gosh, this is going to cost me a lot. I’m glad I’ve been conservative with my money.”

Washington also expressed concern for his reputation.

“My gosh, I haven’t slept in three nights,” he said. “No I’m getting nationwide publicity for something like this. This is terrible for my image.

“What if I want to get a job when I’m out of basketball? I knew they would go by the severity of Rudy’s injuries, but this is ridiculous.

“He (O’Brien) doesn’t know me as a person; he doesn’t see me for what I really am. He knows what he’s read… that I’m supposed to be an enforcer. I don’t enforce anything. Heck, I’ve only been in three fights in five years and I never started any of them.”

Laker Coach Jerry West, who recently gave Washington back his starting job in the club lineup, consoled him briefly and gave him a bit of advice.

“Don’t worry yourself any more than necessary,” West said. “I’m sorry it happened. I think it’s unfair. Now you can go home, walk the dog and get to know the kids.”

Tomjanovich, who had been trying to break up a fight between Washington and Houston’s Kevin Kunnert when he was struck, remained in intensive care at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, California, with a broken jaw and nose plus a concussion.

“The stringent penalty reflects the severity of Washington’s actions on the court,” O’Brien said. “A careful review of the game, reports from officials and statements from witnesses persuaded me to take this action.”

Tomjanovich, trying to act as a peacemaker between Washington and Kunnert, ran toward the fight with a group of players when Washington suddenly turned and sent him crashing to the floor with a right hand punch. Tomjanovich was bleeding from the nose and lip and had to be helped from the court. The split lip required nine stitches.

Washington was ejected from the game.

“I saw him coming and I just swung,” Washington said after the fight. “I had no idea who it was. Now that I’ve talked to other people, I understand Rudy wasn’t going to fight. He’s never even been in a fight. It was an honest, unfortunate mistake.”

Houston Coach Tom Nissalke said, “It was the most malicious thing I’ve ever seen in basketball. It was a sucker punch.”

“At the end of the 60-day period, Washington may apply for reinstatement,” O’Brien said. “When he does, I will make a decision on whether to permit him to return to action or sit out the remainder of the season.”

Tomjanovich having surgery on Saturday

Redlands Daily Facts (California) December 15, 1977

Los Angeles — Houston Rockets’ forward Rudy Tomjanovich will have surgery Saturday to repair face, upper jaw and nose fractures he suffered from a punch by Los Angeles Laker Kermit Washington.

Dr Paul Toffel said Wednesday that Tomjanovich’s jaw will have to be wired shut for about six weeks, and he may miss the rest of the National Basketball Association season.

“He still doesn’t want to talk to anybody,” Dr Toffel said. “He said he wants to wait about a week. His face is swollen and the poor guy looks so bad he’d be embarrassed for anyone to see him.”

Toffel’s associate, Dr Ronald Matsunaga, said the skull fracture was actually a dislodging of the bony structures of the face from the skull, causing spinal fluid to leak through the nose.

“He is doing very well and recovering nicely,” Matsunaga said.

Washington knocked down Tomjanovich in a fight at a Laker-Rockets game at the Forum. Tomjanovich was taken to Centinela Hospital Medical Center.

NBA commissioner Lawrence O’Brien fined Washington $10,000 and suspended him without pay for at least 60 days, costing Washington another $43,560.

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