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Video: The Punch that Changed the League

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If your first reaction after watching this video is dread, nausea, and fear, believe me you’re not alone. Known as “The Punch,” the altercation between Houston Rockets’ forward Rudy Tomjanovich and Los Angeles Lakers’ power forward Kermit Washington altered both of their lives, as well as NBA protocol regarding fighting and physicality.

On December 9, 1977, the Rockets squared off against the Lakers at The Forum. After a Lakers’ miss, Rockets’ forward-center Kevin Kunnert battled Washington for the rebound and cleared it out to Rockets’ point guard John Lucas. Then, the initial altercation took place.

While Kunnert and Washington have debated who instigated the fight for over 30 years, essentially, the skirmish that broke out between them put the events leading up to The Punch into motion. What happened next was both brutal and tragic.

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When Washington’s punch struck Rudy T, he collapsed to the floor and bounced his head on the hardwood, knocking him unconscious. The end result was a brain concussion, a fractured skull, jaw, and nose, and spinal fluid leaking into his brain cavity. Rudy T managed to walk off the floor, however once he made it to the hospital, doctors informed him that they had to operate or he could die.

In an interview with People Magazine’s Michael Wallis in 1978, Rudy T detailed the horrific nature of his injuries and his battle to return to the court.

“My face was just kind of hanging there…If you could have seen me, you’d know I was a human being, but I looked like a monster.”

“All the while I wasn’t playing I thought about who I am. I realized how much a part of my life basketball is, and I didn’t want it to end like that. There had been too much work.”

Although Rudy T returned to the Rockets, his career only last for three more seasons. The season following the injury, he averaged 19.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, respectable numbers, but still a decline in production from past seasons. That was Rudy T’s last all-star season, as the last two years of his career saw his skills erode sharply. Sadly, the five-time all-star was forced to retire entirely too early. Known for his smooth shooting, Rudy T had the type of offensive game that would have aged quite gracefully, however the damage he sustained from The Punch effectively ended his career early.

As far as the perpetrator of The Punch, Washington was fined $10,000 and suspended for 60 days by the NBA for his actions that day. Washington resumed his career after serving his suspension, just not for the Lakers. After the altercation, Rudy T filed a lawsuit against the Lakers, eventually collecting $2 million dollars from Hollywood’s team. The PR mess from the incident prompted the Lakers to cut ties with Washington, who was traded to the Boston Celtics that same season.

Washington’s career was not a complete wash after that, although his popularity took a huge hit after The Punch. In 1980, Washington earned his first and only all-star nod, averaging 13.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Despite his relative career success after The Punch, Washington still felt the effects of his actions decades after the fact. After retiring, Washington tried for years to break into the coaching ranks; however until former NBA Commissioner David Stern helped him land a job with the Ashville Altitude in 2005, Washington new he was being blackballed from the coaching world.

In a phone interview with The New York Times’ Liz Robbins, Washington acknowledged why he had such a hard time finding a coaching position in the NBA.

“I know the reason I haven’t been in the league, and I understand that – I understand the perception of Kermit Washington.”

Washington and Rudy T both were detrimentally affected by that one ill-timed punch, but what’s amazing is the effect it had on the league at large. Prior to The Punch, the NBA was a borderline violent league, where fights between players were normal. Punishment for fights was nonexistent. Washington’s penalty was actually one of the first times the NBA doled out substantial punishment for fighting.

Since The Punch, the NBA has steadily worked to limit on-court fighting, and more recently, to eliminate flagrant fouls and rough play from the game. CBS Sports’ Matt Moore provides a great outlook about the reasons the NBA’s stance on hard fouls and fights has changed in an article from 2013.

“The allowance of hard fouls in the game increases the odds of injury or a fight. It’s fine to pine for the good old days when the league was tougher. But how many of those players suffered, and played through concussions, of which we we’re only now learning about the long term effects?”

While I have always appreciated physicality on the court, Moore is right, the long term effects on players is not worth any amount of appreciation fans might have for the days of old. The rule changes pertaining to hard fouls have been relatively recent, but the battle to eliminate and punish on-court fighting has been in effect ever since Washington decided to throw that ill-advised punch.

Rudy T and Washington were casualties of circumstance on December 9, 1977; if not for Rudy T’s injuries, Washington’s actions would not have been viewed as so vile. Sadly, it took both players misfortune to ultimately help transform the NBA for the better. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

All statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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