Three Decades Later, Washington Still Feels Effects Of His Punch

By Liz Robbins Off the BASN Sports Wire
Updated: January 30, 2005
Kermit Washington
Kermit Washington

NEW YORK, NY—Kermit Washington, now 53 and 27 years removed from the defining incident of his life, has finally received another N.B.A. chance.

For two decades, Kermit Washington wrote every N.B.A. team and sent more than 700 résumés looking for a steady coaching job at any level.

He had been an assistant coach in China’s professional league and had worked the Pete Newell big man’s camp. He was a strength and conditioning coach and ran a predraft camp in Washington.

But until last week, when N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern helped make an assistant’s job happen with the Asheville Altitude of the National Basketball Developmental League, Washington had been blacklisted because of one violent night.

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

On Dec. 9, 1977, Washington, then with the Los Angeles Lakers, threw a punch after he spotted someone, out of the corner of his eye, rushing toward him. It was Houston Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanovich, coming to restrain him.

Washington’s punch fractured Tomjanovich’s skull, jaw and other facial bones, putting him in the hospital for 15 days. Doctors said the injuries were life threatening.

Washington was fined $10,000 and suspended for 60 days. The Lakers traded him to the Boston Celtics.

Tomjanovich missed the rest of the season. He won a $3.2 million lawsuit from the Lakers, went on to coach two championship teams in Houston, left the Rockets to win a battle with bladder cancer, then returned to coach the Lakers this season.

Washington, now 53 and 27 years removed from the defining incident of his life, finally received another N.B.A. chance.

“I’m not doing it for the change of perception,” Washington said. “I love working with players. More than anything else, I enjoy working with athletes who want to get better. I’m certainly not doing it for the money. I could make more cleaning streets,” he added with a laugh, estimating his gross pay for the remaining two months of the season to be about $12,000.

“But I really appreciate what David Stern did for me.”

Stu Jackson, the N.B.A.’s senior vice president for basketball operations and a friend of Washington’s, said the league was pleased to help. “Kermit and I have been having some conversations over the past year about potential opportunities, and this one came open,” he said. “The commissioner called me and I said, ‘Look, I think it’s great; it’s perfect timing.’

“I do know Kermit has had a desire to get into the N.B.A.; this is a very good way to join our family. I’ve watched Kermit from afar when he worked Pete Newell’s camp – there’s no one who can deny he’s good at what he does.”

Washington is cautious about not making this opportunity sound bigger than it is.

But could it turn into something more, perhaps an opportunity in the N.B.A.? “It depends on how good a job I do, but I wouldn’t be going to Ashland without that hope,” Washington said, meaning Asheville, N.C., a place he confessed he had never heard of until this past week.

Washington will not arrive in Asheville until the middle of this week because he has meetings to attend in California for Project Contact, an international relief program for East Africa that he founded in 1995.

In 1994, when he was the host of a radio show in Portland, Ore., and running a restaurant, he gave money to relief efforts in Rwanda. Then he contacted his alma mater, American University, which has helped coordinate his program.

He has made more than 25 trips to Africa, working with doctors and nurses to establish medical clinics and orphanages. Washington said the N.B.A. had been generous in financing the delivery of medical supplies.

“I have never changed,” Washington said. “People don’t know who I am. I have good in me and bad in me. They see Kermit Washington. I see in Africa, those people don’t have any chance. I am lucky.”

He did not always feel that way. Washington’s life view was skewed by the aftermath of the fight. He played five more seasons for a total of 507 games, but never felt accepted again.

“After the incident, I started viewing the world a little differently,” Washington said. “I thought if I did the right thing, I could get where I wanted to go – in college, high school and pro. I never got a technical foul, was never late for practice, never gave a coach any problems.

“But I couldn’t keep playing the game anymore, I had no chance of winning anymore, and I figured, don’t break your neck trying. I just went on with life knowing I had more limitations and less opportunities.”

The punch continued to resonate after the Pistons-Pacers brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich., the league’s most violent display of player behavior since the night at the Los Angeles Forum in 1977. Washington watched the replays and heard his name mentioned in reference to the level of violence.

“It’s just like the fights in baseball, in hockey, those are going to happen – that’s the competitiveness the athletes have,” he said.

He understood why Stern suspended Ron Artest for the rest of the season; he said it was similar to his situation.

“I had to be made an example of, regardless of what happened or who it was,” Washington said. “David Stern is concerned about the N.B.A. because it’s a business. Players, they have to understand they hurt the image of the league.

“I think Ron Artest just doesn’t understand that a game in life is always being played. But he doesn’t even know the rules of the game. They don’t care if he was right or wrong; the image of the N.B.A. is the most important thing and they will sacrifice you for it.

“Life humbles you.”

Washington knows that wherever he goes in the United States people know him for one thing. “It’s 20-some years, and every day people recognize me,” he said.

“They see me as a mean, nasty person – can you overcome that? I don’t know.”

Washington and Tomjanovich have overcome it. “We’re friends now,” Washington said. “The thing with Rudy, I told him, ‘I’m sorry, but in that position, regardless of who started it, I didn’t know your intentions.’ Nowadays, there are videotapes at all angles to see what happens.”

Forgetting the Olympic Fiasco

There was nowhere to go but up for the United States Olympic basketball players after their bronze-medal embarrassment and worldwide ridicule at the Athens Games. None of the players liked it, Coach Larry Brown is still tortured by it, and David Stern is furious enough about it to declare it will not happen again.

“We will win the gold in Beijing,” Stern said recently during an interview. Asked if that was a guarantee, Stern smiled and said it was.

The plans, Stern said, are not yet set on how the selecting, the coaching and the training will change, but Stern insists that N.B.A. players on the 2008 Olympic team will re-establish United States dominance over an ever-shrinking basketball world.

The N.B.A.’s Stu Jackson said, “I feel that we can field a team that’s capable of winning a gold medal – how it will happen is yet to be determined.”

The explanations and excuses for defeat were myriad. “The growth of talent in the international game, the international game itself, use of zone defenses, not enough training,” Jackson said.

The current N.B.A. statistics suggest that the American players who were in Greece have found their lost form at home. Allen Iverson is the league’s scoring leader. LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire, who were benchmates in Greece, are Most Valuable Player award contenders. Emeka Okafor is a leading contender for rookie of the year. And Stephon Marbury is the self-proclaimed best point guard in the league.

James and Stoudemire averaged a combined 8.2 points in eight games in Greece. Now they are averaging a combined 51.1 points. “We had 12 very good players on the team,” Jackson said. “Not all can play an equal amount of minutes. This team, as talented as it was, everybody still had to play a role.”

Brown, never inclined to play rookies, said he was not pleased with James’s defense. In the first meeting of James’s Cavaliers and Brown’s Pistons, James scored 43 points.

“It’s also not a coincidence that he’s playing better defense this year – playing better on both sides,” Jackson said.

He is not alone. Dwyane Wade shot just 38.2 percent at the Olympics; with Shaquille O’Neal setting him up, and with frustration from the summer perhaps motivating him early on, Wade is shooting 48.7 percent for the Heat.

Every United States Olympian other than the Lakers’ Lamar Odom and the Suns’ Shawn Marion leads his team in scoring. (Marion is behind another Olympian, Stoudemire, and Odom is behind Kobe Bryant.)

Perhaps the players learned. Perhaps they just put it behind them. “That was so long ago,” Stoudemire said. “I’m not even thinking of the Olympics now.”

From TV to Sideline

George Karl became the second fired-coach-turned-TV-analyst to return to the sideline when he became the Denver Nuggets’ third coach of the season Thursday.

Karl joined Mike Fratello of Memphis in making the leap to the court from the booth. Through Friday, the Grizzlies have gone 19-9 since Fratello took over Dec. 2.

Karl will be charged with turning around an underachieving team. Although Karl’s abrasiveness wore on players when he coached the United States to a sixth-place finish at the 2002 world championships, Carmelo Anthony told the news media Thursday that a tough coach was probably what the Nuggets needed. In Karl’s debut Friday, Denver (18-25) won, 106-100, in Milwaukee, where Karl coached from 1998 to 2003, and where he also wore out his welcome.