Decades after The Punch: Rudy Tomjanovich reaches pinnacle as Kermit Washington serves time in prison

Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport

It’s been more than 40 years since the Lakers’ Kermit Washington slugged the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich.

Forevermore it’s known as The Punch.

It was immortalized in John Feinstein’s proclaimed book, “One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever.”

Their on-court encounter on Dec. 9, 1977, remains one of the NBA’s darkest hours, and Tomjanovich’s life was in danger after the incident. He was sidelined for five months.

Tomjanovich needed to recover from a broken jaw, a fractured skull and a broken nose. And there was also this: spinal fluid leakage, according to published reports.

Their lives are permanently linked to the days of disco and an intense moment on the basketball court.

Rudy Tomjanovich coaching the Rockets.

Decades later, Tomjanovich, now 71, celebrated his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, with last weekend’s announcement giving him a future day in the spotlight in Springfield, Massachusetts, as part of the celebrated 2020 class. (The headliners: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.)

Kermit Washington, now 68, is serving time in the slammer.

In July 2018, he was sentenced to six years in prison for false tax returns and for conducting fraudulent business.

So, isn’t it ironic that the nexus of their lives is connected once again? Connected in this way?

Tomjanovich is on Cloud Nine, while Washington is paying his debt to society.

Rudy Tomjanovich reflects on Hall vote

Here’s how Rudy Tomjanovich, who was elected to the Hall as a coach, reacted to the once-in-a-lifetime news, speaking on ESPN: “It was a very suspenseful day because I’ve been in this position before and I got the, ‘Sorry, not this year’ response.

“The first thing that happened was an unbelievable sigh of relief and then slowly – but very powerfully – complete jubilation! We’re going to Springfield!”

He’ll be honored for his work on the Rockets bench, especially for leading Houston to back-to-back NBA titles in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. Tomjanovich won more than 500 games in his pro coaching career. He was a longtime Rockets assistant before taking over as head coach in 1992. Tomjanovich also guided Team USA to the Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Kermit Washington’s crimes

Washington’s fraudulent activities eventually caught up with him.

“This former NBA player abused his fame and status to promote a charity scam by which he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that he diverted to personal spending on lavish vacations, shopping sprees, and even plastic surgery for his girlfriend,” said Timothy Garrison, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, according to a NBC Sports article.

“Although he told his donors that 100 percent of all donations would go to support charitable work in Africa, including a medical clinic for needy families and HIV-positive children, in fact he spent most of the donated funds on himself. His fraud scheme also victimized law-abiding taxpayers by stealing from the public treasury rather than paying taxes owed.”

The incident

In December 2002, CBSsportsline.com’s Mike Kahn detailed the incident, giving a vivid rundown of what happened.

“If you are a sports fan, you’ve seen the tape,” Kahn wrote.

“The Lakers’ Kermit Washington and Kevin Kunnert of the Rockets had gotten tangled, both angrily swinging at each other. But the next 20 seconds will forever be in the annals of NBA history, as Kunnert’s teammate Rudy Tomjanovich came running toward the two men, when Washington saw a blur coming at him out of the corner of his eye.

“He turned, reared back and crushed Tomjanovich with an overhand right that nearly killed Tomjanovich and required a plethora of operations to give him back his face and his life.”

Kermit’s side of the story

In the aftermath of The Punch in December 1977, Washington told reporters: “I saw him coming and I just swung. 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.”

Another opinion

Not surprisingly, Rockets coach Tom Nissalke disagreed.

“It was the most malicious thing I’ve ever seen in basketball,” Nissalke said, according to UPI. “It was a sucker punch.”

The punishment

In December 1977, NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien suspended Kermit Washington for 60 days and fined him $10,000 for hitting Rudy Tomjanovich.

“The stringent penalty reflects the severity of Washington’s actions on the court,” O’Brien declared.

Washington played his final NBA game in the 1987-88 season for the Golden State Warriors, making a comeback after a five-year absence.

Did you know?

Rudy Tomjanovich is one of nine NBA coaches to capture back-to-back titles.