Tip-Off Timer: The Punch That Cost Kermit Washington 26 Games
They remain the most sickening few seconds in NBA history.
The thud of the roundhouse punch that blindsided and almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich, the thump of his head hitting the floor, and the deafening silence of the crowd while he lay unconscious in a pool of blood, still remain one of the NBA's darkest moments.
Although on-court fighting was relatively common back then, Kermit Washington, who threw the punch, missed 26 games as part of his suspension in 1977. At the time, it was the longest suspension ever leveled against an NBA player.
There have been other ugly and dangerous on-court fights. The Pistons/Pacers brawl ignited by Ron Artest that spilled into the seats and started a riot in 2004 certainly ranks high on the list of notable melees, but none have been as frightening for the human suffering they caused.
Tomjanovich was never quite the same.
Washington, who was with the Lakers, was in the midst of the fight when Tomjanovich, who played for the Rockets, ran toward him with the intent of separating the combatants. All Washington saw, though, was another player running at him from behind, so he swung and hit him squarely in the face.
The punch was so hard it detached the bone structure of his face from the skull, leaving blood and spinal fluid to leak into the skull cavity. He needed more than one surgical procedure to repair the damage. Although he played again, his career fizzled. His finest moments came years later when he coached the Rockets to back-to-back NBA titles (1994 and 1995).
The incident involving Washington and Tomjanovich convinced the NBA to stiffen the punishment for fighting several times over the next 30 years. Commissioner David Stern, who was the NBA's chief legal counsel at the time, often cited that incident. "We couldn't allow men that big and that strong to go around throwing punches at each other,'' Stern said years ago.