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A 40 second fight with 25 years of consequences

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever - John Feinstein

I'm not a big sports fan, but this is not exactly a sports book. I picked it up because it looked like a tale about karma, but it isn't that either, exactly.


On December 9, 1977, a fight broke out during an LA Lakers/ Houston Rockets basketball game. Apparently fighting used to be a whole lot more common in the NBA than it is now. The fight lasted less than a minute, but it ended with a devastating punch thrown by 6'8", 245 pound, 27 year old Laker Kermit Washington on Rocket Rudy Tomjanovich. It resulted in such severe facial damage, that the center of Tomjanovich's face was dislocated and sunken into the mid portion of his skull, and he was leaking spinal fluid into the back of his mouth. (One of Tomjanovich's enduring memories was the bitter taste in his mouth, which he couldn't figure out what it was.)


The book goes back to each player's childhood and early career, creating a rich subtext to the altercation.  It then follows the two men 25 years (to the time of publication), showing the ripples one punch created in the lives of not only Washington and Tomjanovich, but their families, and even throughout the institution of the NBA (which immediately instituted much more severe penalties for violence, and added a third referee to its games).


Although Tomjanovich suffered through multiple surgeries and terrible physical and psychological pain (to include nightmares and alcoholism), in some ways, he recovered better than Washington.  Tomjanovich went on to have a successful post-injury career as a player, and then went to even greater heights as a championship-winning NBA Head Coach. Washington's career, self-image, and marriage took a decided downturn, which at first blush made this seem like a set up to say "[Washington] got what he deserved". But that really isn't true. By all accounts, Washington was a very nonviolent guy who grew up in a (then) violent part of Washington DC. The fight stirred up a lot of panic-mode memories from his childhood... which doesn't excuse it, but even taking it as pre-meditated (this is debatable), the punch seemed to me like one dumb thing that an impulsive guy did in his youth, in the heat of the moment, which unfortunately had such severe consequences, he was never able to live it down. There's quite a bit in Washington's past to empathize with, and he does a hell of a lot of atonement afterwards- including (but not limited to) starting a charity foundation supplying African hospitals with medicine they would otherwise be unable to afford. I don't think any reader will get through this book still believing that he "totally deserved" everything that followed. There's an impulse to want to make this a neatly packaged parable with "the right kind" of ending, but there isn't one. It's messy.


In a way, The Punch reminds me of (John Knowles) A Separate Peace... a cautionary tale about how a split-second bad decision can fuck up two (or more) peoples' lives forever. There are some things impossible to take back, even if they can be healed, and possibly even forgiven.