I thought, ‘How could there be so much blood from one punch?’” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
On December 9, 1977, during a NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets, a scuffle broke out between several players at midcourt. Rockets’ forward Rudy Tomjanovich ran toward the fight to try and break it up and protect his teammates. Kermit Washington, a Laker power forward, saw a blaze of Rocket red running toward him at full speed and threw a punch.
Kermit Washington was a goon. Generally regarded as the strongest man in the league, it was his job to protect Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was a self-made player who used his power and hustle to make up for a lack of offensive skills. Washington was supposed to get shit done on defense, crash the boards and grab any rebounds, and to make sure that nothing happened to Kareem. Rudy Tomjanovich was a scrappy shooter known for an excellent jump shot and a tenacious rebounding ability. A collegiate All-American out of the University of Michigan, he was the second overall pick in the 1970 NBA draft.
“I grew up in the streets. You learn there that if you’re in a fight and someone is coming up from behind you, you swing first and ask questions later.” – Kermit Washington
At the beginning of the game’s second half, Lakers guard Norm Nixon missed a shot. Rockets center Kevin Kunnert and Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar both contended for the rebound, which Kunnert eventually got and passed out to teammate John Lucas. Kareem and Kunnert both disliked each other, so their battle for the rebound was more physical than usual. As a result, Kermit Washington stayed behind in the backcourt in order to watch over and make sure nothing happened. After the two disengaged, Washington grabbed Kunnert’s shorts in order to prevent him from getting back over on offense quickly. Kunnert threw an elbow that hit Washington on the upper arm and this move spun him around so that he was facing Washington. What happens next is in dispute: Kermit Washington insists that Kunnert threw a second elbow that hit him above the eye, while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that Kunnert threw a punch. Kunnert says that he only threw one elbow and that was it.
Whatever happened, Kareem ran up behind Kunnert and grabbed his arms in order to try and pull him away from the scuffle. But this only left him defenseless for Washington’s first punch, which hit Kunnert in the head and brought him down on one knee. This was what Rudy Tomjanovich saw, his teammate being attacked by two opposing players. He ran over to try and break it up, and ended up running full speed into Kermit Washington’s fist.
“What happened? Did the scoreboard fall on me?” – Rudy Tomjanovich
Tomjanovich was knocked unconscious before he even hit the floor. He finally awoke a few minutes later, lying in a pool of his own blood as the Rockets’ team trainer tried to stop the flow. After a few more minutes he was able to walk off the court. While being led back to the locker room, Rudy ran into Washington, who had been ejected from the game and was being held in the hallway by security guards. Both of the men began yelling at each other and Tomjanovich began to walk toward Washington, but the security guards stopped him. This was a good thing, as if he had been hit again he would have certainly died.
Tomjanovich was taken to an ambulance and brought to the hospital, there the X-rays revealed that the posterior portion of his face was way out of alignment. The doctor could easily move around Rudy’s upper jaw and his eyes were beginning to swell shut. The doctor asked him if he had a funny taste in his mouth and Rudy responded that he did and it wasn’t bloody, but very bitter. Cerebrospinal fluid was leaking out of a skull fracture and into his mouth.
Rudy Tomjanovich was able to go home after staying in the hospital for two weeks and he needed five separate surgeries to repair and reconstruct his face. Kermit Washington was fined $10,000 and suspended for 25 games, which held the record for the longest NBA suspension for almost twenty years. Washington ended up being traded to several different teams over the rest of his career, until finally retiring in 1983. Tomjanovich was able to return to the Rockets the next year, but he was never the same. A series of debilitating injuries finally ended his playing career in 1981, but he went on to become the head coach of the Rockets and won two championships in 1994 and 1995.
Most of the NBA’s rules about fighting grew out of this incident, especially in trying to keep people who are not involved in a fight from joining in.