Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Kermit Washington And The Punch That Changed NBA Violence

Kermit Washington's punch left Rudy Tomjanovich's face broken and changed how violence was perceived
in the NBA. (thegrio.com)

On April 17, 2013, a soccer game took a turn for the worst. After making a call, referee Ricardo Portillo was punched by a 17-year-old player. Portillo fell to the floor and later that night slipped into a coma.

A few days later, Portillo was pronounced dead.

Now, two families are ruined because of one bad, impulsive decision.

A scene similar nearly happened in the NBA during the 1978 season. The NBA was home to numerous violent brawls, often involving the clearing of both benches. It took a horrible event for the league to really start cracking down on the violence.

On December 9, 1977, a fight broke out between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers. The fight, as described by USATODAY.com:

“[Rudy] Tomjanovich, then a 29-year-old, 6-8 All-Star forward with a feathery shooting touch, rushing to the aid of teammate Kevin Kunnert, who tussled first with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then [Kermit] Washington.

Washington, then a 26-year-old, 6-8 power forward, feeling someone rushing up behind him, turning and delivering a frightful right-hand punch that basically shattered Tomjanovich's face and left him lying motionless in a pool of blood.”

Tomjanovich had ran up in order to break up the fight, but ended up on the receiving end of one of the most harrowing scenes of violence in American professional sports history. He suffered injuries that could have been fatal and he eventually retired just three seasons later at the age of 32.

The media was quick to paint Washington as a villain, however many saw him as a victim of circumstance. In a 1978 interview, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak stated, “We've all talked about it on the Bullets and we all agree. If we put ourselves in Kermit's position, we would have reacted the same way. Maybe what happened between him and Kunnert beforehand was all wrong, but when you turn and see a guy roaring down on you, you have to fight."

While many thought Washington was simply a victim of circumstance, the bigger issue was the relaxed stance the league had on fighting. Punches could be thrown without even a one-game suspension. The league soon started enacting harsher punishments for fighting during an NBA game.

Kermit Washington only lasted until the 1982 season, when he turned just 30, due to back and knee problems.

Washington should have acted as a cautionary tale when people begin to think about acting violently during a sporting event. The punch could have caused a death, but Tomjanovich was lucky to escape alive. Ricardo Portillo and his family were not as lucky, but hopefully his story helps to prevent other incidents from happening. 
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