Prolific sportswriter Feinstein (The Last Amateurs, 2000, etc.) revisits an important National Basketball Association incident and ably dramatizes how it changed the participants and the league forever.
In 1977, during a minor skirmish, Los Angeles Laker Kermit Washington turned, punched, and hit the approaching Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets squarely in the face. Bleeding profusely and leaking brain fluid into his mouth, Rudy T. was placed in intensive care and, later, had his face surgically reconstructed. Twenty-five years after, neither man has completely recovered, and witnesses still remember the sound of the punch. From this central incident, Feinstein flashes back to the early lives of both men and forward to their present circumstances. He also shows how the NBA has changed since the B.S. era (Before Stern, the commissioner who revolutionized the league in the 1980s). Kermit Washington grew up in Washington, D.C., was tall and awkward, and after sitting on the bench his senior year of high school, almost miraculously received a scholarship to American University, where he became an all-American player. Rudy T., from the Detroit area, was a high-school star and had a choice of premiere colleges before picking Michigan. Feinstein, who intuitively understands the bonds of teammates and whose basketball and football books are better than his golf stories, skillfully draws the repercussions of the Punch. Calvin Murphy, Rudy T.’s small and tenacious roommate, suffers in his friend’s absence and seeks revenge. Washington’s Laker teammates recall his usually gentle nature, but Laker coach Jerry West is shocked by the Punch and resigns his position. The league cracks down on fighting and markets emerging stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Rudy T. maintains his marriage, overcomes alcohol problems, and, today, is a successful coach. Washington, never able to look into his heart of darkness, struggles after a divorce and bad business decisions.
A rambling ride, but instructive and likable on the way. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)