Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#58: The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, And the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever by John Feinstein

New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2002. 352 pages

I have liked John Feinstein's writing for a long time, and enjoy his commentaries on NPR. This book covers a fight at the LA Forum on December 9, 1977 involving the Houston Rockets and LA Lakers. The combatants were originally Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Kevin Kunnert (an Iowa alumni). In the melee that followed, Kermit Washington swung wildly and hit Rocket's forward Rudy Tomjanovich (Yes, that Rudy T.) who went down in a heap.

Tomjanovich's upper jaw was fractured in multiple places and displaced from his lower jaw by nearly an inch. All of his sinus cavities were compromised, and his skull was fractured when he hit the floor. The book follows the career of these two men after "The Punch". The book is repetitive, and you get the feeling that many of the people involved (Kunnert, Tomjanovich, Jabbar) really did not want to talk about it. There is anger here, 20 years after the fact. Feinstein does two things very well in this book:

1. He paints a picture of the NBA in 1977. Thugs, assholes and fights were everywhere. When Jabbar and Kunnert started to fight, most of the press box groaned. One of the writers said "Damnit, another NBA fight." And this was not the usual NBA fight now, where multi-million dollar athletes wave at each other like little girls at a lemonade stand. Check out this tale of the tape:
K Washington: 6'8, 230 lbs.
K. Kunnert: 7'0 230 lbs

These were large men looking to do damage, and in this way the fight did change the NBA. As Feinstein points out, the prospect of two very large men swinging at each other was not like a football fight; those large men were wearing helmets. It is not like a hockey fight, which is unstable because of the ice. Washington's role was as an enforcer, there to do the dirty work inside for Kareem. The NBA was/is full of them (Mo Lucas, Charles Oakley, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman), and after Rudy T's injury the league finally decided something needed to be done to curb the violence. Washington was fined $10,000 (which may not seem like a lot, but that amounted to nearly 3% of his salary. 3% of LeBron's salary in 2011 would be $435,000) and suspended for 50 days. These were new rules, and paved the way for more stringent rules about fighting.

2. Feinstein does a commendable job of writing up Washington and Rudy T trying to come to terms for being known for one thing. This has to be the most difficult part of being a celebrity, especially in sports. Feinstein correctly uses the example of Bill Buckner, a player who:
-- won a batting title and led the NL in doubles twice
--is 59th on the career hit list since 1876
--and is known for making an error on one ground ball.

Rudy T is "the guy who got hit" until he wins the NBA title with the Rockets in 1994. Washington says at one point he thought his name was Kermit "The Man Who Nearly Killed Rudy Tomjanovich" Washington for a decade. It is incredibly difficult for both of them, and others involved think that they never got over it. In some ways, the press is indicted for this, as TV will not let them. Whether or not they come to grips with this is up in the air, and Feinstein allows the reader to make his or her own decisions.

But, the book is VERY repetitive. There are at least 3 different treatments of "The Punch", Roshomon style. This is not necessarily bad, but certain phrases are even repeated in different chapters. If you are interested in the thuggish NBA of the 1970s, take a chance. If not, pass.

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