Last year started with a Lakers vs. Rockets fist fight that resulted in suspensions most considered quite lenient. The league used to have a much stricter stance on players fighting, and one of the critical moments in league history happened on December 9th, 1977.
As faith would have it, the incident involved Lakers and Rockets. I started at half court when Kermit Washington, a Laker, went to stop a fastbreak and grabbed Kevin Kunnert from the Rockets. He grabbed him around the waist, a typical professional foul to prevent an easy conversion after a turnover. In an attempt to shake loose, Kunnert hit Washington in the face with his elbow. This led to a scuffle, so Kareem stepped in to separate the two players. At the end of the court, Houston’s captain Rudy Tomjanovich saw the scuffle and ran towards them. Washington saw him coming, and expecting Tomjanovich to fight him, landed a knockout punch.
Tomjanovich fell on the floor with blood coming down his face. Luckily, the rest of the players acted calmly, and no other fight ensued. Tomjanovich got up and went to the locker room with an apparent broken nose. Things were not looking good for Washington. While walking to the locker room, Washington herd Tomjanovich yell after him “Why did you hit me!??!” All the way home, he had a bad feeling about the situation. This felt more serious than a single punch. As it turned out, he broke Tomjanovich’s face. A broken nose, broken jaw, fractured skull, other facial injuries, and leakage of the spinal fluid. Tomjanovich had surgery to reconstruct his face and eventually returned to play another three seasons, but his game was never the same. Washington got fined $10,000 ( adjusted for inflation, around $40,000) and suspended for 60 days.
Two weeks into the suspension, the Lakers traded Washington to Boston. No one from the Lakers ever talked to him, he just got a call from his agent and was on his way. Quite a poor move by the Lakers, the way they treated Washington at that time didn’t sit well with many in the organization. His coach at the time was Jerry West, the logo himself, and this is what he said about it:
“That was a time that we should’ve embraced him and showed him we cared. But, there was the door, and I don’t think anyone liked it. You have to have people that work within an organization that are willing to lose their job over a decision like that, and I would’ve lost my job if I were been there. There’s no way, they would’ve had to fire me, I would not have traded him. … It’s probably one of the reasons I didn’t want to coach anymore. It was one of the most troubling times in my life, this is probably the first time I’ve been so candid about it, but as you get older you probably don’t give a damn what you say.“
The players made their peace later in life, but Washington’s reputation never recovered. Many in the league, including Tomjanovich, believed he suffered too much criticism and shaming in the league after it.
Tomjanovich became a two-time champion as a coach of the Rockets in the ’90s.