In 1977, Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington became entwined in a single punch that would change not only their lives, but how professional basketball is played today. Because the punch dislodged Tomjanovich's skull and nearly destroyed both men's careers, the scuffle never settled as a dusty bit of NBA trivia. Instead, it nearly superseded both men's notable achievements. The history of that punch (it could not, by any standards, be considered a fight) and the fate of the two men are the subjects of John Feinstein's The Punch.
In the early days of the NBA, teams had their stars and their "enforcers." Enforcers such as Washington protected star players on the court with their willingness to mix it up. With concise prose, Feinstein reports on this era, following strings of trades, drafts, and personal relationships to their nexus. Those who do not think about basketball on a statistical level may occasionally find themselves lost, but Feinstein, ever conscious of his subject, ties the tangents neatly to the core of the scuffle that led to the infamous punch.
Thorough and thoughtful, Feinstein does not make any excuses, nor does he vilify. He simply traces the web of both men's lives back to their adolescent years when it was not about the NBA, nor the punch, but about the game. Anyone who has ever wondered about these two men, or the history of the NBA, will want to read this book. --Karin Rosman
From Publishers Weekly
Feinstein's latest (after The Last Amateurs) tears the scab off one of the deepest wounds in the history of professional sports. In 1977, during a Lakers-Rockets match, L.A. forward Kermit Washington forever altered the course of his career and that of Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich when he threw a punch that nearly killed the Rockets' captain. From that moment on, each man's life became defined by the incident and its aftermath. Seamlessly weaving the event itself into the fabric of pro basketball's rocky pre-Magic/Bird/Jordan history of constantly relocating franchises, dismal television support and chronic violence, Feinstein tells a moving story of two men branded by a moment frozen in time, and how the incident changed the game it could well have destroyed. The narrative never gets mired in the fawning sycophantism of many sports books or the moral proselytizing of many others. Feinstein's research is sharp, and his time line jumps around effortlessly, like a good Quentin Tarantino film. Most importantly, the author sustains the balance between Washington's burden of guilt and the genuine misfortune that has followed him since. He's a sympathetic character, almost uniformly described as a smart, good-hearted man bearing the never-healing scar of the one great mistake in his life. Yet he is by no means the saint he might have us believe him to be. Feinstein's portrait of each man is compelling; neither is lionized or demonized. Rather, the complexity of the incident and the depth of the personal trauma for both Tomjanovich and Washington fester under the author's microscope in this excellent and engaging book.
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