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The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever Hardcover – November 5, 2002

3.4 out of 5 stars 71 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 Instead, it nearly superseded both men's notable achievements.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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 366 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown; 1st edition (November 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316279722
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316279727
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,506,448 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
First I'll begin with the book's flaws. For one thing, Feinstein was frequently redundant in mentioning the details of the incident over more than one chapter. More editing in that area would have made the book stronger. Also, I would have liked Feinstein to have done a more in-depth exploration on the way race played into this incident instead of merely mentioning that Washington received racist death threats in the aftermath of the incident and the fact that the NBA at that time was regarded as being "too black." By whom? The media or the fans? (Personally I believe it was both but I will save this for another discussion.)
Now on to the book's strengths: for one thing, Feinstein described Tomjanovich's injuries and the scene at the Forum and the hospital with vivid detail. When I first read what he meant by "dislocated skull" (after having heard Feinstein discuss the book on the Jim Rome Show), I gasped rather loudly at the bookstore and I actually felt a bit nauseated. Feinstein also did a good job describing the remainder of that evening for the two principals, showing how Washington already felt horrible about what he had done and how Tomjanovich, long portrayed as the harmless, gentle victim, actually asked the doctor working on him to allow him to go back to the Forum to get back at Washington, after they had nearly gone at it near the Laker locker room. I also had never known that Tomjanovich HAD been in a fistfight in an NBA game, in the 1971-72 season (his second season) against an Atlanta Hawk player, nor had I known about his post-incident anxiety attacks and drinking problem for which he finally got help a few years ago.
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Format: Hardcover
John Feinstein, author of THE PUNCH, is renowned for the fresh insight he shines on the cliché bound world of sports. Yet he has written a frustratingly lazy book about an event that deserves better. The book's subject --- a harrowing haymaker thrown by Kermit Washington that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich in a 1977 NBA game --- raises issues that transcend the sporting event in which it happened. But Feinstein shrinks to the challenge, never approaching matters of race, rage, class and family in a way that rounds out the story.
Feinstein begins the book with a description of the punch, an act so barbaric that it dislodged Tomjanovich's skull, causing spinal fluid to leak into his body. It took five surgeries to try to undo the damage from a single punch. In so doing, Feinstein introduces Washington as a mindless brute, ready to fight at any provocation. In this sense, the reader is pitted against Washington from the outset. No amount of "good guy" testimonials on Washington's behalf --- and there are many --- can shake the awful imagery. Moreover, Washington's bizarre behavior immediately after the punch --- he is remorseless and, incredibly, ready to go after Tomjanovich again, near the locker rooms --- doesn't help. It was not until Washington left the arena that he finally understood he had done something very wrong. But even then, he understood not because of his common sense and not because of what he saw on the court, described by one teammate as "just so much blood. I kept thinking, 'How can there be so much blood from one punch? Something is wrong here.'" What registered with Washington were the words of the parking lot attendant: "Kermit, you're in a lot of trouble. Big trouble."
Feinstein fails to pursue basic, important facts.
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Format: Hardcover
In the introduction, Feinstein tells us how compelling he found this subject and how he pursued Tomjanovich and Washington rather than writing a book on golf. Then he inexplicably rushes through the book without apparent editing or proofreading. As many of the other reviewers point out, the repetition is extremely distracting. Of course, Feinstein's work never really qualifies as fine literature, but he's usually a very good sports journalist. This plainly is not his best work, which is too bad because he was right -- there was an interesting story here.
Regarding that story, the author's presentation was reasonable but could have been more comprehensive. In particular, he presents the punch and it's aftermath as an unfortunate incident -- almost an accident. Although he mentions in passing that Tomjanovich came close to dying, he never explores just what that would have meant, both to Washington and to professional sports. Instead, he recounts both players' careers and alternates between sympathetic and pathetic portrayals of Washington. He seems to want us to choose sides and then tells us that there are no sides.
As for Washington, it's unfortunate that this one event has overshadowed all of the good things that he has done inside and outside of basketball. But I have to agree with John Lucas that Washington has never owned up and taken responsibility for his actions. He refers to events using the passive voice. He childishly blames someone else for starting the fight. Heck, Tomjanovich takes more responsibility for what happened than Washington does. And if we use the measure that bad people are people who do bad things, for one moment at least Kermit Washington was a bad person.
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