- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

Again tonight, viewers with access to NBA TV can relive, and recoil, from one of the most frightening moments in sports history — a punch by Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers that shattered the face of Houston Rockets star Rudy Tomjanovich nearly 30 years ago.

The moving one-hour documentary, “Searching for Redemption: The Kermit Washington Story,” premieres on the cable channel at 9 p.m. Although the sad tale has been related often, most notably in a book by local author John Feinstein several years ago, it remains a poignant reminder of how one unfortunate incident can affect a person’s career and life forevermore.

Washington was, and is, a good guy. An obscure player on blacktop and high school courts in the District, he became an All-American both competitively and academically at American University. After scoring 40 points against Georgetown in his final regular-season college game in 1973, he became only the seventh major college player to average 20 points and 20 rebounds a game for his career.

Drafted by the Lakers, Washington developed slowly in the NBA while gaining a reputation as an “enforcer” because of his chiseled 6-foot-9, 225-pound body and his aggressive play. And on the night of Dec. 9, 1977, at the L.A. Forum, during an altercation between other players, Washington saw out of the corner of his eye Rockets captain Tomjanovich running toward him. Reflexively, Washington turned and smashed him in the face with a devastating right hand that broke several bones and virtually turned Tomjanovich’s face into Silly Putty.

The Rockets star underwent several operations and missed much of the season, though he eventually returned to the lineup. Making Washington an example because of increased violence around the league, the NBA suspended him for two months and fined him $53,560. Worse, he became a pariah. He was traded several times before his retirement in 1982, then was ignored for years as a coaching prospect. And after the punch, Washington received hate mail, obscene phone calls and death threats.

In the documentary, Washington — now a bald 54-year-old who looks as though he still could play — states the obvious: “To this day, it changed everyone’s life, the mistake I made. … “Give me a time machine and I think I would just go back, duck and never start the fight.”

Thankfully, the film does not dwell on the punch, though we see Washington delivering it. Says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers’ star center at the time: “I hope I never again have to see or hear anything like that. It was scary.”

As so often happens, the blow that altered Washington’s life was totally out of character. “He wasn’t the type of guy you would say, ‘Every day was a confrontation with him,’” recalls Tom Young, Washington’s coach at American. “Every day was everything but that with him.”

As its title suggests, the documentary deals more with Washington’s attempts to bury — finally — the stigma that has followed him. As actor/narrator Forest Whitaker notes in a voiceover as shots of Nairobi, Kenya, fill the screen, “This is where Kermit Washington spends most of his time now. He comes here to escape the past.”

Washington is shown working with children in Africa who desperately need attention and a role model. Through his Project Contact Africa, he brings aid and comfort to many suffering in refugee camps — an inspiring and admirable thing for us to see this Easter weekend.

“I don’t even remember playing [basketball] anymore,” Washington says, a lapse of memory that seems entirely understandable and appropriate.

Does he deserve forgiveness, after all these years, for the punch? Listen to Tomjanovich, later the Rockets’ coach: “I have to wish the best for him. I don’t like to see people suffer. He made a mistake, and everyone deserves another chance.”

So be it, and fledgling NBA TV states a most compelling case on behalf of Kermit Washington.

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