- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

On the night before Christmas, which seems a long way off but really isn't, you can wrap up any of these worthwhile books for the sports fan and go guzzle whatever.
"The Punch" by John Feinstein ($25.95, Little Brown, 432 pages, illus.) Nearly 25 years ago, on the unfortunately memorable night of Dec.9, 1977, Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers was involved in a minor skirmish oncourt at the Los Angeles Forum when he sensed a figure in red coming up from behind.
Washington, a former star at American University and an improving pro, turned and threw a punch because in the mean streets of D.C., where he grew up, you attacked first and asked questions later when danger approached.
The punch was the most devastating non-boxing blow in the history of sports. It landed just under the nose of Houston Rockets star Rudy Tomjanovich, dislodging his skull, causing spinal fluid to leak from his brain and fracturing multiple facial bones.
The lives of both men were never the same afterward. This is the grim tale related by Washington area author Feinstein in his latest book and possibly his best since "A Season on the Brink," his breakthrough 1986 study of then-Indiana coach Bobby Knight. But it doesn't exactly make for joyous holiday reading.
The tragedy of Washington's devastating punch is that both he and Tomjanovich were good men who easily could have been friends. A quarter-century later, neither has been able to escape its effects. Although Tomjanovich has been the Rockets' coach for more than a decade now, he had to deal with a drinking problem perhaps related to stress resulting from the incident. Washington, meanwhile, has been unable to land an NBA coaching job because he is still remembered principally as a thug, which he wasn't.
The sickening sight of Tomjanovich lying on the court and then, unbelievably from a medical standpoint, walking off holding a blood-drenched towel to his face despite his horrendous injuries remains in the minds of onlookers.
"One of the reasons I got out of coaching was that night," says Jerry West, then the Lakers' coach. "I just didn't feel I wanted to be part of the game on the floor after that happened. These were two good men who happened into a truly horrible situation. To this day, I don't think either one of them has found closure with it."
Feinstein, one of the great reporters at getting people to confide in him, takes us through the lives of both men before and after that night. Sometimes his writing goes into too much detail, but the overall result is to get us intimately involved in one of the 20th century's most regrettable sporting moments.
I don't quite buy the publicity blurb that the punch "changed basketball forever," but it did in fact cause the NBA to crack down much harder on violence and led to having three officials work each game. Feinstein's account will hold your interest throughout, but reading the book might leave you wondering whether any high-level athletic event is worth the sacrifices it demands of the participants.
"The Redskins From A to Z" by Rich Tandler ($14.95, 324 pages) For researchers and hardcore Redskins fans (Tandler obviously is one of the latter), this is an indispensable accounting of every game the team has played since coming to Washington in 1937 through the 2001 season.
Included for each are quarter-by-quarter scores, scoring summary, attendance and a game story culled from contemporary accounts. Tandler is not a professional writer, and his prose is of the "gee-whiz" variety, but what's wrong with that? The soft-cover book is available from the author's Web site (www.Redskinsatoz.com) and from Amazon.com.
"The Golden Voices of Baseball" by Ted Patterson ($39.95, Sports Publishing LLC, 192 pages, illus.) The author, a veteran Baltimore broadcaster and sports historian, has produced a handsome volume that joins Curt Smith's 1987 "Voices of the Game" as the definitive accounts of baseball over the airwaves. For local consumption, Washington's Arch McDonald and Bob Wolff and Baltimore's Chuck Thompson and Bill O'Donnell are profiled although the latter city's Jon Miller is inexplicably absent.
The book has a couple of advantages over Smith's: hundreds of photos and two audio CDs offering 48 memorable play-by-play snippets and interviews with sportscasters.
"It's Not Over 'Til It's Over" by Al Silverman ($27,95, Overlook, 320 pages, illus.) Another one for history buffs. Silverman, a former editor of Sport magazine and CEO of the Book of the Month Club, recounts in painstaking detail 13 of what he terms the greatest sports events of the 20th century. These range from the "Merkle boner" baseball game of 1908 to the World Cup victory by the U.S. women's soccer team in 1999.
Wherever possible, Silverman offers fresh viewpoints obtained from participants and spectators, and the writing sparkles throughout. I've read (and written) so much about Bobby Thomson's 1951 "Shot Heard 'Round the World" home run that I feel like I was there, but Silverman gave me a new perspective nonetheless and made my blood run cold all over again.
"Long Bomb" by Brett Forrest ($24.95, Crown Publishers, 254 pages) Considering that nobody cared much about the XFL, Vince McMahon's one-season pro football fiasco, why should anyone want to read about it? Well, for one thing, Forrest's book is very funny. And for another, it provides a definitive look at the greed and hypocrisy of many people involved in pro sports.
Although the XFL lives in one sense through Tommy Maddox's success with the Pittsburgh Steelers this season before his injury, what most of us will remember if anything are the superbly jiggling cheerleaders and Rod Smart, the running back whose jersey bore the mystifying legend "He Hate Me." Forrest deals with both subjects, and it's neat to learn that Smart had no idea what the words meant either.
R.I.P., XFL.


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