Surely by now we have seen the replays often enough and indulged in sufficient righteous indignation to satisfy our desire to hang the Los Angeles Lakers from the nearest regulation orange basket rim until dead. The suddenly fashionable topic of violence in the NBA—specifically, the two savage punch-outs involving the Fiends of the Freeway—has been editorialized in The New York Times ("...under the backboards...strength and intimidation come into play—but assault and battery should not"), parodied on Saturday Night Live ("We blacks get blamed for everything," says the sportscaster. "Look at this film. Why he just grazed the cat. Whoops! Let's look at it from another angle") and even investigated by Walter Cronkite. But when all the official soul-searching is over, probably about the time your Christmas tree is thrown into the New Year's trash, the causes and effects will remain. As will that single horrible image of a huge man turning and slamming his fist full into the face of an onrushing huge man.
While the Houston Rockets' Rudy Tomjanovich spent two weeks in the hospital, with towels over the mirror in his room to hide his broken-up face from himself, and while the Lakers' Kermit Washington pondered taking graduate courses for fear he will never find another job in basketball, the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stand out: "As long as this league continues to view the game as a 'contact' sport, a philosophy which in my view is highly questionable, violent fouls will continue to go undetected. This philosophy maximizes rather than minimizes the potential for violent reaction."
The Laker center believes basketball should be a sport of quickness, finesse and body control with stringent rules against bumping, especially bumping of himself. Abdul-Jabbar says he labors under a "double standard. I've had to learn to play the game as a contact sport—really at the expense of playing basketball."
The NBA's Most Valuable Player issued this statement approximately one month after he broke his right hand smashing Milwaukee's Kent Benson in the jaw in deliberate retaliation for being elbowed by Benson in the opening game of the season. Abdul-Jabbar missed 20 games and was fined $5,000 (but not suspended) by NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien. Twenty-three games later, his teammate, Washington, whirled and landed what Laker Assistant Coach Jack McCloskey called "the hardest punch in the history of mankind" on Tomjanovich, who was running to mediate a fight between Washington and Houston's Kevin Kunnert.
Tomjanovich suffered fractures of the face and skull, a broken nose and separated upper jaw, a cerebral concussion and severe lacerations around his mouth. In effect, the bone structure of his face was knocked loose from his skull. His eight-year career, during which he was named to the all-star team four times, may be as shattered as his face. Washington was fined $10,000 and suspended for at least 60 days. It is likely he will not play the remainder of the season.
While O'Brien's penalties were severe (although some say not severe enough), it is Pollyannaish to believe such punishment will deter what the commissioner refers to as "the root causes" of violence in the NBA. Extremists have categorized these as everything from escalating salaries to racial tensions. Whatever the answer—perhaps a third official or a three-point basket rule to spread out the defense—some means must be found to eliminate the vicious body language that goes on underneath and leads inevitably to fights.
The Lakers are furious that neither Benson nor Kunnert was penalized for allegedly "starting" the two incidents. Then, too, the other day, after Buffalo's Bill Willoughby punched Detroit's Gus Gerard, O'Brien peculiarly levied only the standard $225 fine that goes with being ejected from a game. Obviously, retribution this time was minor because the fisticuffs caused little damage, but the trifling fine incensed the Lakers as well as other players around the league.
"That decision was not only unfair, it was stupid," said the Washington Bullets' Mitch Kupchak. "Is an attempted murderer less guilty because the bullet missed?"
As the evening news continued to play back Kermit Washington's terrifying haymaker and as media-conscious Texas lawyers figured out how many ways they might sue the Laker forward, feelings around the league shaded toward sympathy for Washington.
For all his reputation as one of the strongest, most dangerous customers in the game, off the court Washington is a gentle, sensitive, family man who is popular with both teammates and opponents. "A guy in the wrong place at the wrong time"; "It could have happened to any of us"; "Victim of circumstance" and "Scapegoat" are some of the things one hears about Washington.