Review

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever

by John Feinstein



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. For example, how
did Washington's wife react to the punch? We don't know. Pre-punch,
Pat Washington had grave concerns about her husband's notorious
temper on the court. But Feinstein never explains her reaction to
the punch, nor does he get any reaction from the Washington and
Tomjanovich children. Washington's divorce is similarly unresolved.
In a book that provides intricate detail on arcane, irrelevant NBA
trades, salaries and management, the reader gets less than one page
on the break up of a twenty-five-year marriage.

Compounding these problems is Feinstein's penchant for repetition,
the withering repetition. A quote on page thirty-two re-emerges on
page 171. A quote on page 154 reappears twenty-four pages later.
Did you miss Brent Musburger's quote on page 21? No worries, it's
there on page 194. Facts are recycled with great dexterity. On no
fewer than four occasions, the reader is treated to the fact that
the city of Houston is hot in the summer. Imagine that. Houston.
Hot. Two of the four occasions are, naturally, the same
quote.

Feinstein does a nice job describing the great friendship between
Tomjanovich and his former teammate, Calvin Murphy. He skillfully
reports on Tomjanovich's successful battle with alcoholism,
offering a bare bones, unsentimental view of the ordeal. In fact,
many biographical details are well researched and presented in a
way that advances our understanding of the men, especially
Washington, not as superstar athletes but as real people.
Washington is a supremely hard working, thoughtful person. He
achieved great things against long odds and, as a young person,
looked to have a limitless future on and off the court. The punch
changed things, and Feinstein provides sad details of a life gone
off course, including an attempt to extort five million dollars
from the NBA, and the taking of a polygraph test to prove he was
not the instigator in the events immediately preceding the
punch.

Feinstein reveals similarities between Tomjanovich and Washington
that, perhaps, go beyond coincidence. Both men were raised in tough
neighborhoods by emotionally distant parents. Both attended
universities close to home, where they excelled in basketball and
in academics. They have had close friendships with members of the
opposite race throughout their entire lives. The same man drafted
them into the NBA. Both are 6"8, and have sons named Trey. Although
it may be a fanciful leap to look for cosmic meaning in an NBA
fight, it is folly to dismiss Washington's belief that "Under
different circumstances, I believe we would have been the best of
friends. Everything I've seen or heard about (Tomjanovich) tells me
that." Tomjanovich expresses similar feelings about Washington,
indicating that in some sense they have been "married" ever since
they were joined by the punch. And although they have not met or
spoken at length since 1977, Tomjanovich characterizes Washington
as his "brother."

Had Feinstein kept his gaze trained tightly on the major players
--- and if his editor cut out the repetition and about fifty pages
of irrelevant detail --- THE PUNCH would have made a bolder
statement. As it is, however, the book fails to make good on its
promise to fully explore "the fight that changed basketball
forever."

Reviewed by Andrew Musicus on January 23, 2011

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever
by John Feinstein

  • Publication Date: November 4, 2003
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Sports
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316735639
  • ISBN-13: 9780316735636