on February 8, 2004
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.
on December 30, 2003
I hadn't read a sports book since junior high school, and if John Feinstein truly is one of the best authors in the genre, this stinker may well be my last. I expected so much more, and Feinstein promised a gripping tale: One split-second mistake overshadowing a lifetime of good works, forever altering two lives and changing how basketball operates.
That's a great premise, but Feinstein never comes anywhere close to proving his point. He's not even in the same zip code. What he does prove is this: Kermit Washington (the puncher) grew up poor, had a so-so basketball career, almost killed a guy, got numerous second chances, but continues to blame everyone else -- racism, other players -- for something that most have forgotten. The punchee, Rudy Tomjanovich, got his face mangled by Washington, missed a year, then had a nifty comeback and became a rich and successful NBA head coach who for some crazy reason doesn't like talking about a dark period of his life. As for the league: It added another referee. Whoop de doo.
Feinstein relies heavily on cliches and writes like a freelancer for "Basketball Digest." Chapters drone on and on recapping NBA seasons from the late '70s that could be summarized in a paragraph or two.
"The Punch" could have been a fairly interesting 4-page magazine article. Too bad it stretches for more than 300 pages.
on December 4, 2003
I was extremely disappointed by this book. I have listened to interviews with John Feinstein on several radio programs and always admire his vast knowledge of sports, including its influence on popular culture, and in addition have heard nothing but positives about his books (in hindsight, mainly by radio program hosts who were no doubt sucking up to him during the interviews...). I picked up this book because of this and due to the fact that the only thing I know about this incident (like many others, I presume) I have seen over and over in a 10 second video clip: Kermit Washington knocking Rudy Tomjanovich out with a devastating blow. Sounded like a fascinating incident with which to revolve a story around. This book, however, told me very little, and I was pained in turning the pages. Kermit grew up poor, worked hard, still denies he did it intentionally, blah, blah, blah. Rudy doesn't want to talk about it that much, etc. These points were repeated dozens of times. The only interesting things I found about the book were those ancillary to The Punch and how they were affected. And "the fight that changed basketball forever?" How? A third referee was added and fines and suspensions were increased? Oh boy. Gripping. Racism was mentioned a couple of times as a reason for Kermit's troubles after the incident, both by the author and by Kermit, but nothing more was mentioned (or explored?). Confusing. The author noted that he was originally scheduled to work on another novel, and wrote this book against the wishes of his editors. Next time, John, listen to them.
on November 6, 2003
This was the first Feinstein sports book I've read, and I was mostly disappointed when I finished the last page.
This book is so REPETITIVE, it totally took away my connection to the author. I felt like I had been ripped off, like I was reading something put out by people who didn't care about me, the reader.
Two of the first three chapters are essentially the same. They tell and retell in shockingly similar words the events of the punch itself.
I remember at least three instances in the book where Feinstein writes that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't like physical play against him. I remember at least four instances where he writes that Calvin Murphy was one of the NBA's toughest fighters, and that you didn't want to miss with him.
I remember several instances where Feinstein wrote the same thing twice, such as when Washington said he feared making a mistake in front of Jerry West, how it was hot in Houston in August, how Tomjanovich started drinking at age 15, how his hometown was a blue-collar town and how Murphy felt "devastated" after the punch.
The only good parts of the book are Tomjanovich's recalling of his battle with alcohol and his overall evolution as a person. And, some of the stuff about Washington and his Portland days were decent.
But at the end, aside from the incredibly sloppy repetition, I still didn't feel like I knew the real Kermit Washington, not nearly as much as I knew Rudy T. I don't think Feinstein got him to open up as much as he should have or could have.
Other reviewers were right, too: This should have been a nice long magazine piece. It wasn't worthy of a book, as Feinstein made so painfully obvious with his repetition. He had to fill the pages somehow, he must have resigned himself to thinking.
on August 24, 2003
Rudy Tomjanovich ran toward Kermit Wasington to break-up a scuffle between Kermit Washington and Kevin Kunnert when Kermit, whose back was facing Rudy, turned quickly and landed the punch. It was no ordinary punch. Rudy felt as though the scoreboard had fallen on him; he could taste spinal fluid leaking from his brain. In all Rudy would undergo surgery five times -- plastic surgery, surgery resetting shattered bones, restoring tear ducts. Feinstein's book traces the lives of both men prior to and after the punch. Even more, he chronicles the extent to which the NBA evolved around the punch, how it changed the image of the NBA and the rules governing player fights.
The punch was an unrepresentative incident for both men. Kermit Washington at 6 foot, 8 inch and 222 pounds was enormously powerful. Rudy was not on-guard when he approached. Yet, neither player had reputations for violently aggressive play; many other players were "better candidates" to have been involved in such an incident. Fate saved the moment for Rudy and Kermit. John Feinstein has done a superb job of showing the extent to which both men continued to live under the shadow of the punch throughout their careers. (Also instructive is the ongoing argument between Washington and Kunnert over who started what what between the two of them.) Rudy Tomjanovich is, I think, the better known of the two players, and justifiably commands an honorable reputation in the league. Kermit was less known to me. Perhaps other readers will, as I did, come to have a renewed respect for him as a player and a citizen. The Punch is a quick, absorbing read. As an "incident" in NBA history, it deserved a writer who would bring careful research and lucid prose to that singular event. Feinstein brings both.
on May 21, 2003
I don't want to re-hash what the other reviewers have written, but rather explain what I found to be a fascinating aspect of this tragic story. The book goes into the details of both Washington and Tomjanovich's childhoods and college careers and it is absolutely uncanny how similar they were. Each man had it very rough early in life. Tomjonavich's family would somtimes go on welfare and his father was an alcoholic. Washington's mother was mentally ill and unable to care for him and his brother. As a result, they were raised by relatives and a cold stepmother.
These early struggles would haunt both men and provide them with a strong motivation to succeed in life. Basketball and education became the vehicle for that success. There were other similarities, but I don't want to spoil anything for potential readers.
What helps to make Feinstein's writing so effective is that he doesn't belabor the point, but rather lets the reader come to this realization.
A great read.
on April 15, 2003
This book is the story of two men, Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich. These two were both exceptional basketball players in the 1970s but neither would be remembered for their skills. On December 9,1977 the L.A. Lakers faced the Houston Rockets. Washington played for the Lakers and Tomjanovich for the Rockets. During the game Washington got into an argument with a Rocket player. Tomjanovich ran over to separate the two but was met with a punch to the face. The hit damaged his skull and brain. Feintein then goes on to describe how each man lived after that, the criticism Washington met, and the road to recovery. Since the huge accident both men have traveled far. Washington is still haunted while Tomjanovich seems to be okay now as the head coach of the Houston Rockets. For one punch to change sports so much is amazing and how the two men have thought about this fist to face meeting everyday of their life is unbelievable. This book was pretty interesting for sports fans but is a little long. I would recommend this book to people who have time to read and enjoy sports books.
on April 3, 2003
I read this book concurrently with "You Cannot Be Serious" by John McEnroe.
One of these books is about a star who admits his foibles and, without attempting to justify them, explains why he acted the way he did, and the consequences of same. Put more simply
1. He did it
2. He accepts reponsibility for it.
The other is a hagiographic account of how one young basketball player almost killed another player with a single blow. The victim eventually recovered and went on to moderately great heights in the NBA. The other carped and whined his way through life, and despite all the spin this well-regarded sports journalist put on the story, two inescapable facts come out in the book.
1. He did it.
2. He doesn't accept responsibility for it.
It's certainly disappointing what happened, not least for Rudy Tomjanovich, the victim. But get a life already. There was only one victim that night, but Kermit Washington has spent the rest of his life attempting to pursuade anyone who will listen that there were two.
on April 2, 2003
This is not a bad book, though it is overly long. Some of the repetition is due to Feinstein's need to describe "the punch" to establish the need to delve into the lives of the protagonists, Kermit Washington (the punch thrower) and Rudy Tomjanovich (the punch recipient). Feinstein then begins telling each of their stories through alternating chapters. By the time he gets to their meeting on 9 December 1977 the confrontation is anticlimactic, in light of the detailed analysis that opens the book.
From a normative perspective, the punch and its aftermath can be summed up in three quotes from former NBA players. On Washington's culpability, as Calvin Murphy points out "Your first instinct is to protect yourself. You hear someone coming from behind, you turn and get your hands up. Then, if you need to throw a punch, you throw it. Kermit, turned, saw Rudy clearly, and threw the punch. He was angry. He wanted to hurt somebody. Not in the way he did, I know that. But this wasn't an act of self-defense. If it had been, he would have just been covering up" (page 52).
On Tomjanovich's contribution, according to Wes Unseld "There is no one I respect more in the game than Rudy Tomjanovich, but he got himself into something that he was not prepared for. He made a mistake running in the way he did. That doesn't mean he deserved to the pay the price he paid - no one deserves anything like that. He was certainly the victim of something horrible. But regardless of his intentions - and I assume that they were good and peaceful - he is not blameless in what happened" (page 252).
And on Washington's problematic quest for redemption, John Lucas observes, "You know what I wish? I wish [Washington] could just say, 'I'm sorry. I screwed up.' All the years, all I've heard over and over again is, 'I'm sorry but...' Sometimes in life, you make a mistake and there's no buts and no explanations....There's no peace in 'I'm sorry, but.' You can't find peace until you truly understand that the only thing to say is, 'I'm sorry,' period" (pages 343-4).
Fascinating material, impressive reporting, but 300+ pages are not required to tell this story.
on March 8, 2003
I first heard about the punch incident between L.A. Laker power forward Kermit Washington and Houston Rocket All-Star Rudy Tomjanovich on a 25th anniversary television clip. I was intrigued by the story. This book was mentioned in the program so I sought it out. The title of the book piqued my interest even more: "...The Fight That Changed Basketball Forever." I had never heard of the punch until that 25th anniversary story. I was 3 years old in 1977 when the event occurred and had not been very interested in basketball until the last three years. I was definitely opening this book ignorant on the subject. Feinstein's words and the current state of the NBA as I see it are the only pieces of evidence I have as to whether this event "changed basketball forever."
First, the good points: Feinstein offers some description on the game in 1977 (background I needed). I had no idea that there was enough fighting to put the NBA in almost the same league as the NHL. I learned that only two referees oversaw the game until the following year, and it was difficult for only two to control the game. A thorough account of the event and the aftermath is given, including some insight into the struggles of Tomjanovich's life that, I assume, have not been written in such detail before this book. Feinstein also gives a thorough background on the lives of Washington and Tomjanovich. In the case of Washington: what's a good way for a PR guy to catapult the career of an otherwise unknown player? Make up a reachable milestone like an average of 20 rebounds and 20 points per game for the season. Washington's rise to fame was very interesting. The book also shows that most of the animosity is between Washington and Kevin Kunnert (the player Washington blames for starting the fight that led to the punch).
Problems I find: Like many other reviewers noted, Feinstein repeats a lot of information. The first several chapters are a reiteration of the event and immediate aftermath. Similar quotes are used throughout the book (I lost count of how many times Tomjanovich is quoted as saying he doesn't want to be remembered as the guy who "got nailed"). The repetitive nature of the book doesn't bother me as much as the overall style, which doesn't seem very professional to me, especially from an author of so many sports books and receiver of so much praise. Some of the quotes he chose to use seem almost silly. My favorite example is on page 149: "For some reason we always had trouble in the Palestra," Washington said. "I think it may have something to do with the fact that those teams were always good." How does he get quotes like that!
In sum, I bet this story has been written as an article in sports magazines with glossy color photos many times. I think I'd enjoy it in article form more and probably not miss much information. The story seemed to be stretched to fill the pages of a book. What's more, I don't think Feinstein made his case that the event changed basketball. The league already decided to lower the boom on violent acts before the 1977 regular season and violent behavior is still seen a lot in the NBA today with the usual fines and suspensions. Repeat offenders like Ron Artest are praised for their intensity and "playing the game the way it should be played." Is there another punch waiting to happen somewhere? I hope not, but I don't think 1977 has changed much beyond the lives of those who were involved.