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.
"I see me being made a villain all over the country. I see my future going up in an explosion," Washington said last week. "But on the newsreels I never see Kunnert hitting me first, which he did. Even when I got in the fight, I didn't want to fight. I thought I'd get beat up. Rudy was just a blur. Why did he have to run at me? I've called his hospital five times, but I know he doesn't want to see me; he probably wants to shoot me. I couldn't sleep for the longest time, but now it's out of my hands.
"This was my best year," he went on, "and then I would have been a free agent. Now most teams probably won't have anything to do with me. I may never play again. It's up to the dictator, O'Brien. I feel like I was walking out to my car and somebody tried to mug me so I beat him up. Then the police came and arrested me. So I have to go to prison."
Of the incident, Kupchak says, "We've all talked about it on the Bullets and we all agree. If we put ourselves in Kermit's position, we would have reacted the same way. Maybe what happened between him and Kunnert beforehand was all wrong, but when you turn and see a guy roaring down on you, you have to fight."
The Bullets' Wes Unseld says, "As a peacemaker Rudy had to know two things. You must either break up a fight or you take the fight upon yourself. But you have to be prepared for anything. I've seen 100 fights in this league and 99% end with no more than a bloody nose. This was a tragic and regrettable incident, but it wasn't a fight. The NBA has created a monster out of fighting. Now let them live with it."
In an environment chock full of questionable characters and teams more deserving of notoriety, it is ironic that a genuinely admirable crew such as the Lakers has become the symbol of brutality in pro sports. The Los Angeles coach, Jerry West, had a fight-free playing career distinguished for its class and sportsmanship and is one of the few NBA coaches who insists on keeping only what are referred to as "good citizens" around him on his squad.
"Kareem and Kermit are two of the best people I know. Collectively this is the nicest, kindest team I've ever been on," says West, who has been hurt by letters criticizing him for "favoring animalistic, killer tactics."
Indeed, camaraderie, chemistry, cohesion—saccharine as these clichès seem—could aptly be applied to last year's Laker team, which, aside from Abdul-Jabbar, consisted mostly of retreads, castoffs and free agents who managed to compile the best regular-season record in basketball before being eliminated by Portland in the playoffs.
This season the Lakers have much the same team personality: Jamaal Wilkes and Dave Robisch—quiet, thoughtful types. Lou Hudson—Sweet Lou, Mr. Nice Guy. Ernie DiGregorio—a veritable Dondi from the comics. Only Adrian Dantley, a second-year man out of Notre Dame, could possibly be construed as a rough, tough mean guy. In fact, earlier this season, when he was playing for the Indiana Pacers, Dantley stormed the Milwaukee dressing room, blasting aside police guards, to get at the Bucks' Dave Meyers, for which he received a three-day suspension.
After West had obtained Dantley, along with Robisch, in a trade for rookie Center James Edwards and Earl Tatum three weeks ago, the Laker coach labeled the season "the most bizarre year this team has had in its 18 years in Los Angeles."
With the exception of Washington's torn tendon in his right knee, the Lakers were almost injury-free in 1976-77, but they have already gone through nine starting lineups this season as they have dropped to the bottom of the Pacific Division. In addition to Abdul-Jabbar's hand injury (the team won only eight of the 20 games he missed), three other Lakers suffered broken bones, and Wilkes missed two games with a viral infection and a low blood count. Indeed, for a game in New Orleans, Wilkes had to leave his sick bed and fly across the country so the Lakers could have the required eight bodies in uniform.
Despite the slings and arrows, the Lakers have not fallen so far behind that they cannot catch everyone but Portland. Last week, with Abdul-Jabbar back and scoring his customary 30 points a game, with Dantley and Wilkes taking much of the frontcourt pressure off Kareem as well as off each other, with rookie Guard Stormin' Norman Nixon showing signs of turning into one of those overnight Hollywood heroes, the Lakers won three of four before losing to the Trail Blazers and ending the week with a 13-18 record.
Los Angeles even beat the Central Division-leading, roughhouse Bullets at their own roughhouse game, 120-115, with Dantley scoring 36 points. "I love L.A. so much," he says. "It's like Notre Dame. Only better socially."
At one point at the beginning of the third quarter, Dantley scored 10 points in four minutes. In response Joe Tripoli, on the organ at the Fabulous Forum, played the Notre Dame fight song. Even that did not come easy for the Lakers. Tripoli recently broke his ankle.