The Portland Trail Blazers' No. 2 physical-fitness zealot rolled out of bed after a nap last Friday afternoon in Los Angeles and ordered his fruit salad to be served beside the hotel pool. But hadn't he looked outside? The sky was spitting cold rain, so 54-year-old Coach Jack Ramsay settled for rope jumping instead of his usual half-hour swim.
The Blazers' No. 1 physical-fitness zealot, Kermit Washington, a weight lifting and swimming buff, had barely even been to bed. The Blazers had played in Utah the night before, after which Washington had stayed up late with his insomniac roommate, Jim Brewer.
When it came time to meet the powerful Lakers at The Forum, the Blazers—all nine—piled into a small van. "There are a lot of cities that would like to start a franchise with the players we have injured," said Forward Larry Steele.
Indeed, the Blazers rolled off without forwards Maurice Lucas (broken knuckle), Mychal Thompson (broken leg) and Bob Gross (bad back), and guards Lionel Hollins (strained knee) and Dave Twardzik (back spasms). That is most of the starting lineup of the 1977 NBA titlists, plus last year's runner-up for Rookie of the Year. Another starter from that championship season, Bill Walton, is, of course, gone, too. But because Walton is with San Diego, the Trail Blazers have Washington, who was awarded to Portland by Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien as part of the compensation for the Clippers' signing of Walton. There's no getting around it: the Blazers were 4-0 going into the game against the Lakers in large part because of Washington.
October 29, 1979
After Washington's superb defensive work helped stun the Lakers 99-82, Ramsay said that these Trail Blazers, patched up like a leaky dam, are "the best defensive team I've ever been associated with." In their first six games, the unbeaten Blazers held their opponents to 84.5 points per game.
"We have unselfish players of good character working hard," says Ramsay, explaining his team's success. "We spend a lot of time practicing fundamental things."
In the L.A. game, Washington had 12 rebounds and two blocks, forced his man—Spencer Haywood—into 4-for-13 shooting and jumped off Haywood often enough to help Blazer Center Tom Owens cause Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to miss 11 of 16 shots.
"It's unusual for a forward to be the hub of your defense," says Ramsay, "but Kermit is. He's everywhere. I mean he's everywhere."
When the Lakers made a run late in the third quarter, Ramsay sent in Kevin Kunnert and the journeyman Brewer for Owens and Washington. He also inserted rookie Guard Jim Paxson and first-year Forward Abdul Jeelani into the lineup. The Lakers and their fans relaxed. "Hey, Jeelani!" one of the fans yelled. "Didn't your name used to be Dale Schleuter?"
No way, as Jeelani proved, flipping in an 18-foot jumper, driving for a three-point play and igniting a 17-3 Portland burst that put away the Lakers. What the 6'8" Jeelani used to be was Gary Cole, and as Cole he scored 20.6 points a game at Wisconsin-Parkside a few years ago, before going to play in Italy and then arriving in Portland this fall as a free agent.
All the Blazers were elated by their win—except the unemotional Washington. As usual, his manner was detached, because he would just as soon be ignored for the rest of his career. At 28, in his seventh season in the league, he has had to live for two years with the aftereffects of the punch he threw on Dec. 9, 1977 that shattered the face of Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich. There were the sacks of hate mail, death threats, a 60-day suspension and a $10,000 fine, two trades and a trial this summer in Houston that resulted in a $3.1 million award to Tomjanovich and an out-of-court settlement between the Lakers and Rockets over the loss of Tomjanovich's valuable services.
Washington's personality is far removed from that of the violent thug he is often depicted to be. He is soft-spoken and well-read, a student of Oriental philosophy. That he is drawing attention as the Trail Blazers' main man is an idea he cannot, or will not, understand. He consented to an interview only because he would not read the story resulting from it; he says he has not so much as glanced at a newspaper or magazine since shortly after hitting Tomjanovich.
He calls the punching of Tomjanovich "the incident," and he prefers not to talk about it directly. "The incident made it hard for me," he says, "but it also made me a better person and player. Bad things seem to make things better than they were before."
Washington grew discouraged while he sat on the Laker bench for most of his first three years in the league, mainly because no one would bother to teach him how to play forward. He had been a center at American University in Washington, D.C. Finally, in 1976, Washington asked Pete Newell, the former University of San Francisco coach and the then Laker general manager, for help.
"Three days a week for the past four summers Mr. Newell got up at 6:30 in the morning, went down to the Loyola University gym and helped me become a better player," Washington says. "He showed me how to move my feet, how to play defense, how to rebound."
After the incident, the Lakers sent Washington to Boston, saying that he had no head for the game. Before last season he went to San Diego, where he finally found himself as a player—and nearly led the Clippers into the playoffs. Then O'Brien shipped him to Portland.
His home is still in San Diego, and so are his wife, Pat, and their two children. Meanwhile Washington is living in a Portland hotel; he'll probably stay there, because he says he cannot afford to buy a house. "All I do is practice, read, sleep, practice, read, sleep," he says.
He reads philosophy to help him keep basketball in proper perspective. "I need to," he says. "How many people in life have the advantages that athletes have? When you play pro basketball you live in a dreamworld. It's like a drug. When you're up, you can't get any higher, but when you're down, it can really take you low. My self-image became so inflated when I read what a good person and player I was that, after the incident, I was destroyed when I read that I was a bum. I thought about all the kids I had worked with and what they thought when they saw me do what I did. So I don't want any part of superstardom. None whatsoever. If my name never appears in another newspaper, I'll be happy."