On Jan. 26, 1982, Kermit Washington limped away from pro basketball. His knees ached, his back ached and when anyone asked about his infamous one-punch rearrangement of Rudy Tomjanovich's face in '77, his head ached, too.
"For two years after I left the game, I literally didn't pick up a basketball," said Washington last week. "I associated basketball with pain and agony, and I didn't want any more pain and agony."
Last Friday night at Arco Arena in Sacramento, Mr. Pain and Agony, all 6'8", 255 pounds of him, was the Golden State Warriors' starting power forward in the season opener against the Kings. He played 16 minutes, made both of his shots for four points and grabbed five rebounds in a 134-106 loss.
"That was a terrible, terrible game," said Washington. "I had forgotten how much losing hurts." But, secretly, he had to be happy because he had already defied the odds. It's not so much his age—at 36, he's the fourth-oldest player in the NBA behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (40), Artis Gilmore (38) and Caldwell Jones (37)—as it is his 5½-year absence. The physical edge goes quickly in professional basketball, and Washington, a self-described "journeyman" who averaged 9.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in his 8½ seasons with Los Angeles, Boston, San Diego and Portland, wasn't a player who had much of an edge to start with. Except for this one: No one works harder.
Washington ended his basketball hiatus in 1984 when he accepted an assistant coach's job at Stanford under Tom Davis. Davis left for Iowa after two seasons, but Washington stayed on as assistant strength and conditioning coach for all the university teams. As he instructed, he lifted, and as he lifted, he got stronger. At the same time, an exercise program gradually eased the pain in his back. And his basketball skills were sharpened at Pete Newell's Big Man Camp over the last two summers. (Newell is a former director of player personnel for the Warriors and a former consultant to the team.) "I didn't dominate, but I felt like I held my own," said Washington.
And so, against all odds, he decided to try a comeback. The Trail Blazers were his logical choice. They still held his rights, but Trail Blazer coach Mike Schuler wanted no part of the part-time practice schedule Washington felt was required to protect his aching knees.
Golden State's executive vice-president, Don Nelson, an old hand at reclamation projects, decided to give Washington a chance, and Washington made the Warriors' roster. There is no guarantee he'll be around in April, however. He's almost a zero on offense, and his endurance remains questionable. But he can rebound, intimidate, serve as a role model and, if nothing else, act as history professor. "The other day I brought up Earl the Pearl Monroe and no one could figure out who I was talking about," said Washington. "They thought I meant Pearl Washington."