By DAVE ANDERSON
READING a book is seldom associated with the leisure activities of a National Basketball Association player, or any professional athlete for that matter. Some surely curl up with a good book occasionally, but for too many others, the only thing they ever seem to read is a stat sheet, a road-trip itinerary or instructions on how to play a new video game.But before their season begins in 10 days, every N.B.A. player, if not every pro athlete, should be required to read "The Punch" (Little Brown, $29.95), John Feinstein's chilling book about how a 1977 fight in a Lakers-Rockets game changed the lives of Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich.
If current N.B.A. players read this book, maybe they'll realize the potential physical and psychological consequences of the fights that occur in N.B.A. games every so often between these huge, powerful athletes. Maybe they'll realize that they could be haunted for the rest of their lives by one punch, as Washington and Tomjanovich have been.
"I began to think," Washington said, "my actual name was Kermit Washington, who in December of 1977 threw the punch that almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich."
Tomjanovich's face was so disfigured that he wasn't allowed to look at himself in a mirror until three days after he arrived in Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles.
"I really did look like the Elephant Man," Tomjanovich said, referring to a motion picture character. "My face was swollen like a melon, about twice its normal size."
In the N.B.A. last season, eight fights prompted fines and suspensions. Eight too many. In one, Shaquille O'Neal, the 7-foot-1 center who is listed by the Lakers at 325 pounds, swung at 7-foot, 261-pound Brad Miller, now with the Pacers. Fortunately, Shaq missed. Even so, he was fined $15,000 and suspended for three games.
But suppose Shaq had connected? Suppose any of the huge players in those fights had connected as solidly as Washington did with Tomjanovich?
On Dec. 9, 1977, the 6-8, 220-pound All-Star forward known as Rudy T, who is now the Rockets' coach, wasn't even part of the original scuffle between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Rockets' 7-foot center, Kevin Kunnert. As the Lakers' enforcer, the 6-8, 222-pound Washington threw a punch at Kunnert while Tomjanovich, who had been upcourt on a fast break, turned and hurried to break up the fight, his hands at his side.
"I saw a blur of red," Washington said, alluding to Tomjanovich's uniform. "I grew up in the streets. You learn there that if you're in a fight and someone is coming up behind you, you swing first and ask questions later."
Washington's straight right hand crashed under Tomjanovich's nose. Falling backward, his head bounced off the Forum's hardwood floor. He was unconscious for two to three minutes. Walking off the court, he remembered seeing Jerry West, then the Lakers coach, staring at his bloodied face.
"It was the kind of look you see when someone can't believe what they're seeing," Tomjanovich recalled. "I remember thinking I must look pretty bad, but I had no idea how bad."
At Centinela Hospital, Dr. Paul Toffel, a head-trauma specialist, realized that the top of Tomjanovich's skull was actually an inch off-line from the lower portion. Tomjanovich also had a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Spinal fluid," Toffel told him. "You're leaking spinal fluid from your brain. We're going to get you up to the intensive care unit and we're going to hope your brain capsule seals very soon."
It did, but Tomjanovich didn't play again until the next season. Washington was fined $10,000, then the maximum, and suspended for 60 days. Traded to Boston, he moved on to San Diego and Portland, where he thrived as a popular rebounder. He retired with career averages of 9.3 points and 8.4 rebounds.
Washington has tried coaching, done a sports radio talk show, opened and closed a restaurant, and created Project Contact to help African youngsters, but he lost some $500,000. And his marriage broke up.
"He needed so much reinforcement," his ex-wife, Pat Carter, said. "He needed to know he was someone, that he wasn't the little kid who grew up homeless in his own home. Then later he needed to know that he wasn't just the guy who threw the awful punch."
Tomjanovich stopped playing with career averages of 17.4 points and 8 rebounds. As a coach, he guided the Rockets to both the 1994 and 1995 N.B.A. titles; he also coached the gold-medal United States Olympic team at the 2000 Summer Games in Australia.
He collected $2 million from the Lakers in a lawsuit settlement. But soon after the punch, he began having the same nightmare every so often: in the gradual darkness of trying to go to sleep, he felt he was dying, then he would wake up with a start.
Almost always, his wife, Sophie, realized, the nightmare occurred after he had been drinking. In 1997, he entered an alcohol-abuse treatment center in Arizona. Now in his 12th season as the Rockets' coach, he's a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But every so often, a stranger will look at Rudy T and say, "You're the guy that got nailed with the punch."
Maybe if enough N.B.A. players read "The Punch," there won't be another punch like it. Maybe there won't be a little girl somewhere saying what 4-year-old Nichole Tomjanovich did in 1977 when her father finally got home from the hospital.
"Daddy," she asked, "why did the man do that to your face?"