If you believe in the Great Pumpkin, happy endings and pro basketball players who still are humble despite $100,000-plus salaries, this is your kind of story.
It's about Kermit Washington, a man who has worked five arduous years to make himself into an NBA star despite two major injuries, infrequent playing time, little encouragement from team officials and a nagging geeling that no one felt he could be successful - except his wife and one genuine good samaritan.
Washington is the fellow who revolutionized American University basketball, made first-team All-American partly on the basis of an imaginative public relations campaign and then graduated into the ranks of pro basketball, where it was expected he would disappear quickly.
Washington is now second in the NBA in rebounding (16.6 a game), a starter for the team favored by many to win the NBA title and a prominent enough basketball personality to make a Sports Illustrated rogues gallery of enforcers in last week's issue.
"It's hard to believe this is finally happening to me," said Washington. "But this is how my whole life has been. Things go bad and then they turn around and it always turns out well. It's like a fairy tale."
Less than a year ago, Washington's career was in scrambles. After developing into the Los Angeles Lakers' sixth man and a favorite of the fans at the homecourt Forum, he tried to play on a sore, aching knee. It almost became a tragic mistake.
Fifty-five games into the season, he came down with a rebound and heard a popping sound in the knee that was so loud people in the stands told him they heard it too. He looked down and saw his knee cap "floating around and everything out of place. It didn't look right."
It wasn't. He had ruptured a tendon and would be out for the rest of the season following an operation. Without him, the Lakers still managed to compile the best record in the NBA and then they drafted a Washington lookalike, North Carolina State's Kenny Carr. They weren't taking any chances if Washington couldn't come back.
"It was so discouraging," he said. "I was finally contributing, after years of doing nothing and then I hadn't proven myself yet."
Enter the good samaritan.His name is Pete Newell, one of the most renowned teachers in the game. He once coached the University of California to the NCAA basketball title before moving on to pro ball where he became general manager of the Lakers. He had worked with Washington briefly two years ago "when on one else, including coach (Bill) Sharman wanted to help me," and now Washington asked for help again.
Newell gave it to him, despite the fact he had been fired as general manager and soon would be employed by the Golden State Warriors. But he had theories on how to play forward in the NBA and Washington was to become his guinea pig.
"My basic trouble had always been that I was a center in college and didn't know a thing about forward," said Washington. You can catch the ball, but you don't know how to do it right."
Newell changed all that. Three days a week last summer, Washington would pick him up at 7:30 a.m. - "he was like a little kid with a basketball under his arm wanting to play a game," said Newell and they would drive 30 minutes to Loyola University in Los Angeles. Along with Gail Goodrich, who was also coming back from a knee injury, they would work out for 90 minutes.
"The forward position is the toughest to play in pro basketball," said Newell. "The Lakers never gave Kermit the help he needed to learn the spot. Because he's quiet, they thought he wasn't too smart. But they're wrong; he's a smart kid and he picked every up fast."
Newell began with the fundamentals. He taught Washington to use his feet properly - "you can't play unless you use your feet right" - and showed him how to set up defenders for moves, much like a pitcher operates on a batter.
"He never had an idea before the summer on how to create leads, how to play the cutter, how to make a turn, how to use those feet," Newell. "Really, it was more mental than physical. Once he saw how the position should be played, he went after it."
Now, according to Newell, 'Kermit is capable of being the best defensive forward in the league. He has a fierce, explosive quickness underneath that few other players posses. And he can more than hold his own on offense, which surprises some people.
"But he had been led to believe he wasn't supposed to shoot. He has confidence now that he can score and not just play underneath. He's going to be one of the best in a couple of years."
Newell paused and repeated the next question. "Why did I work with him when the Lakers didn't employ me anymore? First of all Kermit is a wonderful person. He isn't motivated just by money. He wants to excel as a player.
"And I get as much a kick out of it as he does. I love to teach basketball to someone who appreciates it. Besides, I had a selfish interest in him. I drafted him as a forward. I wanted to help him know his way around."
Washington always has known what he was doing when he was rebounding. But his new-found scoring prowess (15.5 points a game) has been especially important for the Lakers since Kareem Abdul-jabbar is sidelined with a broken hand.
When Adul Jabbar returns, Washington again will become his protector - the 6-foot-7 3/4, 228-pound muscle man who is so physical underneath opponents can't concentrate on the Lakers' giant center.
But Washington rebels at this enforcer image. He was asked by Sports Illustrated to "look mean" for the enforcer picture and he agreed after Laker officials urged him to cooperate. The result "is an awful picture, because it's not me."
"I'm not mean. I don't like to fight. I've been in two fights (once knocking down John Shumate) but I don't look for them I just want to play basketball."
It is probably a cliche to say Washington is a gentle giant, but he is. He is modest to the point of practically blushing at praise, he loves working with children and his idea of a pleasant time is staying at home and taking care of chores.
Unlike many of his peers, Washington appreciates the riches that have come his way and he wants to make sure he is worth the money he is being paid.
"I think we are obligated to hustle and put out as hard as we can everytime we go out on the court," he said. "I'd like to be known as a hard worker, nothing else."
He's found out the hard way how important hard work is. Prior to the knee injury, he had missed almost half the games in his pro career due to ailments that included a broken ankle, strained achilles tendon and sore back.Each time, he has had to rehabiliate the problem an dstart from scratch in his quest for pro respectability.
But overcoming long odds has become standard fare for Washington. That's why he calls his life "one long amazing story."
He started "maybe four games at the most" as an uncoordinated 6.4 center at Coolidge High. He didn't have a college scholarship until his hustle at an all-star tryout camp caught the eye of ex-AU coach Tom Young. And he became a starter and All-America in college only after using weights and determination to add strength and weight to what once was a 175-pound frame.
"In high school, I realized I didn't want to be a bum the rest of my life," he said. "I was a crazy person when I was young, but I didn't know better. Heck, I lived in Washington for 17 years and had never been to AU.
"A lot of the kids I knew in high school are criminals or in jail on drugs or pushers. I wanted to live like a human being was supposed to live."
"I don't want to be a counselor but a real teacher," he said. "And not a PE teacher. I want to help them to be something. A lot of teachers don't care about the kids. They only want a paycheck every week. I know what that attitude can do to your life."
But that is all in his future. For the present, he is trying to get used to playing 40 minutes a game, a rare treat for someone who was convinced a few years ago the Lakers were either going to cut or trade him.
"I averaged 25 minutes last year before I got hurt and that was a big increase for me," he said. "Playing 40 minutes takes you longer to recover, but with Kareem out, I've got to play more.
"The way I play, going inside and rebounding, takes a lot out of you. People are fighting you and elbowing you. It's not like college. These guys are all big.
"I feel like a boxer after a fight when I get up in the morning. My body is sore all over. But it's better than sitting."
Washington has had some superb early season games.He twice has gone over the 20-rebound barrier, a total he averaged during his college career, and he has taken charge duing the final minutes of the Lakers' two victories.
He refuses to pace himself in games. To loaf he says, "is to be asked to be taken out. I talk to myself during games. I'll say, 'Kermit, you aren't doing a damn thing.'
"My goal is to go out and start quickly. The quicker I get going, the more I relax and the better I do. That's important because I've got an opportunity and I don't want to blow it."
Washington is much more comfortable in coach Jerry West's set offense than he was in Sharman's free-lance system. And he says West has built up his confidence by sticking with him and letting him play.
"In the second half of one game this year, we couldn't get it going," said Washington. "He turned to me in the final minutes said, 'Well, Kermit, are you finally ready to play?' I told him I was and we went out and won it. He must respect my ability to say something like that."
Respect is all Washington wants from the game. He abhors publicity, although he is much more at ease with interviews than he was even a few years ago. But he wants his peers to feel he belongs.
His work ethic is simple. Keep working, even when you shouldn't.
"I didn't want to quit and say later that I wish I had tried harder," he said. "When I leave this game, it will be because I don't have enough talent anymore, and not because I didn't put out.
"But even if I got out now, I'd be happy. I've proven I can make it. That's worth all the sweat and work."ll the sweat and work."ll the sweat and work."