Kermit Washington spent yesterday at his suburban Los Angeles home, talking to his lawyer and his friends about what has happened to his life since he knocked down Houston forward Rudy Tomjanovich Friday night with one powerful punch.
"What are people going to think about me now?" he kept asking, and no one could really give him an answer.
Certainly most fans are going to consider Washington a brutal, vicious person for the damage he did to Tomjanovich's face. And there will be little sympathy for him, even if the fine of $10,000 and the two-month suspension handed out by NBA commissioner Lawrence O'Brien will eventually cost him at least $50,000.
But that is what brothers his friends. They admit he should have been punished, because fighting has no place in basketball. Yet Washington will be cast in an image for the rest of his pro career that is completely opposite his true personality.
It will be difficult from now on to convince anyone that Washington actually is a sensitive, warm human being who abhors fighting and hates the enforcer label that was pinned on him last season.
"People are never going to believe this, but he doesn't have a malicious bone in his body," said Bullet publicist Mare Splaver, who was sports publicist at American University during Washington's college career.
"He's always been the American dream, the kid who built himself up from nothing and made himself into a man and an athlete and now this had to happen," said Splaver. "I don't think he'll ever be the same."
Washington is upset because O'Brien did not conduct a hearing before handling down the penalty, the most severe in NBA history. He says O'Brien did not make an effort "to get to know me" but instead went on the basis of tapes, reports and "that enforcer image."
He also knows he should never have thrown that one punch. It was wrong and he realizes it. He says he's never gotten into a fight that someone else didn't start and films of this latest episode show that the Rockets' Kevin Kunnert helped get it going with some punches of his own. But that still doesn't excuse his actions.
Now he finds himself as the No. 1 escapegoat in O'Brien's campaign to stop the fighting in pro basketball.
Backed by new powers awarded him last season by the league board of governors. O'Brien began this season determined to end fighting in the NEA. He got an early opportunity to test his authority when he fined Kairem Agdul-Jabbar $5,000 fro hitting Kent Benson.
Then, when Adrian Dantley chased after Dave Meyers and bulled his way into the Milwaukee Bucks 'dressing room last month, he suspened Dantley three days without pay. It was apparent that the next incident, especially if it happened within weeks of the Dantley episode, would be dealt with even more harshly.
The Washington brawil, the most vicious so far, was that incident and now O'Brien has told league players that if they lose their cool, it's going to cost them heavily. It is unfortunate that O'Brien didn't decide to get tougher earlier and make similar examples of two more famous players, Abdul-Jabbar and Dantley.
O'Brien's actions were hailed around the league yesterday as neccessary and valid. Portland coach Jack Ramsey, who belongs to an NBA committee studying violence in the game, said that "this should indicate this kind of activity. The pentalty was enough to make a player think twice before taking a swing."
And Bullet guard kevin Grevey admitted that "more people are going to think before they toss a punch. Tempers are going to be controlled better. Everyone now know O'Brien means business."
But there is a question about how many fights are so well planned that a player has time to say, "Don't do it," before swinging. "I don't think many fights are premeditated," said Bullet general manager Bob Ferry. "This is a very competitive sport and someone hits you with an elbow, you swing and think later.
Look at Kermit. He didnt plan to swing at Tomjanovich. But he did and now his whole career might be affected. People tell me Kermit is a tremendous person. I'm sure he wasn't trying to main Rudy."
Because Washington is not a violent man by nature, his actions are difficult to explain. He is like the gentle giant who gets pushed and pushed until he loses control. Kunnert did the pushing and Tomjanovich, unfortunately, bore the brunt of the explosion.
The effect of that explosion will be felt for months to come. Already, Tomjanovich's lawyers are talking about suing Washington and Washington's lawyers are investigating whether they can ask the courts to reduce the saverity of his punishment. And the Rockets are deciding whether they should sue the lakes for compensation to make up for Tomjanovich's loss.
The team should be just as responsible as the players in these cases," said Houston general manager Ray Patterson. "They shouldn't leave kermit on the limb by himself. He is a product society that admires physical force so much it pays homage to the bullies, as a national sports magazine did in October with an article on NBA enforcers.
Washington was in that article. He didn't want to be, but the Lakers urged him to pose. "They pay my salary, so I did what they said," he explained. "But I know people will get the wrong impression. I'm not like that at all.
"I hate to fight, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. All I want to do is play basketball. That's all I've ever wanted to do."
This had been the best year of Washington's pro career. After being slowed by various leg injuries in past seasons, he was healthy and happy as the lakers' power forward.He had been among the league's rebounding leaders much of the season and was gaining confidence with his increased playing time.
Now he has at least two months to think of about his future.