Kermit Washington will suit up tomorrow for his first NBA game in two months, but his initial appearance in a Boston Celtic uniform apparently won't end the controversy that has been swirling around him since he punched Rudy Tomjanovich in December.
"I'm afraid that people aren't going to lay off him," said Red Auerbach, the Celtic general manager. "They're got the wrong image, but it's still the image they have. It's too bad."
Washington has been called a "criminal" by Houston guard Mike Newlin, a teammate of Tomjanovich. And columnists across the country have criticized NBA Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien for allowing Washington to play again this season while Tomjanovich is still recovering from extensive head injuries caused by Washington's vicious blow.
Washington, who was with the Los Angeles Lakers when the incident occured, feels he has been punished enough and now he hopes he'll be allowed to play without harassment.
"Whatever happens," he said, "I think I am strong enough to overcome it. I'm not going to let anything interfere with my performance."
Whether Washington is allowed to play anywhere near as aggressively as he has in the past is another question. Auerbach and the Celtics wonder out loud if referees will crack down on him to prevent his involvement in any more fights.
And despite what Washington says about not being affected by the incident, he will have to prove to his opponents that he cannot be manhandled.
"I realize I'm going to be watched," Washington sais . "There isn't much I can do about that, but I'm not a dirty ballplayer and I never have been. Everything that has happened has made people think I am, but I'm not and I'll just have to prove it."
Following the punching incident, Washington was fined $10,000 and suspended two months without pay, which cost him another $50,000. It was the heaviest penalty in NBA history.
Tomjanovich will have to undergo further surgery in April to repair a tear duct torn in the Dec. 9 incident. The Houston Rockets have filed suit against the Lakers and the Lakers submitted an answer, claiming the Rocket forward was aware of the risks of participating in sports.
Washington has spent the two months at his home in a suburb of Los Angeles, trying to keep in shape. He was traded last month by the Lakers to the Celtics for Charley Scott. Boston also picked up a No. 1 draft choice.
it has been a uncomfortable wait for him. Besides believing he has been unfairly labeled as an enforcer, Washington feels O'Brien and critics have failed to obtain his side of the story.
He also has been harassed by obscene letters and telephone calls. "There have been a lot of upsetting things," he said, "but I can handle it. It's something I have to deal with."
The trade to Boston helped the time pass. He was confident Auerbach wanted him and he was sure the Lakers wanted to get rid of him before they had to deal with his return.
The two became acquainted when Washington attended Auerbach's summer camp while at American University, and Auerbach says the Celtics "are delighted to have him with us."
Both the Celtics and Washington are glad he will make his debut in Boston and not on the road. It is away from Boston Garden that both parties feel Washington will be harassed.
Auerbach has decided not to let Washington accompany the club to Houston for a Feb. 21 game, hoping that will keep things cool.