He has noticed how calm things have become in the National Basketball Association the last three months. A couple of minor temper flareups, but no major fights or bench-clearing incidents.

And he knows people are saying that he is the reason for the lack of violence and that somehow he should take consolation from the fact that the peace he always wanted to see in the league finally has been achieved.

But Rudy Tomjanovich wants no part of this martyr's role. "I've never been a crusader," he said in a recent interview in Houston, "and I'm not going to start now. I'm a basketball player - that's all I've known for the last 16 years.

"I'm glad there haven't been any more fights. There have been incidents in the post where I've been afraid for my teammates. But isn't it said that something like what happened to me had to take place to stop the fighting?"

What happened to Rudy Tomjanovich on a Friday night last December in Los Angeles is still the subject of heated debate in NBA circles. It was the most frightening incident in the history of a league never known for its gentleness.

Kermit Washington, then with the Lakers, and Kevin Kunnert, Tomjanovich's teammate on the Houston Rockets, became involved in an altercation at midcourt.

Washington and Kunnert exchanged punches Tomjanovich, who was at one end of the floor, ran toward the two players.Washington, who said he heard someone coming up behind him, turned and landed a crushing blow to Tomjanovich's face, knocking him down.

The result of the punch was devastating: a fractured jaw, broken nose, fractured skull, facial lacerations, a brain concussion, loss of blood, a leakage of spinal fluid from the brain cavity and damage to both eyes.

Tomjanovich has missed the rest of the season. Washington was suspended for two months and fined $10,000 the stiffest penalty in league history by NBA Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien. He was traded to Boston during the suspension and returned to play in February.

Friends say Tomjanovich, who will not talk about the incident, wasn't trying to break up the fight or tangle with Washington but was attempting to get to Kunnert. Washington's supporters say Tomjanovich should not have rushed into the situation from behind unless he was prepared to become involved.

Suits already have been filed and more are expected. Washington has apologized, but Tomjanovich says, "There is no excuse for what he did."

"I'm not a fighter. I don't even remember getting into a fight in grade school. I don't like fighting and I never felt it had a place in the game.

"But this is a tough game. You've got a lot of big, powerful people going at each other every night and they aren't wearing any padding. Sometimes things happen."

But he could never have anticipated what has happened to him and to his team since that December night.

The Rookets, who were struggling when he went down, have collapsed. Last year, they were the Central Division champs; this season, they are in last place and could finish with the worst record in the league.

Tomjanovich is just now starting to feel normal again. His face still is numb, his teeth are loose, and he needs more surgery to repair a tear duct in one eye. But he can exercise and eat regularly and he no longer looks into a mirror with fear.

"The first time I saw myself, I couldn't believe it," he said. "I spent maybe a half-hour looking and staring. My face was swollen up like a basketball.

"I had waited two days before I looked. Even the nurses grimaced when they looked at me. You could tell from watching their eyes. I knew it was going to be bad."

Tomjanovich remembers vividly those first few hours after he was slugged.At first, he thought he had a broken nose, nothing worse.

"I asked the doctor if I could play again in the second half," he said. "That's when he told me it was a lot, lot worse. They were honest from the beginning. They laid it on the line. They told me it would take time, and it wouldn't be easy.

"The most discouraging part maybe was watching my body lose its shape. I've always stayed in shape, even in the offseason. When I finally got out of bed, just walking to the gift shop in the hospital was a struggle. That's when you wonder when things will be right again."

It was 2 1/2 weeks before Tomjanovich was released from the hospital in Los Angeles. A three-hour operation had placed his upper jaw in proper alignment and his mouth was wired shut. He still faced plastic surgery, but at least he made it home to Houston the day before Christmas.

Keeping busy is the hardest part now. When your life has revolved around basketball for 16 years and suddenly that changes, there is a huge void to fill. For Rudy Tomjanovich, some days that void has seemed like the Grand Canyon.

"The toughest part is watching the Rockets play," he said. "I go crazy. I want to be out there and I feel I could be. But I'm not.

Tomjanovich has shadows under both eyes and he talks as if he has a heavy nose cold, after-effects of his injuries, but he isn't self-conscious about his appearance and he has a relaxed, easy manner when he talks about the last few months. But there have been things that have been difficult for him to handle.

People have written him for advice "like I'm Ann Landers or something." He doesn't know how to react to those letters. Other mail has poured in, too, bagsfull at a time, from well-wishers throughout the country. This outpouring of sympathy has touched him, yet it also makes him uncomfortable.

"How do you ever thank everyone?" he asked. "I've heard from people I don't know. I heard from people I haven't seen in 10 years. Letters still are coming in. Not one has been critical or anything. They were tremendous."

And he had hoped, maybe foolishly, that he would be able to play again this season. He worked toward that goal from the day the wires were removed from his jaw - the same day Washington was reinstated from his suspension - but, finally, his doctor said no. He would be taking too big a risk to come back so soon.

"God, it was disappointing when he told me," said Tomjanovich. "This has been such a disruption, staying away from the game like I have to. Of course, I had to listen to the doctor. It would be stupid for me to ruin everything by coming back too soon.

"But I'll be back next year, and I'll want it more than ever. I remember my first year in the league. I didn't play a lot, but when I did get in, I really appreciated it.

"Well, it's like that now. I'll appreciate every moment next year."

Not until he takes the court next September at the Rockets' training camp and arches in one of his majectic 16-foot jump shots despite a hand in his face, will he feel he is completely recovered from this "roughest ordeal of my life."

"The pain has been bad, but I've had painful inuries before," he said. "But the sitting and waiting has been the hardest. The little things have meant so much."

Little things like the letters from several NBA players. The gigantic wreath of flowers from Bob McAdoo. The letter from Paul Westphal's wife telling him how well the hospital in Los Angeles treated its patients.

Or the day the wires were removed and he could eat an enchilada. Or when the doctors finally told him that he could go outside the house and exercise.

Tomjanovich always has been one of the NBA's best, an eight-year veteran with a 21-point career average and four straight All-Star appearances before this season. He ranks among the league's top shooters, a big man with the deft touch of a guard. At age 30, he feels he should be at the prime of his game.

"I just wish all this hadn't happened," he said. "It's been very, very difficult. Once it does happen, you say to yourself, 'well, at least it's behind you.'

"But it isn't. I was laying in that hospital bed in Los Angeles watching a game involving UCLA. It was a beautiful game and I was saying how great it was to see those college guys play so good and with so much enthusiasm.

"Then, all of a sudden, once guy punched a UCLA player. Broke his jaw. I couldn't believe it. I was shocked and so disappointed.

"You have to wonder, why does the game have to go on this way? Why?"