Kermit Washington’s Remarkable Redemption

One of the most misunderstood athletes of all time gives some words to our friend, Dave Zirin.

Washington’s talent was very unappreciated because of “the punch

Former National Basketball Association player Kermit Washington has never asked for redemption. He’s lived it. It’s a tragedy of history that Washington is best known for what will forever be known as “the
punch.” On December 9 1977, the LA Lakers played the Houston Rockets. Washington, engaged in an on-court fracas, heard footsteps, turned, and threw a roundhouse fist. It connected with Rudy Tomjanovich, fracturing his face about 1/3 of an inch away from his skull and leaving the Rocket All-Star passed out in a pool of blood by half court.

A doctor later determined that Tomjanovich almost died. That moment has hung over Washington for years and will undoubtedly be in the opening paragraph of his obituary. For many observers, the violence and ensuing controversy was symbolic of covert racial animus both in the NBA executive suites and among fans.

Best selling author John Feinstein even wrote a book titled “The Punch” that aimed to look at every angle of this one singular moment. While the punch may define an era, it is a cruel irony that it has so defined Kermit Washington. This was an academic all-American from American University. This was a hard worker and quality teammate. This was nobody’s thug. Washington would have been forgiven if he had spent the remainder of his life out of the public eye. All anyone would want to ask about is the punch. Instead, he has devoted himself to combating hunger and HIV in Africa. It’s a remarkable story of how one person can both make change the world and resist being defined by others.

DZ: You went to Africa for the first time in 1994, to help after the genocide in Rwanda. What was the experience like?

KW: I flew from Portland, Oregon to Ngoma, Zaire. And then we were there in a [refugee] camp; probably 300,000 people, no food, no water, no bathrooms, no nothing. Death and dying, it was 95 degrees and humid. And I just said “this is ridiculous.” I only stayed five days. I had never been around hundreds and hundreds of dead people in my life, and it affected me. So I came back and got some friends of mine who were doctors and nurses and about six months later we went back over. And then we formed an organization and have been going back ever since. And that was fourteen years ago. Now we’ve got a clinic, we’ve got a school, we’ve got food distribution, we’ve got a community center. We feed about a thousand people a day every day.

DZ: What’s the organization called?

KW: It’s called Project Contact Africa. This year we would like to feed two million people. Now we don’t feed and cook; we give them dry rice and beans and cornmeal and we give them enough for probably a month. They have to be HIV positive, with kids, or widowed with kids or elderly.

DZ: So what was it about HIV in Rwanda that made you say this is the central crisis facing Africa?

KW: I wish it were that easy. It wasn’t. Where I first went; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and all these other places, it was too dangerous to take other people. Now, if you were a Green Beret or some kind of
survivalist you could go. But I was going to take nurses to doctors over there. Nairobi is where a lot of the refugees go because it’s safe. Politically it’s a mess–but it’s safer, so we said we’ll have our base here. They have a slum in Kenya which is the biggest in the continent of Africa called Kibher, which is over a million people, no running water, no nothing. We started there, feeding people and having doctors come over and turn a school or a church into a medical center. We would probably see a thousand people a day until we ran out of medicine, which is usually about ten days….Here’s what people need to realize: people in Africa, or South America or wherever there’s such intense poverty are just unlucky to be born there. They’re just like we are. We were lucky to be born in America, and they are unlucky to be born where they are; they don’t have opportunities there. They’re good people. They suffer, and they want hope but don’t have any hope there.

DZ: [NBA player who was suspended for the infamous brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons fans] Ron Artest went on one of your trips and had an absolutely transformative experience. How did that come about?

KW: When we opened the clinic four years ago, the National Basketball Players’ Association came over with 50,000 dollars worth of medicine. So it really helped kick-start our clinic. And Ron was one of the guys, along with Maurice Evans, Theo Ratliff and Etan Thomas. Ron Artest was probably one of the most wonderful people we have brought over. All of them are wonderful, but Ron just went out of his way. Not only did he pay for a lab in our clinic, he paid for a doctor to go over this summer. He paid for two weeks, paid for food, paid for a place to stay. Ron Artest–wonderful guy. You see him in the context of basketball; he’s a warrior when it comes to basketball. Now, I have to admit, his attention span is not that long and he’s not interested in some things, so you have to understand and learn how to work with him. But he’s a very, very giving person. All of us who worked with him–if he likes you and he respects you, you can’t get a better friend than Ron Artest. And all of those guys have gone out of their way to do a lot for us.

DZ: What do you think is the root cause of poverty in Africa?

KW: It’s corruption in the government. I have to be careful when I say that. It’s corruption. The people at the top just take. You have unemployment at fifty percent. The people work very hard in school, but when they get out, there’s no business. No jobs. Tourism is really all they have over there. So when you see the people from Africa and Asia and how they come over here and get such great grades, it’s because they know what they could go back to. We cry when we have to go to school. In Africa they cry because they can’t go to school.

DZ: Do you think the West could do more to help Africa in terms of dropping the debt or assisting NGO’s?

KW: I think the individual human being can do more. When you have you can help. If you’re struggling, we don’t expect you to help. But we just want people to remember for a dollar a day you can help feed ten
people that would starve to death. There are no soup kitchens and stuff like that. There’s no clean water where they can turn on the tap. But they’re still human beings. And they’re just unfortunate. In this country you have to think about karma. If you do good, good things will happen to you. If you do bad, bad things will happen to you, regardless of whether we catch you or not. And I’m not a religious person, I just recognize that what goes around comes around. So if I was in that situation I would hope that somebody would help my family. [But] he way things are going in this country, we might need help ourselves pretty soon

DZ: Is there any ideal or political ideology that inspires you?

KW: I just don’t like people taking advantage of others. When I was a kid I loved Robin Hood, I loved Zorro, I loved everybody that tried to fight and to help the poor, people who weren’t privileged. We don’t have enough of those in politics now. I don’t know of anyone who really knows how the common man is doing. Any of our politicians, they act like they do, but most of the common men in this country are struggling. They cater to the rich because the rich will give them donations but the common man is the one who needs them. They’re struggling for gas. People don’t even have enough money to get to work with gas, by the time they get to work, they don’t have enough gas money to get home! We have to start thinking about the common man. Even though we say this is a country, this world is really one world. And we’re the ones who put up boundaries and different governments but there’s nothing really separate, we’re all the same, we all want the same and we all want hope. And I think that if groups can see what little rag-tag groups like mine do, if we can feed two million people, and we don’t have any big backers anywhere. If you can get another thousand people that can feed two million people. Well, now you’re talking about a world that’s not going to be starving as much. We could feed the world easily. We could have fresh water for everyone in the world easily. If we didn’t spend money in Iraq killing people, in one week you have a billion dollars. And a billion
dollars–as I told you–one dollar feeds ten, one billion dollars could feed ten billion people. Well, we only have six billion on the planet. So it could easily be done.

The question is, “Do we care?”

Do we care enough as human beings to try to make a difference?

15 Responses to “Kermit Washington’s Remarkable Redemption”

  1. michelle says:

    Nice interview Dave! Mr Washington has a great story. We all make mistakes and none of us should be defined by them unless of course your name is George Bush!

  2. kos says:

    DZ –
    Loved this interview. Glad it didn’t harp on “the punch” and instead focused on Washington’s work. I read at one time he wanted to be an NBA coach, but figured out that because of what happened, he was blackballed from ever getting a chance. Too bad the NBA won’t go to bat for him with commercials to show his good deeds.

  3. […] Kermit Washington’s Remarkable RedemptionTourism is really all they have over there. So when you see the people from Africa and Asia and how they come over here and get such great grades, it’s because they know what they could go back to. We cry when we have to go to school. … […]

  4. delinda says:

    Beautiful read. I really hope we see an increase in the number of publications running these types of pieces. Gossip columnists make millions of dollars for writing about non-sense, yet those of us interested in humanitarian work get left in the dirt. We need a movement towards the betterment of mankind. And if anyone wants to send me to Africa, my passport is ready, my tent is packed, and I’ve had all my shots.

  5. Mizzo says:

    DZ thanks so much for this. The bad rap that Kermit has received is bs. The affect that punch had on the league could be seen in the undeveloped skills of Darryl Dawkins. When he looked at someone crazy they called an offensive foul. Chuck and I speak on it in one of the interviews.

  6. Temple3 says:

    Frankly, all of Mr. Washington’s actions in the “fracas” with respect to Rudy T are perfectly understandable. Certainly no one wishes ill of competitors – even boxers don’t want to inflict that type of damage. With that said, the very idea of passing a moral judgment on a natural, instinctive and widely shared reflex is patently absurd. I’ve known since the age of 5 never to run up behind someone in the middle of a fight.

    Sadly, it remains true that peacemakers often catch haymakers.

    Kudos to Mr. Washington for his recognition of and engagement in the critical work needed to be done on the continent. He could have chosen so many other paths (begging for gigs from the beneficiaries of Africa’s travails, for one). Instead, he has chosen to blaze a trail of authentic service born of love. It’s a beautiful thing.

  7. People like Mr. Washington and Ron Ron have gotten a bad rap for things that have happened during the course of a game. However these men are SAVING lives.

    I don’t think that people here in the States understand that dynamic. I live and grew up in Philadelphia. I know death, but not because of a lack of food, water, and shelter. What Mr. Washington is doing and has done is bigger than any game he could ever play in. This is life, and he is living it to the fullest.

  8. Mizzo says:

    I just interviewed Jerome Williams and a story he told me about South Africa is frightening. 80% of the children in the community were raped. 80%! How would we as a society deal with such a horrific statistic over hear.

    Thank God there are people like Kermit. He gets my applause no matter what.

  9. […] on the court, but off the court, he’s one of the best guys out there. Period. The boys at the Starting Five just posted an incredible interview with Former NBA player Kermit Washington. In the interview, he […]

  10. Eric Daniels says:

    great interview, I remember seeing that fight on the news when I was 11 and even then I thought Washington was just defending his teammate like our coaches in little football taught us too. Washington was tarred as an animal by fans and the media and that was unfair considering he was pratically blackballed from the NBA for nearly 20 years, I remember seeing the Brian Gumbel HBO special and watching him in Rwanada and talking about Africa and the his life in the NBA. Clearly Washingston was misunderstood in context and NBA players who are involved in charity.

  11. MODI says:

    Yes, great interview. Kermit Washington is doing some serious work, and the story he tells about Artest does not surprise me because there are a lot of off-camera stories about Artest like that.

    As for the punch, he could have thrown the same punch and if nothing happened to Rudy T, then it would be a forgotton footnote. Just horrible luck.

  12. […] Kermit Washington’s Remarkable Redemption – The Starting Five: It is long past time to forget “The Punch”. 1n 1994, Washington took a trip to Rwanda to see how he could help out. He has been doing tremendous work ever since. Also, listen to Washington give an unfiltered assessment of the Ron Artest you might not know. […]

  13. Excellent interview, Mr. Zirin.

  14. […] case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer for Melo’s new reality show.SG: The Starting 5. Zirin talks with former NBA’er Kermit Washington about combating hunger and HIV in […]

  15. I have appreciated the interview you carried out with my friend Kermit Washington. Keep it up. Thanks.