Kermit Washington's Remarkable Redemption

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 anywhereIf 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?

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Among Kermits, Mr. Washington has always been number two to me, but, after reading this interview and being quite impressed, I would have to say that he is fast gaining on the green one in my mind.

Chinese Banned Blacks From Bars in Olympics

FYI -- I think that you will find this very interesting.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 Nsenga Burton
Just my commentary- real the article first....

(The days of socially conscious athletes like Muhammad Ali are over. Why haven't these athletes protested... whether they want to drink at the bars or not. These high paid commercial smili ng Negro boys haven't even threatened to boycott playing in China so that this issue could be addressed on an international level. These are sad days, where the hell are real black men, men like Malcolm?)

What do Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Jason Kidd have in common? They are the s tarting five of the 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball team and none of them will be admitted to any bars in Beijingbecause they are black. No, this is not fiction -- it is fact as reported by the South China Morning Post (7/18/08). Beijingauthorities have forbidden bar owners to serve blacks during the 2008 Olympics. (Yes, this is true!)

How hypocritical is it that the host of the largest international sports competition in the free world would ban an entire group of people based on race? This bla nket discrimination is couched in the idea of "controlling" Beijing's problem with prostitution and drugs, which is primarily driven by Mongolians. Somehow, this policy smacks of impropriety, pun intended, and underscores China's continuous policies of discrimination. You would think with the global embarrassment over the mistreatment of Tibetan Monks, faulty consumer products, and the suppression of information about deadly diseases, that China would have figured out by now that the systematic exclusion of an entire group of people, many of whom have histories of horrend ous discrimination in their home countries, would not reflect well on the mainland. Further, I was not aware that blacks owned drug trafficking and prostitution worldwide. Amsterdamanyone?

Let's get this straight. Black people can participate in the games, add money to the economy in "permitted" spaces like hotels, lodges and restaurants, but they cannot go to a bar, which may be located in a hotel, lodge or restaurant. This is outrageous. Would the world stand still if in 2008 the United Stateswas banning entire populations of people based on perceived ideas about race?

Pretending to control drug trafficking while controlling the movement of black folks is out of control. To define an entire race of people as drug dealers and prostitutes is unacceptable. I guess this is what you get when an international committee overlooks a country that has transgressed human rights without recourse. The world community needs to unite against this injustice and demand that Chinaallow all Olympic participants, athletes and visitors alike, equal access to all venues.

Knowledge is power!

Quite A Story

I am one of the people who only knew Kermit Washington from "the punch." We all know so much about the mistakes people make. This article opened my eyes, not only to the great work Kermit Washington is doing, but to my (our) shallow knowlege of good and bad that people do in our world. Thanks so much, Mr. Washington and friends, and thanks Dave for opening our eyes.


Thank you for the interview with Kermit. I know sometimes bad things happen to good people, and now I know Kermit is among those NBA great people like Mutombo that have really tried to bring a change for the better to as many as possible. As a lifelong Laker fan, the punch sits in the recesses of my childhood mind, and I can rest assured it will stay deep down in there.

thank you & suggestion

Hey Dave,

As always your work moves and inspires. You are the real deal. Keep up the good work.

I love that Washington brought the issues in Africa back to questions of budget at the end of the interview. Our foreign policy is a nightmare. The sadness comes not only from the women and men dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also from the empty bellies and broken infrastructure we could so easily help to fix were we to think more creatively about how to spend money and engage the international community. Washington hit the nail on the head when he said "We could feed the world easily." Alice Walker once wrote, "The most important question in the world is 'Why is the child crying?'" Those two quotes go hand in hand if you ask me.

Dave, I also want to praise you for going interview format on this one, and thereby defying all the stupid racist patterns of white journalists talking about Kermit Washington. Thank you for giving him space to speak for himself.

I wish that I could share your articles on the social networking sites that I'm frequently posting on. For instance, articles at the New York Times have a feature where you can "share" by sending a simple message to facebook, myspace, etc.

People need to read your stuff; it's one of a kind.

Kermit W. & Manny R.

Thanks for the interview with Kermit. I echo Emily's comment above about "stupid racist patterns of white journalists". Even though I wish that Washington put out a deeper analysis about the causes of poverty in Africa, it was nice to see a really different positive side of him than the media usually puts out; you guys even managed to shine a light on a side of Ron Artest that folks don't usually see.

This is one of the things that you do best, Dave--penetrating the veil of copy-cat, institutionally racist and sexist media to help us see through the bullcrap about athletes that the white media loves to hate and tries to make us hate as well. On that particular note, I was wondering if you had a different take on the non-stop bashing of Manny Ramírez by the Boston media. Like Barry Bonds, he sure ain't all that lovable and he doesn't seem to be much of a team player, but something doesn't smell right about the all-white Red Sox management and local media constantly taking pot shots at one of the few players of color on the team. Hell, not only do the Red Sox stay consistent with most other teams in having very few--actually even less-- African North American players than most MLB teams, they buck the overall trend by hardly even having any Latino players.


Mr. Zirin, thanks for a really informative article. As a Houstonian, it was helpful in a lot of ways.
Rudy T. was a wonderful coach for The Rockets. I remember him more as a coach, than a player.
Thank you for also including some info about the newest Houston Rocket, Ron Artest.

Interesting that I haven't seen this angle in my local paper.

On the Manny thing, and the Boston media, we in Houston can also relate to that. The Houston Astros, for years, were the "whitest" team in baseball.

However, if any of what I have read, about Manny, is true, i.e. that he doesn't visit with terminal kids, that he refuses to go to vist Vets in hospital, that speaks more to Manny as a person, than Manny the ballplayer.

It also makes you wonder why, if Manny, with all his faults can find a home in baseball, Barry Bonds is still sitting at home, with no offer at all.

Lucky to be born here

Great story on Washington's work. Just a quick thought. Given the history of slavery and institutionalized racism in the U.S., it's ironic that Washington said that "We were lucky to be born in America, and they are unlucky to be born where they are; they don't have opportunities there." Along those lines, western colonialism and the stripping of resources from African countries has basically crippled much of the continent. Corruption in the governments of African countries is simply not the only root cause of what's happening there today.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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