by Dave Zirin
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 halfcourt. 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 entitled “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.
SLAM: 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.
SLAM: 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.
SLAM: 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.
SLAM: [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.
SLAM: 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.
SLAM: 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
SLAM: 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?
Dave Zirin is a columnist for SLAM magazing and the author of the forthcoming “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.