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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2002-12-10

Leading Off: Forgiveness and Being a Storyteller
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro/USA Today

Photo by Robert Hanashiro/USA Today

Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington share a laugh after and interview with USA Today. In 1977 during a fight between the NBA Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, Washington punched Tomjanovich nearly killing him. They are the subject of 'The Punch'
"I'll never forget that sound," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I had turned landing on concrete. It's twenty-four years ago, but I can still hear it."

The punch knocked Tomjanovich straight backward, and he landed on the back of his head, out cold within a second.


(Excerpt from "The Punch" by John Feinstein.)

I learned something recently. Something I've known. Something I'd forgotten. Something that I will now always remember ...

It was 25 years ago today that the LA Lakers' Kermit Washington during an on-court scuffle during a game against the Houston Rockets turned and blindly swung his right hand and connected to the face of all-star forward Rudy Tomjanovich who was running in to break up the fight.

The resulting fallout of the incident, from Tomjanovich's near-fatal injuries to Washington's ruined basketball career are chronicled in John Feinstein's new book "The Punch".

While Rudy T. and Kermit both participated in the writing of "The Punch" the two have had very little contact with one another over the years and did not meet together even during Feinstein's research... until two weeks ago when USA Today was granted an interview and photo shoot with the two... together.

It would be the first... and we were told by Rudy T., the last time he and Washington would sit together for a photo shoot and interview. Tomjanovich had just started his 12th season as head coach of the Rockets and had Yao Ming, the 7-6 rookie center from China to mold into the franchise player he envisioned when the team selected him #1 in the 2002 draft.

The meeting with the pair would be in Portland where the Rockets were to play the Trailblazers and it would be very quick - 30 to 40 minutes for both the interview and the photo shoot.

After getting the assignment from picture editor Al Anderson, I ran out to buy a copy of Feinstein's "The Punch". I got through about half of the book when I started thinking of the logistics involved and how I wanted to try to photograph them.

I knew that I would have to shoot during the actual interview by David Leon Moore and we had agreed that he would cut his interview off at a certain time so I would have time to shoot a more formal portrait.

I learned from the hotel that the meeting room we reserved had a patterned wallpaper, something that certainly was what I had in mind for a background. So I shipped to Portland a 25-foot white silk background to drape around the area we would do the interview and I also sent my 7-foot charcoal gray collapsible background to use for the portrait.

After reading about the horrible injuries Tomjanovich suffered and that the mid-70's were what many referred to as the NBA's "dark era"... rampant drug problems and frequent fights during games, I thought I would make the portrait somewhat moody. I thought about side lighting the subjects or using grid spots with a dark background.

My thoughts were: a man's life nearly ended (Tomjanovich) and a playing career never fulfilled (Washington); dark times in the NBA (fighting and drugs) and an incident that nearly destroyed a league.

The day of the interview and shoot, I got into the room about 2 1/2 hours early to to arrange things so I could shoot the two fairly close together during the interview... how close would Tomjanovich sit next to a man that nearly killed him? ... and set up backdrops and lighting.

As I had planned, I draped the large white silk over and entire wall behind the chairs and table we arranged for the interview. To make thing easier for David the reporter, I decided to just set up two large softboxes to light the pair and shot using just the modeling lights so the flash of my Dynalites wouldn't disrupt the interview.

On the other side of the room I set up the dark gray backdrop and settled on using strip light above and slightly behind them and two grids for main lights. It was as I wanted... dark and mood, with just enough separation from the background because of the strip light above.

I was ready... I thought.

During the 45 minutes I waited for Rudy and Kermit to show up, I replayed what I had read in "The Punch" and my recollection from 1977... the blurry, grainy film that was replayed over and over on the news back then.

I also kept wondering how I would feel about meeting someone who had nearly ended my life. I couldn't fathom what Tomjanovich's feelings would be, even after all of these years. I knew that Washington had much to gain from the book and now the USA Today story... understanding, redemption, changing his "thug" image and maybe forgiveness.

But before the two showed up, in walked a reporter and TV camera-pointer from Fox Sports. What the hell where they doing here! Some how, some way, they were tipped off that Tomjanovich and Washington were sitting down together for an interview... and the "reporter" (a former mediocre NBA player) said matter-of-factly "we're going to piggyback off your interview, that's ok right?"

To my relief, David said "absolutely not" and then politely said they had to leave the room.

Washington was the first to arrive, still looking like the power forward that played for the Lakers, Celtics, Clippers and Trailblazers... maybe 40 pounds heavier than his playing weight of 25 years ago.

I had arranged the two chairs for Tomjanovich and Washington at an angle so that from the side, I had a fairly decent shot of the two of them as they talked to our reporter. I knew I had to get something decent during the interview just in case Rudy decided he didn't want to sit for the portrait shoot. Plus I had a limited amount of time to do all of this.

But Rudy was running late... he finally came into the room about 10 minutes after our arranged meeting time. Damn! Would that cut the time we hoped to shoot the portraits?

"Hey Kerm," Tomjanovich said smiling as he entered the room.

"Hey Rudy," Washington replied as the two warmly shoot hands.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro/USA Today

Photo by Robert Hanashiro/USA Today

Rudy Tomjanovich ponders a question during an interview with Kermit Washington for USA Today.
Over the next 25 minutes Washington and Tomjanovich recounted "The Punch", their lives since the incident and their feelings about one another. Much of what was said early in the interview was straight from the Feinstein book, but then Rudy T. speaks in detail about changing his lifestyle after alcohol rehab, forgiveness and helping Kermit as much as he can.

The two laugh during the light moments of the interview and you can sense a connection between them when they talk about basketball, Yao Ming and the player that Washington got a tryout with the Rockets.

Nothing dark. Nothing hateful. Nothing about death.

My mind is racing as we get near the end of the interview. I quietly moved the softboxes away from the table and off to the side and closer to the white silk backdrop. I've decided to first shoot the two of them against the white background and use a large softbox.

The interview is now over and the reporter is directing Rudy and Kermit over to me. I pulled over two chairs and ask Tomjanovich to sit backward so the chair back gives him a place to put his hands. I try to move Washington as close to Tomjanovich as I can, but it's not easy for a man 6-8 and nearly 300 pounds.

I meter and then raise my camera... to see two smiling men! Instead of cheese they both say "Yao Ming!"

Washington jokingly complains that I have to count down 1-2-3 so he can get ready... I count 1-2 and then hit the shutter. Rudy cracks up.

After about 15 frames I am thinking "do I move them over to the dark, moody background?" I make an executive decision: I will go with what I have and shoot a few more frames on the white backdrop.

When I'm done, I thank them and they both return the thanks. But I'm now having second thoughts … doubts are a bitch!

As Tomjanovich opens the door he is greeted by the Fox TV pointer and the "reporter" who said "Hey guys! Can we get a quick pose of you two shaking hands?"

As I am breaking down my gear and packing it away, I am replaying the last couple of minutes of the shoot and keep debating myself about whether I should have tried to shoot the moody portrait.

I edit and transmit several nice frames shot during the interview... Rudy pondering a question another of Rudy laughing with Kermit in the background. And then I send 4 versions of the portrait. All smiling. All with a feel-good look.

I'm not feeling good. I am now thinking I blew it and should have had them sit for the moody portrait and if they wouldn't maybe insist we "try a couple of frames".

I talk to the Al the assigning picture editor after I'm done transmitting and also sending a complete audio clip of the interview I made on a mini-disk recorder. I let him know my disappointment with the shoot, but also tell him that the portraits I did make we nicely lit!

Al tells me that the reporter David had told the office that the interview was "awesome" and the photos should be "great".

Gulp!

I decide to go out of the hotel for a late lunch... it's 2:30 and my flight back home isn't until 9.

After a great lunch and a walk around downtown I head back to pack up and head to the airport. I call in to talk to Al Anderson one last time to make sure they don't need something else. "The photos are great Bert," Al reassured me, "They show the feeling they have for each other now."

I'm feeling a little better, but I'm not 100% convinced. On my flight home I dig out "The Punch" from my Lightware Digital Backpack and start reading the last half of the book. I finished it up at 2:30 am before going to sleep at home.

The next day I talked to my friend and mentor Bob Deutsch and replayed the previous morning to him. When I finished he said "Did you read the paper? The photos matched the story!"

What David had written was not just about "The Punch" but about forgiveness. And despite the terrible incident that has forever linked them, Tomjanovich has come to terms with it and has formed a sort of bond with Washington.

And what is it that I have re-learned through all of this?

Simple. I am not in this business to just shoot photos for myself. I am a storyteller and have readers that depend on me interpreting a story appropriately and making a photograph that accurately tells this story.

I am often miffed that photographers quickly forget that little thing … telling the story accurately. Recently I saw a meaningless play transmitted from an NFL game by a wire service of a leaping catch made by a receiver of the LOSING team … two versions at that! This image said "hey I made a great photo of a guy leaping in the air" (even though they were a little soft in my opinion … the photos should have said who won the game or how made the big plays.

Yes we are photographers. But we if we're working for a newspaper or a wire service we have a slightly higher calling... journalist.


* * *

We have a another great issue of Sports Shooter... better late than never!

The Seattle Times' Rod Mar (with ss.com's Grover Sanschagrin in tow) gives us a minute-by-minute rundown on covering an NFL game. LA Times staffer Myung J. Chun gives us a great behind the scenes look at working the closing days of a political campaign. Dave Black recaps the recent Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau. Robert Beck, Darren Carroll and The Photodude all give their take on covering golf in light of the recent Tiger Woods incident. USA Today's Jack Gruber tells us Afghanistan's not all that bad. Anne Ryan shares a Holiday recipe and Mongo checks in with his annual Holiday gift guide.

So sit back, adjust the volume on that iPod and enjoy Sports Shooter v.49!

Happy Holidays from Sports Shooter!

(Robert Hanashiro does have a day job as a staff photographer with USA TODAY based in Southern California. You can view his personal gallery at: http://www.sportsshooter.com/bert )



Related Links:
Hanashiro's member page
Book: The Punch

Related Email Addresses: 
Robert Hanashiro: bert@sportsshooter.com

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