Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends" Series: American's Kermit Washington

    
June 13th, 2011
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Kermit Washington, the greatest player in the history of American University. While many may remember Washington for a punch, he was a tremendously skilled player who is one of just a handful of players to average at least 20 points and 20 rebounds per game in his collegiate career.

Jon Teitel: In 1971 at American you set school records with 34 rebounds and 13 blocks vs. Georgetown. What is your secret for rebounding, and what is your secret for blocking shots?

Kermit Washington: I used to jump 10,000 times every night with a 20-pound weight vest, and I also jumped rope every night for four years. Conditioning is important, as well as just having the ability to jump.

JT: You led the NCAA in rebounding during your junior and senior seasons. Did you feel like you were one of the best big men in the country?

KW: I knew I was one of the best big men starting in my sophomore year, as I was the #2 rebounder in the country behind Artis Gilmore. I relied on my conditioning to keep from getting tired during games.

JT: You were drafted by the NY Nets after your junior season and offered a five-year contract for $100,000/year, but decided to stay at American. How close did you come to signing with the Nets, and what made you change your mind?

KW: I never thought about signing with them because I was having fun in school and doing well in my classes.

JT: In 1973 you scored a career-high 40 points vs. Georgetown. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were "in the zone"?

KW: I honestly do not know. I did not have a lot of bad games in college, as I rarely scored less than 10 PPG or had less than 10 RPG. It was pretty easy for me back then.

JT: In 1973 you were named All-American. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?

KW: Back then it meant a lot to me, because they guys that my friends and I looked up to while growing up were also All-Americans.

JT: What are your memories of the 1973 NIT (Washington scored 29 points in a loss to Louisville)?

KW: Louisville had a good team. That was the biggest crowd we ever played in front of. 15,000 people.

JT: You were a two-time academic All-American after struggling in school while growing up. How important were academics in your life, and how did your intelligence help you on the court?

KW: I do not think my intelligence helped me at all. I studied about four hours a day, so I believe that if you work hard you can succeed. It is as simple as that.

JT: Your 1,478 career rebounds is still a school record despite only playing three years on the varsity. Do you think anyone will ever break your record?

KW: Not really. Even though they play more games now, a person would still have to average about 15 RPG, and if they did that then I doubt that they would stay in school for all four years.

JT: You became one of only a handful of players in NCAA history to average 20 points and 20 rebounds per game during your career (including such legends as Artis Gilmore, Paul Silas, Walter Dukes, Bill Russell and Julius Erving). What does it mean to you to be in such an exclusive club, and how were you able to balance your scoring with your rebounding?

KW: It is a great honor, and nobody has averaged 20 RPG since I graduated. The guys today are better athletes than we were, so I am proud to have done something that has stood for so long. Back then there was no shot clock and some teams would just hold the ball, unlike today's fast-paced game.

JT: In the summer of 1973 you were drafted fifth overall by the Lakers (four spots behind Doug Collins). Did you see that as a validation of your college career or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA?

KW: I expected to get drafted, as some teams had wanted me to come out after my sophomore and junior seasons. I did not know a lot about the NBA teams, so I was not sure where I was going to go.

JT: After only playing in about half of your team's games during your first three pro seasons, you sought the help of Hall of Fame coach Pete Newell before your fourth season. What made Newell such a great coach, and how much of your success do you credit to him?

KW: When the Lakers drafted me in 1973 they were coming off of a trip to the NBA Finals, so they told me that I would sit because they did not need me to play immediately. Newell was a great teacher who helped me with the adjustment to a new position. I played center in college but was a forward in the NBA.

JT: In 1977 you famously punched Rudy Tomjanovich and were suspended for 60 days (the longest suspension for an on-court incident in NBA history). How did that punch change your life, and what is the biggest public misconception about the incident?

KW: Rudy and I are friends now. I always wanted to be a senator or congressman after basketball, but I was viewed negatively in the press after that so I do not think that dream will ever happen. What people read about you is what they think you are, but you cannot always believe what you read in the press. If you just watch the video without hearing about how it happened, I can understand why I was vilified by a lot of people, but you just live with it.

JT: In 1980 you played in your only All-Star game and had eight rebounds in 14 minutes in an eight-point overtime loss to the East squad in Maryland. Was it extra-special for you to play near your hometown of D.C., and could you tell at the time that rookies Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were both going to become superstars?

KW: You could tell right away that Larry and Magic were going to become stars, as they came into the league believing that they were stars. It was very special to play near D.C. I just wish that I could have played better.

JT: Your older brother Eric played cornerback for two years in the NFL for the St. Louis Cardinals. Which of you was the better athlete, and what sort of impact did he have on your life?

KW: He was older than me and was a very determined athlete. He helped me a lot because he did not want to hear any of my excuses! Growing up we had nothing to look forward to except for excelling in sports so we worked hard to succeed, and sports helped get us through college.

JT: Since retiring you have operated of a number of charitable organizations including the 6th Man Foundation (otherwise known as Project Contact Africa). What have you been able to accomplish so far?

KW: I founded Project Contact Africa myself in the 1980s. We have a school and clinic in Kenya, and every month we send them money and supplies. If you go to www.projectcontactafrica.com, you can read all about what we do.

Washington is also on Jon's list of the best pro players in Patriot League history.

American: Kermit Washington (1974)
Army: Mike Silliman (1971)
Bucknell: NO ALUMNI IN ABA/NBA
Colgate: Carl Braun (1948)
Holy Cross: Bob Cousy (1951)
Lafayette: NO ALUMNI IN ABA/NBA
Lehigh: NO ALUMNI IN ABA/NBA
Navy: David Robinson (1990)