A Tough Man In A Scramble

The Bullets have flipped over 6'11" Jeff Ruland, who's better than he was cracked up to be
December 13, 1982

Jeff Ruland's arms look so short and thick that it seems as if they're trying to retract into his body. Arms don't dangle gracefully at Ruland's sides; they hang from his shoulders like meat on a hook. In every way that arms are capable of being remarkable, these are not. And yet what makes Ruland's arms the kind that any NBA team would be happy to have hanging around is precisely what makes them appear so small to begin with—they are attached to the rest of Ruland.

Since joining the Washington Bullets as a rookie last season, the 6'11", 260-pound center/power forward has used his size and strength to become one of the NBA's best sixth men (although he's lately been starting in place of injured Forward Spencer Haywood) and one of the NBA's best offensive rebounders. "He's big," says Ruland's wife, Maureen, "very big. There isn't another player who's that tall and wide. We're talking large."

The anomaly of Ruland's enormous body and his relatively short arms has its antecedents in, of all places, 16th-century Renaissance art. When Michelangelo sculpted the David, he purposely exaggerated the size of the statue's hands and head to give it a more heroic look. In Ruland's case, the hands (glove size 12) and arms (sleeve length 37) were made small and everything else was hewn in heroic proportions. "If you let him put his body on you, he puts you at his mercy," says Indiana Pacer Center Clemon Johnson. "Once he goes to the boards and plants his feet, he's planted like a redwood, and once he's in there he seems to spread out. You push and push and push, and still you can't budge him."

Ruland may have the arms of the Venus de Milo, but in manner there is something faintly ursine in his lumbering, head-down stride. Among our most enduring stereotypes is that truly large white people are all either preternaturally sweet or harmless—remember Hoss Cartwright?—but Ruland is no Gentle Ben. On Nov. 9 Ruland blocked a shot by the Pistons' Isiah Thomas in a 108-105 Bullet loss and nearly decapitated the cherub-faced guard. "Yeah," Ruland said later with an evil grin, "I tried to put Isiah in the Children's Hospital."

Ruland and starting Bullet Center Rick Mahorn are known around the league for their jarring picks and for their occasional and equally jarring piques. In the second quarter of that Detroit game, Ruland pump-faked Center Jim Zoet into the air; when Zoet came down on top of him, Ruland bounced up and offered to help Zoet eat the basketball, which didn't quite suit Zoet, who recovered while Ruland shot two free throws. Ruland also scored a one-punch knockout over 6'9", 212-pound Alvan Adams of the Phoenix Suns last season and on Nov. 24 almost had a brawl with the whole Suns' coaching corps. "They were telling me to open my eyes when I shot, and cussing at me," Ruland said. "I'd have taken them on all at once." Ruland's arms may be too short to box with God, but everyone else is fair game. Actually, it's Mahorn, not Ruland, whose bullying has annoyed people. "Ruland is just a very physical player," says one coach. "Mahorn's a thug. Something ought to be done about him."

Whatever else Ruland and Mahorn may be—"the NBA's only interracial sumo wrestling tag team," as Bullet trainer John Lally calls them, or "McFilthy and McDirty," as Boston broadcaster Johnny Most has dubbed them—they are, above all, the closest of friends. "Whenever someone gets in my face," Ruland says, "he's there. If someone goes after him, I'm there." Mahorn concurs: "It's like we're meant to be with each other." Ruland has always been one of the guys, even growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Bay Shore, Long Island. "I really didn't have a white friend until I was in the sixth or seventh grade," Ruland says. "I didn't know there was supposed to be a difference."

Ruland's father, Kenneth, who had once been a gifted baseball player, was an alcoholic, and the two were never close. "My father was in construction," Ruland says. "He built cesspools. Somebody had to do it." His father died after suffering a stroke in 1967, when Jeff was nine. His mother, Anita, who owned a tavern in Bay Shore called The Townhouse, married her husband's best friend, a carpenter named Ernie Swanson, that same year, and they moved the family (Jeff has a half-brother, a half-sister, five stepbrothers and a stepsister) 10 miles away to Farmingdale, where Anita bought another neighborhood bar and named it Ernie's Tavern after her fourth husband. "It was strictly a blue-collar bar," Ruland says. "Guys used to walk in there about eight in the morning and order a shot of whiskey and a beer." Anita still tends bar one day a week at the Jericho Pub in Selden, another town on Long Island.

With both parents at work all day, Ruland had the time to play whatever sport was in season. "I grew up with a lot of freedom," he says, "but I never took advantage of it. Giving me freedom was my mother's way of teaching me responsibility. Even in grade school, if I wanted to go somewhere, I went. I was a great kid, the apple of my mother's eye."

Once Ruland decided to concentrate on basketball, he pursued the game with a vengeance. From the summer before his ninth-grade year until he was out of high school, he missed playing only four days. On weekends he would play as many as 10 hours a day on the Tecumseh Grade School courts near his home. "People laughed at him out there practicing in the cold in January," Anita says. "Me too. I used to say, 'Jesus Christ, what's with him?' But he wouldn't quit."

In summer, Ruland and his friends would back a station wagon up to the rear entrance of his mother's bar and load it with beer and then cruise the neighborhoods, drinking brews and looking for basketball games. Ruland reports there were only rare feminine intrusions on this demanding social schedule. "I went out with a few broads," he says, "but it was nothing serious."

Ruland was one of the prizes in a 1977 high school graduating class that included the likes of Magic Johnson, Danny Ainge, Darnell Valentine, Herb Williams, Albert King, Gene Banks and Kelly Tripucka, all of whom wound up at major colleges and are now in the pros. Ruland played well in all the high school all-star games and even won a national one-on-one competition at the Kentucky Derby Festival, but after visiting Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana and Notre Dame, he selected Iona College, enrollment 5,500. "I got fed a bunch of bull and I believed it," Ruland says of the recruiting job then Iona Coach Jim Valvano did on him. "I wanted to go to a school that hadn't won anything and win a championship."

Iona is in New Rochelle, N.Y., just 25 minutes from New York City on the New Haven line. New Rochelle had achieved a measure of fame as the home of Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but Ruland and Valvano made the locals forget all about Rob and Laura as Iona became an Eastern basketball power. Then the trouble began.

The recruiting of a star athlete is very much like a flirtation between consenting adults if it's done right, the bespoiling of an innocent if it's not. Valvano courted Ruland ardently, and he won more than just Ruland's body and mind; he also won Ruland's heart, which, like the rest of him, is huge. There are very few coaches who have had as close a relationship with their star player as Valvano had with Ruland. After practice, Ruland often went to the coach's home and shot baskets in the backyard with Valvano's daughter, 7-year-old Nicole. Anita says Valvano "was like a father" to his players, and now Ruland, who had never experienced a strong paternal influence, had someone who seemed to fill the father role. It wasn't uncommon for Ruland and some of his teammates to ride around at night and run into Valvano and Assistant Coach Pat Kennedy at one college hangout or another. Ruland enjoyed the ride for the first two years. "It was great," he says. "There was no other school like it. Where else could you go out after a game and get bombed with your coach?" Iona was improving steadily—making the NCAA tournament in 1978-79, Ruland's sophomore season—and Valvano and Ruland seemed to be friends for life. "He really worshipped Valvano," Anita says. "That's why he felt so betrayed later."

By the start of his junior season Ruland had grown restive about Iona's lack of national recognition and, for reasons he won't discuss, signed—in contravention of NCAA rules—a contract with Paul Corvino, an agent from Scarsdale, N.Y. Ruland was also in the habit of accepting occasional cash donations from Corvino, money he says he needed "so I could do my laundry." NCAA regulations, of course, prohibit all such financial dealings. "If I'd gone to a school for the money," Ruland says, "I'd have gone to another school from which I'd still be getting deferred money." When Iona beat Louisville by 17 points in Madison Square Garden in 1980 and still didn't get national recognition, Ruland became further disillusioned. "That was the year Louisville won the national championship," Ruland says, "and we didn't just beat them, we kicked their asses. That week we were ranked 19th in one of the polls, and even though we didn't lose a game, the next week we were gone. So it turned out it was all for nothing."

On March 26, 1980, Valvano, without telling his players first, accepted the coaching job at North Carolina State. Ruland was stunned. A few days later, word leaked out—probably from Corvino, who had been pressuring Ruland to forgo his final year of school and turn pro—that Ruland had signed a contract and accepted money from an agent. The timing made it appear to many people, Ruland among them, that Valvano had known about Corvino's secret arrangement with Ruland all along ("I didn't break any laws," Corvino says. "I don't belong to the NCAA"). Valvano denies this, but Ruland hasn't spoken to Valvano since the spring of '80. "A lot of things happened that I had nothing to do with," Ruland says, "but I got the bad end of the stick. He saw the boom was about to come down, and so he jumped ship." Valvano carries a certain amount of guilt for what happened to Ruland. "I wouldn't be where I am today without the efforts of that young man," Valvano says.

In his first college season Ruland led the nation's star-studded freshman class in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage, and in his sophomore and junior seasons he made honorable mention All-America. But Ruland, who decided to turn pro when it became apparent he'd be ineligible for his senior year, wasn't picked until the second round of the 1980 NBA draft. Larry Fleisher, who doubles as an agent and general counsel of the NBA Players Association, had agreed to represent Ruland. But shortly before the draft he called and told Ruland that because of the Iona "scandal"—there were rumors of misused monies, game fixing, an NCAA investigation and an FBI probe, although Iona was never officially accused of having done anything wrong—he couldn't represent him. Ruland says Fleisher never explained himself, and that he just hung up.

Throughout the first round of the draft Ruland was passed over in favor of big men like Joe Barry Carroll, Kevin McHale, Mike Gminski, Kiki Vandeweghe and Rickey Brown. "To this day I don't know what happened," he says. "I know I'm better than every guy who got picked before me. I'm still very bitter about that." Many teams had failed to scout Ruland because no one expected him to leave school early, and then there was the matter of those short arms. When Golden State made him the 25th pick of the draft, in the second round, it was all part of a prearranged deal between the Warriors and the Bullets, who obtained Ruland for a second-round draft choice, which became Sam Williams. But the Bullets still had big men Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Mitch Kupchak, and when a team in Barcelona, Spain matched the Bullet offer, Ruland fled.

"I wasn't happy at all to be going over," Ruland says. "I was going there to kick somebody's butt and get it over with. All I thought about was coming back and proving everybody wrong." While he was in Barcelona, his new agent, George Kalafatis, flew over from New York to settle a contract dispute. The team gave Kalafatis $8,000 in pesetas, and when he tried to take the money out of the country, it was confiscated. The money is still impounded by the Spanish court, and Ruland claims he has never seen his $8,000.

"It was very tough," he says. "I came pretty close to going off the deep end." To help preserve his sanity, Jeff and Maureen, who had been married in 1980, celebrated Thanksgiving by getting a Doberman pinscher puppy instead of a turkey. The dog, whose name is King, still gets high strung when he sees cranberries and stuffing. To calm him, Ruland will split a can of beer with King, often drinking from the same glass.

The Bullets finally signed Ruland before the 1981-82 season, but it took him a while to win over all the skeptics. The Bullets last season were a collection of misfits and no-names, which naturally made Ruland feel right at home. After several false starts, he proved himself to his teammates and then to the NBA. Bullets Point Guard John Lucas, himself something of a wayward traveler, recalls his doubts about Ruland. "I said, 'This guy's arms are too short; he can't play,' " Lucas says. "But then he started knocking people around, and I knew I was wrong. There are only two blue-collar workers in the NBA—Moses Malone and Ruland. Jeff is our Moses."

Ruland was so nervous on his first preseason road trip that he tore down a backboard during warmups, and then during the game he rattled one of his layups off the glass so hard that he almost ruined another backboard. Gene Shue, the Bullets' coach, worked Ruland into the lineup gradually. "Jeff is always around the ball," Shue says, "and he can come in off the bench and contribute right away, which not many players can do. If he had long arms he'd get every rebound."

Ruland's most effective move is a simple post-up play in which he spins in the lane and pins his man on his hip, then turns and drives to the basket. "Last year everybody was talking about Tripucka, Isiah and Buck Williams," says Detroit Coach Scotty Robertson, "and I said that they were all good players but that Ruland's a hell of a player. When they go to him, everybody knows what they're going to do, but he's so good and so smart that you can't stop him. There are guys who go through their whole careers without ever learning how to do that, and he came in as a rookie and did it."

As a rebounder, Ruland works hard for position and then moves with an instinctive quickness to the ball. At the end of last week he was 11th in the league in that category, with 10.3 a game, his ratio of rebounds to minutes played was 10th best in the NBA and his ratio of offensive rebounds to his total (34%) was third best. "Ninety to 95 percent of all rebounds are taken below the rim," he says, "so I'm uniquely qualified for the job."

He's also qualified as one of Washington's enforcers in the middle. "I came into the NBA with the attitude that I would be doing the intimidating," he says. "There are very few players who like to get banged, but that's the way the game should be played." This season Ruland is leading the Bullets in scoring (18.8 points a game) and shooting percentage (57.6%), and had a resounding 25-point, 17-rebound performance in just 37 minutes in the Bullets' 95-87 victory in San Diego on Nov. 20.

During Boston's 4-1 playoff victory over Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, some Celtic fans thought Ruland and Mahorn were playing too rough. Up in the broadcast booth, Most kept dragging the two offending Bullets through the gravel in his throat. Before Game 4 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., Ruland approached Most's on-the-air sidekick, Rick Weitzman. "My mother listens to the games from Boston on WRKO and she says she's never heard such a biased announcer," Ruland said. "Tell Johnny Most that my mother says he's a bleep." Weitzman relayed the story to Most, who was rendered almost speechless.

When he opened his broadcast for the fifth game three days later, Most began, "This is Johnny Most at the Boston Garden. Mrs. Ruland, if you're listening, turn off your radio." Anita says if she'd been at Boston Garden she would have decked him.

PHOTONo flash in the pan, Ruland has lifted his scoring and rebounding averages this season. PHOTOAs Thomas can attest, getting close to Ruland doesn't pay. PHOTOBeef Brothers Ruland and Mahorn sharpen up their "McFilthy and McDirty" routine. PHOTORuland has always been the big apple of mom Anita's eye. PHOTOIn a pinch, Jeff can depend on Maureen. PHOTOWhen it comes to beer, Ruland's dog has a King-size thirst.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)