Everything in Jeff Ruland's life is new right now. He has a new house and a new car. He has a new marriage -- 5 months -- and an almost-new dog -- 1 year. He has a new contract to play basketball with the Washington Bullets.
And, he desperately hopes, he has a new chance, a chance to forget a lot of the last four years and all of the last 14 months.
"I just hope it can be fun for me again," he said, sipping a cool drink in the kitchen of new house. "I hope it can be fun like it was in high school."
He is 22 now, but says he feels more like 55. Four years ago he shocked college basketball's ruling class when he snubbed the likes of Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina to play at Iona College. Until then, the small, Westchester County (N.Y.) commuter school was primarily known as the school often confused with Iowa.
In three years, Rulgand and Jim Valvano, Iona's charismatic coach, led the Gaels into the national spotlight, specially to a 29-5 season in 1980 that included a 17-point victory over eventual national champion Louisville.
Ruland, 6-foot-10, never looked pretty at work on the basketball court. But he was a tough, consistent player, averaging 20.7 points and 12.1 rebounds a game while shooting 50 percent from the field for three years.
When his junior year ended, the lure of big money from the pros tempted him. But his mother wanted him to stay in school and get a degree. Pro scouts agreed another year of college basketball would increase his market value. Ruland felt that as a senior, he would finally get the national recognition that had eluded him.
So, on the night of April 24, the night before the deadline for undergraduates to renounce eligibility in order to be drafted by the NBA, Ruland announced he would return to Iona for his senior year.
Then it all fell apart.
The following day, Brother John G. Driscoll, the president of Iona, announced that the school had learned Ruland had signed an illegal contract with an agent (Paul Corvino of Mamaroneck, N.Y.); that he had violated NCA rules and he was ineligible. Ruland, Brother Driscoll said, would turn pro.
Corvino, after denying he had signed Ruland or paid him money, later told Basketball Times magazine that he had signed Ruland, had paid him close to $9,000 and was owed 10 percent of what Ruland made the next four years. He has not carried out his threat to settle the issue in court.
What happened to Ruland is the young athlete's worst nightmares come to life. "I could write a book about everything that happened to me during that period," he said. "Someday, I might. Right now though, I just want to put the whole thing behind me. I've got a chance here to do what I want to do, play basketball in the NBA. Right now, that's all I'm thinking about."
But even Ruland's signing with the Bullets was part odyseey, part debacle. He admitted signing an agreement with Corvino during the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Iona, and also said he had been paid sums of money from $40 to $200 by Corvino. Then he waited to see what the NBA would do with him in the draft.
For one round, it ignored him. That was really disappointing," Ruland said. "I saw players going ahead of me who I knew weren't as good as I was and it hurt. I knew people were passing me up because of what happened, because there had been stories saying the FBI had talked to me.
"The whole experience was very disheartening."
Finally, on the second round, the Golden State Warriors selected Ruland.
Immediately, they traded him to the Bullets. 'and immediately, the Bullets and Ruland couldn't come to terms.
Ruland began looking in Europe. "I don't think they thought I was that serious about playing over there," Ruland said. "They didn't think I would go. But the money in Spain was very good."
The Bullets say Ruland's decision to go overseas was fine with them. "We had signed Ricky Mahorn very early," General Manager Bob Ferry said. "We knew Wes (Unseled) was back for at least one more season. Breaking in one rookie center is tough. Breaking in two is impossible. There just isn't enough playing time."
And so Ruland signed with Club Barcelona and was off the Spain. It was, he says now, a memorable experience -- but not one he would like to relive. "In a way I'm glad I did it because I got a chance to travel and see Europe while I was getting paid. But it was a tough experience, not being able to pick up the phone and call friends, not having little things like TV, having to deal with the language problem."
Ruland never intended to play in Europe for more than a year. He returned to the United States in late April and, on the advice of a new agent, contacted the Bullets right away "to show them I was serious about trying to get together."
Quickly, they got together. Each side gave in a little, and on May 12 the Bullets announced Ruland had signed a multiyear contract. Now, Ruland says all he wants to do is get into shape so he can be a factor next season.
"It's hard to tell what kind of team we're going to be because you don't know whether Mitch (Kupchak) or Kevin (Grevey) will be back and you don't know what will happen with the older guys," Ruland said. "I think we could be a very close team, a very hard-working team. If we're going to succeed, we're going to have to be the kind of team that will run through a brick wall to get it done."
For his own part, Ruland feels as if he's already run through several brick walls to get this far. He felt betrayed when Valvano decided to leave Iona for North Carolina State without first telling him. He felt victimized by the system when he lost his eligibility. He felt taken in by Corvino.
Ruland met Corvino through the agent's son, a friend of his at Iona. According to Ruland, he signed the management services contract with Corvino because he was convinced he needed security in case of an injury. Whenever he asked, Corvino gave him cash.
"But he wanted me to go hardship after my junior year," Ruland said.
"When I told him I was staying in school, that's when everything happened."
Everything, according to Ruland, happended the night he announced his decision to stay at Iona. When he arrived at Corvino's house and told him his decision, Corvino put him on the phone with a man he identified as Stu Berman, a reporter for Sports Illustrated.
"This guy told me he knew I had signed, he knew I had taken money and when it came out I wouldn't be able to play in college or in the pros because the hardship date would have passed. I would have been doing mason work."
Earlier that day, a man identified as Stu Berman had asked Ruland a number of questions about his relationship with Corvino during the press conference in which he announced his decision to remain in school. At that point, Berman said he was from United Press International in Washington.
The New York Times later contacted both UPI and Sports Illustrated. Neither organization had ever heard of Stu Berman.
Reached yesterday, Corvino said, "I've got no comment to make about anything regarding Jeff Ruland. My attorneys have advised me to say nothing because I'm suig two newspapers."
Asked why he had dropped his suit agains Ruland, Corvino said, "Because I don't want to sue anyone."
"I made a mistake and I got burned," Ruland says now. "I'm sorry I did it but I didn't do anything that 200 guys a year aren't doing, some of them a lot more blatantly than I did.
"But I'm the own who got caught and I'm the one who got screwed. I'm not a bad person, I'm a person who made a mistake. If I learned anything from the whole thing, I learned you live life through experiencing it; there's no other way. That's how you learn."
Ruland has become cautions because of the experiences. He is close to his wife Maureen; his mother; his lawyer, Kevin Plunkett; Pat Kennedy, the man who succeeded Valvano at Iona; and Tom Abatemarco, the Maryland assistant who recruited Ruland at Iona. He is also deeply grateful to Brother Driscoll, who announced shortly after Ruland was declared ineligible that he was giving Ruland a President's Scholarship. Ruland thus can return to Iona to get his degree, something he says he intends to do.
But Ruland is no longer close to Valvano. "I don't really talk about it," he said. "I can't remember the last time I talked to him and I don't know when the next time will be. He's the coach at N.C. State. Period. I really don't care what happens to him."
Valvano says he he cares very much about what happens to Ruland. "I wouldn't be where I am todayh if not for Jeff Ruland. I got job offers because he was a great player," Valvano said. "When he first got to Iona, Jeff and I talked every day.
"But then I made a mistake. I let the media and all the attention come between me and my players. And then, when I got the call from (N.C. State Athletic Director) Willis Casey, saying I had the job, it was the day of our banquet and it was announced there before I could tell the players.It shouldn't have happpened that way.
"Someday, I hope, Jeff and I will sit down and talk and be friends again.
I think he'll be a good pro because he's always been the kind of player who gets the job done at any level. I still remember his senior year in high school watching him in an all-star game and being so excited when it was over that I called my office from a phone booth screaming, 'He's going to be a pro, a real pro.'"
Right now, becoming the pro Valvano thought he saw in that all-star game is Ruland's only real concern.
Stretching his legs and looking around his kitchen, the only furnished room in the new house, Ruland says: "I'd like to play ball in the NBA for 10 years. I'd like to do well, enjoy playing the game and make a life for myself, my wife and my dog."
He smiled at the thought. When he looks forward, Jeff Ruland can smile.