The scouting report: Jeff Ruland, starting forward, Washington Bullets. A big, tough kid from Bay Shore, Long Island. Quick to the ball. Quick to laugh. Average jumper. Smart, strong, knows how to play. Gets the most out of his ability. Shy but a little crazy. Staying out all night, climbing telephone poles in the middle of the big snow, running two miles to a train so he wouldn't miss the team flight. Soft hands. A lot of heart.
Reports give you the basics but not the fundamentals. They say nothing about loss and betrayal and how that can make you want to win.
Last year, Ruland's first in the NBA, his best friend died in a car accident. He was 20 and wanted to be a golfer. "It kind of makes you sit back and say, 'Big deal, I'm playing in the NBA,' " Ruland said.
Then, intensely: "There's no tomorrow. He never got a chance to do what he wanted to do. He could make me laugh. The whole situation came back to my father."
Ruland was 9 when his father, an alcoholic, died of a stroke. His son learned then about tomorrows and taking today to its limit. "People always said, 'This guy is crazy. Everything he does, he does to the limit,' " Ruland said. "If I went out and drank, I had 40 beers. I took it to the limit. That's the way I play."
His legs, stretched to their limit, ached from 45 minutes of carrying 260 pounds up and down the court. The final buzzer had sounded two hours before. His beer was growing stale. "If you ask, 'How do I like a beer?' I don't even like the way it tastes. My mother owned bars for a few years. In the mornings, I took care of the dogs. There were guys having a beer and a shot at 8 a.m. I've kind of seen a lot of the world. I can call it pretty good now."
Three years after the revelation that he had signed a contract with an agent while a student at Iona College, after his coach, Jim Valvano, abandoned him and the school, Jeff Ruland was named NBA player of the month. And if all that hadn't happened? "It would have taken me longer to be as good a player as I am now," he said.
In 19 games after becoming a starter, he averaged 25.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, leading the Bullets in their stretch drive. On Wednesday, he sprained his right wrist in the first two minutes of the game and still scored 26 points against New Jersey, with 13 rebounds and seven assists. He has missed the last two games because of the sprain.
Scouts thought he'd be, at best, a backup center. "People have been doubting me ever since college," he said. "They said, 'You're too slow, you can't jump, you're white.' You get sick of that. I'll beat most guys down the court any day.
"I'd like to get on TV one day and give 'em this"--he raises his fists in a clenched salute. The bravado masks and exaggerates. Don't take him too seriously; he might be messing with you.
The wariness is real (he is not so trusting any more). So are the needs. "Most big people are sensitive," said Bob Ferry, the Bullets' general manager. "They need love and attention more than anyone. In most cases, they're more gentle. Jeff, in his moments, is very gentle."
Inside that 6-foot-11, 260-pound body, Ferry said, is "someone who needs love. I mean needs it."
At first he played baseball, like his father, who died before they could really share it. "The last year he and his father were close," his mother, Anita, said.
She worked nights to support the family. "He stayed home with his father," she said. "His father died on Christmas morning. I don't know if he remembers. He would always ask, 'Mom, what are you crying for?' I always said, 'When you get older, you'll know that women are peculiar. They have their days.' "
By the beginning of high school, basketball had supplanted baseball; by its end, Kentucky, Indiana, and North Carolina wanted him. He chose Iona in Westchester, N.Y. They put the banner up, and everyone thought, "Iowa," his wife, Maureen, said.
He did it, he says, because he liked the challenge the choice implied, because of his Long Island friends on the team, and because of Valvano. Maybe, just maybe, he thought he would get attention and affection he would not get elsewhere.
For a while, he did. "Valvano was like his father," Maureen Ruland said.
Then one day in the spring of 1980, Valvano announced he was leaving to become head coach at North Carolina State, without telling Ruland or the other players first. Ruland has not spoken to him since that spring.
Now, Valvano is in the final four. "One more win and I'm going down with a super rifle," Ruland said. "Just kidding. The guy bailed out on me. He didn't have the decency to tell me or anybody else . . . I was mad because of the way he did it."
Ruland decided to stay for his senior year anyway. The next day, Brother John G. Driscoll announced the school had learned that Ruland had signed a contract with agent Paul Corvino, who had on occasion given Ruland cash. "He wanted me to go hardship," Ruland said last year. "When I told him I was staying in school, that's when everything happened."
Valvano was gone. "He got out of Dodge," Ruland said.
Ruland was naive, perhaps, but not an innocent. "If I had gone to a big school, I'd still be getting deferred payments in the mail," he said. "The (NCAA) rules stipulate that you're not allowed to work during the year, only two months in the summer. That's why I was taking some money from a few sources. If I could have worked as a bouncer or something, I could have made a few bucks."
No one expected him to be available in the 1980 draft, so there were few thorough scouting reports on him. Ferry had seen him in the Capital Classic and in some Iona games. He went to Iona and spoke with one of his teammates. "He said, 'Jeff is really fun to play with, he's a good guy and he gets you the ball,' " Ferry said. "A lot of players are good because of what they do themselves. The great ones make those around them better. He kept saying how much fun Jeff was. That's telling you something."
Ruland was drafted 25th by the Golden State Warriors in a pre-arranged deal with the Bullets, who gave up a second-round draft choice for him. But Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were still Bullets. When Football Club Barcelona, a Spanish basketball team, offered him $100,000, he went.
While Mo scoured the store shelves for Oscar Mayer bacon and baloney, he averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds a game. "Jeffrey was totally depressed," she said. "He didn't want to be there. The only thing the coach could say was, 'Go Jeffrey.' "
Then he broke his foot. "They wanted to operate and take a bone out of my foot," he said. "They said it would grow back later. I don't know about any bones that grow back. They had our passports. They said, 'If you play one more game, we'll give you the passports.' They shot me up with a needle through the foot seven times."
He played. They won. Soon after, he and Maureen went home to get married. Because he missed a week of play, he was no longer eligible to compete in the league and lost about $40,000, he says. They went back to Spain so Ruland could play in the European Cup but he had had enough. "I still haven't gotten my chance to get revenge from Spain," he said. "It may sound stupid but it bugs me . . . I guess I'll have to sign a $1 million a year contract and rent a B-52."
Kevin Plunkett, who has been his friend and attorney since the contract with Corvino became public, said, "I think it was the best thing for him. It gave him a chance to to think, to mature . . . to get closer to Mo."
They met at the beginning of college. They always seemed to be in the same classes. When that stopped, he asked her out. She expected the stereotypical "big dumb jock."
"He shocked me totally because he wasn't conceited and he wasn't dumb," she said. "He said, 'I have a game the next night, would you mind coming back to my room?' I thought, 'Oh, yeah, a classic line, like the guy who asks you up to see his aquarium and has two goldfish in a bowl.' He whipped me in backgammon and asked me to come to the game the next night."
They've been together ever since. She says he's changing all the time. "I've gone through a lot, going to Europe," Ruland said. "It's been a long road back. It made me tougher, more mature. The only way not to go crazy was a lot of help from my wife and a sense of humor."
In training camp, the Bullets found out how tough. "Carlos (Terry) and I kicked his butt," said Ricky Mahorn. "You got to go through that test. We wanted to see what he was made of. We found out he was made of a lot of stuff."
Terry said, "When I knew he could play was in (Urban) Coalition. There were 2,000 black guys in a gym and two or three white guys. He didn't back down."
The relationship between them is special. When Terry was cut earlier this year, he had to console Ruland and Mahorn. "Jeffrey was crying," his wife said.
"His relationships with his teammates are so completely pure," Ferry said. "There's a love there. The great thing that's happened is that the two players we depend on most for our future, I think they love each other. It so happens one is white and the other is black. I think they'd like each other anyway. There is an honesty in the relationship."
And a lot of jive. "Nobody likes him," Mahorn said, meaning the opposite. "He wants to be a brother sooo bad."
Has he changed? "I think he got worse," Mahorn said. "Good worse. Like baaad. He's funnier, a little more open . . . He feels like a brother, not just a soul brother, a brother brother."
"When we're done we might get into wrestling as a tag team," Ruland said. "You think two fat salt and pepper guys couldn't tear up professional wrestling? I'll eat their eyeballs."
Ruland's search for a father is over. He's a brother.