Throughout the initial third of the Washington Bullets' season, some people have looked at Jeff Ruland and seen a volcano waiting to erupt -- not with points and rebounds on the basketball court, but with locker room invectives over some injustice, real or imagined.
In this, the year of Thunder and Lightning, the fourth-year veteran from Iona has had a bit of his own personal share of the former stolen from him with the arrival of Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson via offseason trades. The team's move away from a pound-the-ball-down-low offense to more of a transition game, was, in essence, a move away from Ruland. Hence, the skeptics and their almost gloomy watch.
Wednesday's game against the Indiana Pacers seemed to provide the perfect trigger for an eruption. Bullets Coach Gene Shue sees professional basketball as a game that works "inside out," meaning that everything revolves around the center. Yet, by halftime, Ruland, Washington's 6-foot-11, 265 pound all-star pivot man, had not taken a shot from the field.
Granted, the Bullets were ahead at the time by 10 points, but it would be hard to envision Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not taking a shot for the Los Angeles Lakers, or Moses Malone for the Philadelphia 76ers. Shue said he wasn't aware of the situation; was Ruland?
"The thought had sort of crossed my mind. If you're a 60 percent shooter, I'd imagine you should touch the ball," said Ruland. "There were instances when I was open and nothing happened, but there's no need to bitch and show up the team. As far as I'm concerned, the bottom line is winning."
Such was the case in Washington's 114-89 rout, with Ruland eventually getting shots enough to score 18 points to go along with 14 rebounds. Although his point total was just a shade under his season average of 19.7 per game, the contest was indicative of Ruland's season.
In the NBA, more often than not, each team has one player who looms over the rest, often times on the strength of personality and not points scored. Julius Erving and Magic Johnson are prime examples on Philadelphia and Los Angeles of straws that stir the drink. Although forwards Greg Ballard and Rick Mahorn have been with Washington longer than Ruland, his is the opinion that seems to carry the most weight in the Bullets' locker room.
The change in Washington's offensive philosophy has reduced his scoring by four points a game from last season, but, the bottom line being what it is, Ruland says he has little cause to complain. "I have no qualms at all about the changes, both mine and the team's, because the record speaks for itself," said Ruland, who, nevertheless, has seemed to balk at the changes at other times during the season. "I was actually looking forward to not scoring as much because I knew that if I didn't it meant that we would be a better team."
Although their record of 17-13 is just a single game better than after 30 games last season, going into tonight's home game with Atlanta, the Bullets are much improved over the teams of recent years and Ruland still plays a major role, perhaps one that's best reflected in his statement, "It's probably true (that he could be a disruptive force), but I don't think anyone on the team has a better attitude than I do."
Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff agrees. "He's been the man, the big scorer and all that but he's made the ultimate sacrifice and that's giving up some of himself to help the the team win," Bickerstaff said. "Against Indiana, he was the reason why our guards got 64 points."
Despite the Bullets' changes, Shue said, "Jeff knows that I recognize his ability and that he's gonna get the ball.
"Life would be awful tough on us without Jeff because we wouldn't get any wide-open jump shots," said Shue. "When he catches the ball there's traffic. I think he's double-teamed more than any other player in the league, but the beauty of Jeff is that he's capable of kicking the ball back out to the guy that's left open. Other centers like Malone or a Robert Parish (of Boston) just hold the ball, waiting to take the shot."
Ruland is second on the Bullets only to Williams with his 112 assists, almost four times as many as Malone or Parish. Among the league's centers, only Seattle's Jack Sikma has passed off for more baskets. "I know the game and the way it should be played. If I have the ball and another guy has a better shot, I'll pass it to him," said Ruland, adding warily, "Of course, if the opposite is true, I expect the same treatment."
Guard Frank Johnson, for one, tries to make sure of it. "There was a time last season when it seemed that our offense consisted of pick-and-roll plays between me and Jeff," he said. "Now, if I'm in a game and I see that he's not getting his shots or if he thinks that he's not, I'll just say, 'Come on, Ru, let's run some pick and rolls.' "
Johnson, hampered by a sore back, wasn't able to play against the Pacers and help rectify the inequity in first-half shots. Of course, it mattered little in the final score, but, as Ruland said, "That won't be the case if we're playing against a Boston or Philly."
Last Night: In Chicago, rookie Michael Jordan equaled a season-high 45 points to lead the Bulls over the Cleveland Cavaliers, 112-108. He had 16 points at the half, then scored 13 in the third quarter.
Wolrd B. Free led Cleveland with 30 points.
In San Antonio, George Gervin's 31 points helped the Spurs rout thePortland Trail Blazers, 141-120.
In Kansas City, Akeem Olajuwon of Houston had a game-high 26 points, but the Kings won, 96-92. Mike Woodson led the Kings with 20.
In Los Angeles, reserve Kevin McHale scored 18 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter as the Boston Celtics beat the Clippers, 118-103.
Golden State won only its second of 14 road games this season by defeating the Seattle SuperSonics, 101-98, as Mickey Johnson scored nine points in the fourth quarter.