After the Washington Bullets' 100-98 loss to the New Jersey Nets Friday night at Capital Centre, Jeff Ruland stood outside the locker room signing basketballs. While the young recipients were noticeably grateful, Ruland was noticeably subdued.
Hours earlier, the four-year center had spoken of his frustrations. He had missed 22 out of 23 games because his right shoulder hurts. During that time, the Bullets had won only 10 games.
"There are so many games that we would have won -- hands down -- had I been able to play," he said. "When I'm at home, I bang the walls trying to get some contact from somewhere."
The Nets offered plenty of contact but Ruland was unable to partake and, after the game, all he could do was chalk up another missed opportunity.
It wasn't supposed to take this long. On that everyone agrees: Ruland, doctors, cab drivers on the streets of Long Island. Instead of leading his team in an exciting chase after Boston and Philadelphia for the best record in basketball, Ruland said his biggest thrill today is "getting up and deciding what clothes I'm going to wear."
The last time he played in a game was Feb. 1 against the Indiana Pacers. In his 30 minutes during that 102-95 loss, he had 11 points and seven rebounds.
Before that, he had been out of the lineup since Jan. 14, when he originally hurt his shoulder trying to throw an outlet pass over two Cleveland Cavaliers. Although the injury occurred in the third quarter, its severity wasn't evident until the next day, when he couldn't lift his arm above his head.
The next day, the odyssey that has become Ruland's "lost season" began. In Salt Lake City, where the Bullets next played, a doctor told him that maybe the rotator cuff was torn, maybe not. Two days later, a doctor in Denver offered the same opinion. When the team came home, the Bullets' doctors determined that there was no tear and that Ruland could play almost any time.
When he talks about the injury, Ruland dwells on Indiana. It was there that he tried to come back, an obviously ill-advised move. "If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have played in that game," he said. "I might have been back by now. I've played with things like dislocated wrists before, and was able to overcome it, but, playing that game, I felt as if I'd been shot."
Some suggested that Bullets Coach Gene Shue had merited a like punishment for keeping Ruland on the court so long, but, according to Ruland, his playing time in that game wasn't an issue. "I just wasn't 100 percent," he said. "Fifteen minutes or 30, if I got hit in the right spot, it was going to hurt again."
Something else happened in Indiana. During the weekend of the Feb. 10 All-Star Game -- Ruland missed it because of his injury -- he received the news that the injury could sideline him another month. That opinion, rendered by the Pacers' doctor, R. Robert Bruckemann, caused some resentment in the Bullets' front office, yet will probably prove accurate.
Of course, Bruckemann, as did each of the other six doctors Ruland has consulted in the last two months, said that the injury might heal overnight. Such apparent discrepancies require a brief anatomy lesson.
The area of the shoulder known as the rotator cuff is a group of seven or so tendons that enter into an area that is called the A.C. joint. In Ruland's case, a procedure called an arthrogram was done to determine the extent of his injury.
In an arthrogram, a dye is injected into the injured area. The leakage of any of the fluid indicates a hole, or tear. That didn't happen with Ruland, which meant that the problem was tendinitis, or soreness throughout the various tendons in the shoulder. When one area gets better, then the pain has to be worked out in the next.
And, although that was definitely preferable to a tear, it hasn't helped in determining a specific prognosis. Said one team doctor: "If you tried to illustrate the problem, all you could do is draw a picture of a shoulder and say, 'It hurts.' "
"That's the frustrating thing about it," according to another source. "It's not an injury like, say, Frank Johnson's (who has a broken left foot). In his case, you can pick up an X-ray one week and say, 'There's the fracture line,' and a few weeks later say, 'See, it's not there any more.' Basically, it's an injury that will be ready when it's ready."
But when might that be? When Cliff Robinson missed 15 games recently because of an injured right leg, several people closely associated with the Bullets thought perhaps the forward was malingering a bit. There has been very little suspicion in Ruland's case.
"Why should there be?" he asks. "The fact is is that it does hurt; the pain is still there. I can't perform with it. This team knows what I've gone through to play in the past."
"I'm surprised it's taken this long," one observer said, "but given the type of game that he plays, the banging, the need for power -- the muscles in question are used more, as opposed to a smaller player who relies on agility and finesse."
The Bullets have plenty of agility and finesse. What they lack, according to Shue, is the power that's necessary for any glory. "Our team used to be built around taking the ball and just punching it inside," he said. "Now we just have to make do with what we have, and, right now, we really don't have an inside game."
Ruland has been shooting around during the Bullets' practices the last 2 1/2 weeks, but hasn't been up to contact work. Before the New Jersey game, he had hoped to rejoin his teammates full time, starting today, but he also realizes the danger of rushing things.
"There are times when I'll grab (Rick) Mahorn and say, 'Let's go, let's do some banging,' but I know I have to wait," he said. "A week ago, I was sure I'd be able to go. Tonight, there are doubts. Some days it feels stronger than other days, but I think gradually the whole thing is getting better.
"The thing I'm not going to do is go out before it's ready, get hurt again and have to miss the playoffs."