You could excuse Jeff Ruland for feeling a bit awkward during the first few days of the Washington Bullets' 1985 training camp. His first concern was physical, testing a right shoulder that had been operated on earlier in the summer for the removal of an irritated nerve.
Almost as importantly, there was the mental adjustment of going out onto a basketball court in a Bullets uniform without his best friend, Rick Mahorn (traded to Detroit in June), close behind.
"I went out to my favorite corner and he wasn't there," Ruland said. "It was strange, very strange, but life goes on, I guess."
For the Bullets, life does not go on without Ruland, whose 6-foot-11, 275-pound frame stands in the center of any expectations the team has for the upcoming season. If Ruland doesn't rebound, there will be very few fast breaks for Gus Williams; if Ruland's body isn't anchored in the low post, which automatically draws double-team coverage, how many wide-open jumpers can Jeff Malone expect to get?
Last season, Ruland was playing well enough to be voted onto the Eastern Conference all-star team by the coaches. The Bullets were 21-17 when Ruland hurt his shoulder during a mid-January game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He then missed all but one of Washington's remaining games and the team finished with a 40-42 regular-season mark.
Ruland, a five-year veteran, returned for the playoffs and Washington was able to push Philadelphia before succumbing in the first round.
"He doesn't look like he's having any problem with his injury and that's very good for us," said Coach Gene Shue. "He's such a steady, hard worker, all we're trying to do is improve his overall game, things like overplaying on defense and being conscious of turnovers."
At the time of his injury, Ruland had more assists than any center in the league except Jack Sikma of the Seattle SuperSonics. He also had more turnovers than most other centers. "A lot of times I try and make too many passes," he said. "I also play a lot of minutes. When you do that, you're going to have a lot of everything."
There's very little that can be done when those minutes are lost. Although he was present at the Bullets' home games and made an occasional road trip, Ruland was helpless in trying to stem the team's backward slide.
"What are you gonna tell someone when you're not out there playing?" he asks. "It's an entirely different situation when you're on the pines. You clap and say come on and they just look at you like, 'Yeah, okay.' "
General Manager Bob Ferry can perhaps appreciate Ruland's contributions more than most members of the Washington organization. "When people like Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge -- the championship team group -- left, we were forced to start all over.
"Ruland and Mahorn came in and they alone kept us from reaching rock bottom, from suffering through some terrible losing years."
When the opportunity to acquire Dan Roundfield from Detroit for Mahorn came though, sentimentality didn't stop Ferry from making the deal. "What we really felt was that Rick's value to our club was diminishing. His ability to play important minutes with us was hampered by his constant foul trouble.
"I think we thought briefly before the trade about what effect it might have (on Ruland), but having him here and sitting on the bench wouldn't have been any better for Jeff."
"It's still a little shocking," Ruland said. "But like I said, life goes on."
The Bullets released 6-foot-3 guard Stuart Primus before yesterday's first session. Primus reportedly planned to return to Boston, where he played at Boston College.