As Jeff Ruland was about to have knee surgery last month, Red Auerbach, president of the Boston Celtics, sat in a Washington airport and wondered how soon the Bullet would come back, and what would go into the decision.

"It's times like this when you find out how a player really feels about his organization," said Auerbach. "If he feels loyalty's been shown to him, he'll return it. But if you've treated him shabbily, he'll pay you back."

It's also a litmus-test moment when you discover how a player truly feels about his relationship with his sport.

Thursday night in Capital Centre, Ruland gave an answer that surprised no one who knew him. All he had to do, 25 days after surgery, was say that he couldn't play and, like as not, the Bullets' season would have ended quietly. Few would have noticed or remembered.

By playing, by risking re-injury, by endangering his career at age 27 with millions of dollars in contracts in front of him, what could Ruland really accomplish? Maybe he could force a fifth and final playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Maybe he could even help the Bullets win a playoff series for the first time in his five seasons.

But what about the Milwaukee Bucks, the next probable playoff foe and a team that beats the Bullets so badly that avoiding them might make the summer altogether more pleasant? Or, beyond that, the Celtics and Lakers.

Come on, Jeff. Who really cares?

That's what the 7,000 empty seats in Capital Centre said.

That was the message when, in the final minute of a tie game, Ruland went to the foul line in his own gym and was booed and baited -- because Philadelphia fans nearly outnumbered Bullets fans.

Wisdom, common sense and self-interest all agreed that Ruland was crazy to play. Why would a man earning $750,000 a year risk his future?

But he did. And he was the difference. With 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes, Ruland changed the tone of the series. He sprinted the whole court, favoring his bandaged knee. And when 263-pound Charles Barkley, the NBA's biggest bully and deliberate intimidator, barreled through the lane, Ruland met him with his own 6-foot-10, 275-pound frame, taking the charge in a collision that should have required the exchange of licenses and insurance policies.

Some might call Ruland foolish.

Instead, why not say he's the definition of the word "pro?"

A pro hires an agent, negotiates hard and takes every cent of the owner's money he can get his hands on.

Then, a pro does everything he humanly can to earn that money, deserve it and be proud of it. The pro is the guy who plays so hard and wants to win so badly that the person in Row Z with a 30-year mortgage can't bring himself to resent the guy. And cheers him instead.

That's Ruland.

In front of his locker, Ruland sat with a huge ice pack strapped to his knee, a look of exhaustion on his face and a constantly tapping toe that showed how high his nerves still were revved.

"Maybe Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery will be getting a call from my doctor tomorrow," said Ruland, with the cynical smirk behind which he always hides how much he cares about silly games.

"Actually, I'm not tired at all. I think I'll go home and play some racketball."

On Monday, doctors tested Ruland's leg on a Cybex machine and were shocked to find that he'd worked so hard for three weeks on his rehabilitation that, in some tests, his right leg actually was stronger. That's a pro.

The decision was left to Ruland, which is like saying there wasn't any decision. Last season, Ruland probably came back too soon from a shoulder injury. This year, he probably should have stayed off his bad ankle longer.

No way was he going to let his teammates go on a premature summer vacation.

Funny thing about pros. They're also the leaders. Julius Erving, asked what might have been the turning point of Game 4, said, "When the ref threw the ball up for the opening tip. They just wanted it more than we did."

Part of that was the do-or-die situation. But part of it was knowing the risk that the team's best and richest player was taking just for the pure cussed hell of hating to lose.

"Now we're going to Philly Sunday for a one-game season," said Ruland, grinning. "Whether we'll be successful, we'll see."

As to the real bottom line, the one nobody much talks about -- a major reinjury -- Ruland says, "If I do, I do. You could hurt yourself crossing the street. . . . I love to play the game of basketball. I'm a competitor."

Because he is, Ruland doesn't care what the world thinks of his work or even, in some sense, if it notices. He does it for himself and for his teammates. That doesn't mean it doesn't scald him to see the empty seats. But he's used to it, bemused, resigned -- the way a pro reacts to the real world.

"Getting booed at the foul line in the final minute in your own building is a little . . . unusual. But not unusual for here. It's just a funny city. The fans we do have are the greatest, I love 'em. They're 100 percent with us. But there just aren't enough of 'em. Usually, we're outnumbered. Tonight, it was about even. So, it was a good night.

"I guess the solution is for my wife and I to have a lot of kids."

Perhaps the town's just surfeited with good things. After all, at the moment, Washington is the only city with teams still alive in both the NBA and NHL playoffs.

By Sunday night, thanks largely to the presence of Ruland (and the absence of Moses Malone, who now is out for the rest of the playoffs), one of those local teams may well have advanced to the next tier of battle. Though it's certainly not the one we would've guessed a day ago.