PHILADELPHIA -- So this is what it's like when you reach the end of the line. The final taste of basketball battle for Jeff Ruland won't come in a sold-out NBA arena like Capital Centre or the Spectrum against a titan like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone or Akeem Olajuwon. Instead, his future on-court confrontations will likely take place in a setting much like this, in a sweltering gymnasium fooling around against one Chris Engler, who once managed to get cut by five different teams in the same season.

On this day, Ruland showed up at St. Joseph's University, the regular practice site of the Philadelphia 76ers during the season. Ruland should have spent many hours on that court with the 76ers after being traded with Cliff Robinson by the Washington Bullets a year ago June in exchange for Moses Malone and Terry Catledge. Instead, Ruland acknowledged with a shrug, "I haven't really been here too often."

He was here one day recently working on a commercial, one of the many projects that have occupied his time since last winter, when Ruland, 28, was forced to concede that his playing days were over after three seasons of virtual inactivity. He may be able to play in a pickup game every now and then, but he knows his professional basketball career is over.

"We had played in Chicago and I couldn't do anything," he recalled. "My left knee was achin', I couldn't jump, I couldn't touch the rim it was so sore. That night I went out with some friends, trying to kill the pain with a couple of cocktails, and I told them that that was the last time they'd see me play -- unless it was in a pickup game in my driveway."

For the better part of five years, Ruland played like a man toiling in his back yard -- or perhaps beneath a steel-netted hoop on a rock- and glass-strewn playground. With 275 pounds spread over his 6-foot-11 frame, Ruland was anything but graceful, delighting in the physical and often eschewing the finesse.

Though he possessed a deft passing touch, Ruland represented the ultimate in the Eastern Conference player. A terror under the boards, Ruland also could be counted on for at least one bone-jarring pick set at midcourt per game. On one such occasion, after nearly decapitating the Detroit Pistons' angelic-looking Isiah Thomas, Ruland was later heard snickering, "We almost sent Isiah to the Children's Hospital."

However, by the winter of 1987, it had become obvious that if there was any athlete destined to spend life as a patient, it was Ruland. He played only three games in January, the last coming against the New York Knicks on Jan. 27, his final on-court appearance. For the season, Ruland played 116 minutes, with a total of 47 points and 28 rebounds.

"It was just all she wrote, there was nothing else to do," he said. "When I had the knee operated on with the Bullets, there was the chance that I could play six or seven years, but within two or three months the degenerative arthritis became so bad that it became 50-50 if I'd play again. I did everything in my power to make that 50 percent work in my favor."

It was the same knee that marred his 1985-86 season, Ruland's last in Washington. That year he played in just 30 games, also having suffered a fractured right ankle. The previous season Ruland missed 45 games, mainly because of a shoulder ailment. All the infirmities arose after Ruland had played in 236 of a possible 246 games in his first three seasons in Washington, each year ranking among the league leaders in minutes played. In his total of 303 games with the Bullets, Ruland averaged 18.7 points and 10.8 rebounds a game. His .564 field goal percentage is the best in the franchise's history and he ranks fifth on the team's list in rebound average.

Those statistics, along with a chance to unload Moses Malone's $2.1 million salary, undoubtedly were the rationale for the 76ers making the trade with Washington. What they got left some members of the organization less than enchanted.

Outspoken Philadelphia forward Charles Barkley criticized his teammates' decision to vote Ruland a playoff share. It came on top of Ruland's estimated $700,000 salary (which figures out to $140,000 per game he appeared in).

"It was a major disappointment, especially after playing against him and watching him compete during his time in the league," said Philadelphia General Manager John Nash. "He was only 27 years old when the deal was made. We thought he'd be a major contributor for us for a number of years. At the time of the trade we had considered a number of people, like Jack Sikma. We had talked about a big trade with Detroit that might have involved Bill Laimbeer. He was an all-star, the leading rebounder in the league the season before, but our people liked Jeff a lot more, so that has to be considered a pretty high endorsement."

"Charles is young so you have to understand," Ruland said of Barkley's criticism. "Two days before, he'd given me part of his money from the Pivotal Player award (for the league's best all-around performer) and then he said that about the playoffs. Figure that. I feel cheated, too. I went through training camp and probably worked harder than anyone else on the team. They took a gamble and the gamble didn't pay off. You could say, 'If I was healthy, I would've done this or we would've done that,' but we'll never know."

"That's the thing," added Nash. "We'll pick up the pieces and go on, the 76ers will survive. But Jeff -- here's a young, vital hunk of a man who can't do what he's been able to do in the past. Now he has to find his niche in another phase of life."

Ruland says he's now adjusted to the idea that there will be no further attempts to return. Sometime in the next couple of weeks he expects to receive word of a settlement from Lloyd's of London, "a large sum of money that's supposedly tax-free," he said, that will cover the remainder of his contract.

Already a veteran of a Jay Leno television special and the pilot episode of a Robert Wagner television series, Ruland is hard at work on other video projects. He lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb, and also is reportedly a finalist for the job of analyst on television broadcasts of 76ers games. He would replace new Los Angeles Clippers coach Gene Shue, who took the broadcast position after being fired by the Bullets in March 1986, a dismissal that perhaps could have been avoided if Ruland had been healthy.

During part of his absence last season, Ruland scouted a number of collegiate games for the 76ers but was less than enthralled with the work ("too many bad players and too many bad games"). A coaching position might be a different story, but he says it would have to be in the New York-Washington-Philadelphia area.

"I have a lovely wife and two lovely children and I'm negotiating for more all the time," he said. "I've taken 10 to 15 strokes off my golf game and I keep telling Mo {his wife Maureen} to let me play every day for a year; I think I could get on the PGA Tour.

"I'm only 28, I've got a lot of living to do. Financially I'm very well set, but I'm just as well set emotionally."

Still, seeing him on the court again at St. Joseph's stirred memories of his time with the Bullets, when Ruland was likely to say or do almost anything.

A doughnut filled with shaving cream instead of custard wasn't beyond the scope of Ruland's imagination as a participant in the antics that often permeate the athletic locker room. That aspect, the camaraderie shared between teammates, is one of the hardest for an athlete to deal with during a prolonged absence, and in Ruland's case the problem was magnified by the fact that he was dealing with a new team. No longer a Bullet but not quite a 76er either, he floundered at times.

"I never did feel like I was a part of the team," he said of his season-in-limbo with Philadelphia. "After you play in two games, then miss three months, then play in just three more games, I guess it's hard to get that feel . . . After a while I just stopped coming to games. Some -- most -- of the guys understood, it's not like I didn't want to be there, but I had no control over that. I just didn't want to start getting into fights with fans up in the stands so I stayed at home and rooted on TV.

"I just wanted the opportunity to play Washington, that's what I worked so hard for over the summer," he said. "I would've kicked their tails -- dudes would have been coming across the lane and getting put on the paint and on the floor."

Presumably, those people wouldn't have included his good friends Frank Johnson and Manute Bol. Ruland is still close to both players. The same cannot be said of Ruland and the Washington organization, in general. And while he is hesitant to go into the subject at length, Ruland wonders about some of the medical treatment he received while a member of the Bullets.

Talking about his knee injury, Ruland points out that the problem, which began in February 1986, actually stemmed from his ankle fracture, incurred playing against the Detroit Pistons in December 1985.

"I knew the ankle was fractured on the outside, but they didn't say it was fractured on the inside, too," he said. "They kept saying, 'It's just soreness, it's just a knot.' "

Contacted by The Washington Post, Dr. Stephen Haas, one of the Bullets' team physicians, declined to comment on Ruland's statement.

Ruland was out of action for 22 games after suffering the initial injury on Dec. 11, 1985. Three games after his return he reinjured the ankle on Feb. 2. Three weeks later the Bullets were facing the New Jersey Nets when Ruland received a pass in the low post.

"I got the ball, and instead of wheeling and dunking it like I would normally do, I had to hesitate and then I tried to wheel and dunk it," he recalled. "Buck Williams was able to come over and pin the ball and I went down. I knew right then that I'd torn something. I played the rest of the game, but that's when the problems really began."

Ruland doesn't hesitate to say that perhaps things might have been different had he not been so intent on coming back so soon.

"Now, sure I would do things differently, but you can't get caught up in the past," he said. "If I didn't come back so fast . . . I always wanted to play. I always wanted to be out there. In the end, it cost me."