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A Tough Man In A Scramble
Bruce Newman
December 13, 1982
The Bullets have flipped over 6'11" Jeff Ruland, who's better than he was cracked up to be
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December 13, 1982

A Tough Man In A Scramble

The Bullets have flipped over 6'11" Jeff Ruland, who's better than he was cracked up to be

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Jeff Ruland's arms look so short and thick that it seems as if they're trying to retract into his body. Arms don't dangle gracefully at Ruland's sides; they hang from his shoulders like meat on a hook. In every way that arms are capable of being remarkable, these are not. And yet what makes Ruland's arms the kind that any NBA team would be happy to have hanging around is precisely what makes them appear so small to begin with—they are attached to the rest of Ruland.

Since joining the Washington Bullets as a rookie last season, the 6'11", 260-pound center/power forward has used his size and strength to become one of the NBA's best sixth men (although he's lately been starting in place of injured Forward Spencer Haywood) and one of the NBA's best offensive rebounders. "He's big," says Ruland's wife, Maureen, "very big. There isn't another player who's that tall and wide. We're talking large."

The anomaly of Ruland's enormous body and his relatively short arms has its antecedents in, of all places, 16th-century Renaissance art. When Michelangelo sculpted the David, he purposely exaggerated the size of the statue's hands and head to give it a more heroic look. In Ruland's case, the hands (glove size 12) and arms (sleeve length 37) were made small and everything else was hewn in heroic proportions. "If you let him put his body on you, he puts you at his mercy," says Indiana Pacer Center Clemon Johnson. "Once he goes to the boards and plants his feet, he's planted like a redwood, and once he's in there he seems to spread out. You push and push and push, and still you can't budge him."

Ruland may have the arms of the Venus de Milo, but in manner there is something faintly ursine in his lumbering, head-down stride. Among our most enduring stereotypes is that truly large white people are all either preternaturally sweet or harmless—remember Hoss Cartwright?—but Ruland is no Gentle Ben. On Nov. 9 Ruland blocked a shot by the Pistons' Isiah Thomas in a 108-105 Bullet loss and nearly decapitated the cherub-faced guard. "Yeah," Ruland said later with an evil grin, "I tried to put Isiah in the Children's Hospital."

Ruland and starting Bullet Center Rick Mahorn are known around the league for their jarring picks and for their occasional and equally jarring piques. In the second quarter of that Detroit game, Ruland pump-faked Center Jim Zoet into the air; when Zoet came down on top of him, Ruland bounced up and offered to help Zoet eat the basketball, which didn't quite suit Zoet, who recovered while Ruland shot two free throws. Ruland also scored a one-punch knockout over 6'9", 212-pound Alvan Adams of the Phoenix Suns last season and on Nov. 24 almost had a brawl with the whole Suns' coaching corps. "They were telling me to open my eyes when I shot, and cussing at me," Ruland said. "I'd have taken them on all at once." Ruland's arms may be too short to box with God, but everyone else is fair game. Actually, it's Mahorn, not Ruland, whose bullying has annoyed people. "Ruland is just a very physical player," says one coach. "Mahorn's a thug. Something ought to be done about him."

Whatever else Ruland and Mahorn may be—"the NBA's only interracial sumo wrestling tag team," as Bullet trainer John Lally calls them, or "McFilthy and McDirty," as Boston broadcaster Johnny Most has dubbed them—they are, above all, the closest of friends. "Whenever someone gets in my face," Ruland says, "he's there. If someone goes after him, I'm there." Mahorn concurs: "It's like we're meant to be with each other." Ruland has always been one of the guys, even growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Bay Shore, Long Island. "I really didn't have a white friend until I was in the sixth or seventh grade," Ruland says. "I didn't know there was supposed to be a difference."

Ruland's father, Kenneth, who had once been a gifted baseball player, was an alcoholic, and the two were never close. "My father was in construction," Ruland says. "He built cesspools. Somebody had to do it." His father died after suffering a stroke in 1967, when Jeff was nine. His mother, Anita, who owned a tavern in Bay Shore called The Townhouse, married her husband's best friend, a carpenter named Ernie Swanson, that same year, and they moved the family (Jeff has a half-brother, a half-sister, five stepbrothers and a stepsister) 10 miles away to Farmingdale, where Anita bought another neighborhood bar and named it Ernie's Tavern after her fourth husband. "It was strictly a blue-collar bar," Ruland says. "Guys used to walk in there about eight in the morning and order a shot of whiskey and a beer." Anita still tends bar one day a week at the Jericho Pub in Selden, another town on Long Island.

With both parents at work all day, Ruland had the time to play whatever sport was in season. "I grew up with a lot of freedom," he says, "but I never took advantage of it. Giving me freedom was my mother's way of teaching me responsibility. Even in grade school, if I wanted to go somewhere, I went. I was a great kid, the apple of my mother's eye."

Once Ruland decided to concentrate on basketball, he pursued the game with a vengeance. From the summer before his ninth-grade year until he was out of high school, he missed playing only four days. On weekends he would play as many as 10 hours a day on the Tecumseh Grade School courts near his home. "People laughed at him out there practicing in the cold in January," Anita says. "Me too. I used to say, 'Jesus Christ, what's with him?' But he wouldn't quit."

In summer, Ruland and his friends would back a station wagon up to the rear entrance of his mother's bar and load it with beer and then cruise the neighborhoods, drinking brews and looking for basketball games. Ruland reports there were only rare feminine intrusions on this demanding social schedule. "I went out with a few broads," he says, "but it was nothing serious."

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