Los Angeles — Center-forward Jeff Ruland of the Washington Bullets is for all those basketball fans who can't dunk without a ladder; score if they're more than a foreign car length away from the basket; or run like they're wearing concrete sneakers.
But before I get criticized for a massive putdown of Ruland, let me tell you that if I owned a National Basketball Association franchise, I'd want him on my team. And the fact that he's 6 ft. 11 in. and 240 lbs. has nothing to do with it.
Jeff doesn't just show up on game nights, bored and not caring whether he's playing or not. Instead he willingly does all the unappreciated things that win basketball games, like blocking out; rebounding in traffic; getting in front of people on defense; and diving on the floor for loose balls.
If you're looking for someone who can deliver the ball to the basket to the strains of Swan Lake, check out David Thompson of the Seattle SuperSonics or Jamaal Wilkes of the Los Angeles Lakers. Smoothness is their trademark.
Ruland is a cement truck whose inside game is based on power and strength and whose baskets are four-foot putts, with the ball cradled in one hand, because for him that's the only sure way. However, it was good enough to make him a member of the NBA's All-Rookie team last year while producing a 14.4 scoring average.
If pro basketball were Grand Opera, Jeff would be the guy in the back row with the oversize spear and the helmet that's too small. If it were an oil field , he'd be the guy that dons the asbestos suit and puts out fires. If it were a Hollywood movie set, he'd be the stuntman who goes off the pier in the vintage Buick sedan.
What Ruland does best is rebound. In fact, he's what the trade calls a position-type rebounder, meaning he can't jump. What he can do is grow invisible roots when he gets position under the basket, and the only way you can move him is with a bulldozer.
On a Washington team that isn't going anywhere, Ruland's hustle and muscle are worth the price of admission. People who can't instantly recognize Jeff's perseverance probably would question the accuracy of Lincoln reading ''Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm'' by the light of a stone fireplace.
''The first time I ever scouted Ruland he was playing for Iona College in New York and he was about as physical a guy as I'd ever seen on a basketball court, '' said assistant coach Al Bianchi of the Phoenix Suns. ''Once he got position under the boards for a rebound, nobody could move him.
''I don't remember everything I put in my scouting report, but I know I said something about him having a chance as a pro because of his size and his aggressiveness,'' Bianchi continued. ''He wasn't smooth and he didn't run well and with players like that you always have certain reservations.
''For example, with a franchise that runs all the time he'd be lost or at least limited in how much he could help you. But if he came into the league with a team that relied mostly on a half-court offense and wasn't into speed, he'd maybe do all right.''
Ruland, probably more confident of his ability to play in the NBA than most of the scouts who watched him, skipped his senior year of eligibility at Iona in 1980-81 to turn professional. The Golden State Warriors, looking for help on the boards, made him their second-round draft pick. But when Jeff and the Warriors were unable to reach a suitable agreement, he decided to play in Spain.
''To me the time I spent in Spain was a lost year,'' Jeff told me in the visitors' locker room at the Los Angeles Forum. ''I didn't like any part of it - the league, the referees, the food, or the travel. It was a league where they played two 20-minute halves and where they didn't need a 24-second clock because the minute anybody got the ball they shot it. Television consisted almost entirely of Charlie's Angels in Spanish.''
Washington, also looking for help on the boards, got the rights to Ruland from Golden State in June of 1980 for what was announced as future considerations.
The Bullets, picked to finish in the NBA's Atlantic Division cellar last season, instead won 43 games, made the playoffs, and basked in the reflected glory of Gene Shue being named NBA Coach of the Year. But I can tell you this, Shue wouldn't have made it without Ruland's 762 rebounds and utter fearlessness under the boards.