Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends": Iona's Jeff Ruland

January 22nd, 2012

In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Iona great Jeff Ruland, who remains to this day one of the school's greatest players. Ruland still ranks in the Top 5 all-time in points, rebounds and field goal percentage, and he's now the head coach at the University of the District of Columbia. 

Jon Teitel: You were nicknamed "McNasty". Who gave you the nickname, and how did you like it?

Jeff Ruland: Celtics announcer Johnny Most gave me the name. It was all right.

JT: In 1977 you were named to the first-ever McDonald's All-America team. What did it mean to you to be named a high school All-American, and which of your other honorees impressed you the most (Magic Johnson, Albert King, other)?

JR: I have known Albert since I was 14 years old, and he was as talented as anyone I have ever seen. The downside is that the coach only played me 12 minutes in the game, but I still ended up scoring 12 points. However, Magic played for 30 minutes and was named MVP.

JT: You played for Coach Jim Valvano at Iona, and you would often go to his home after practice to shoot baskets in his backyard with his daughter Nicole. What made Valvano such a great coach, and what made him such a great person?

JR: He was a great recruiter and motivator. He acted as a father figure for me, as I lost my dad when I was younger.

JT: What are your memories of the 1979 NCAA Tournament (Ruland scored 19 points in a four-point loss to Penn, who was led by Tony Price with 27 points and 12 rebounds)?

JR: It was disappointing. We took them a little for granted. We almost won it on a shot towards the end but were called for traveling.

JT: What are your memories of the 1980 NCAA Tournament (Ruland scored 16 points in a six-point win over Holy Cross for the only tournament win in school history, then scored 16 more in a three-point loss to Georgetown)?

JR: I was playing with two broken hands. I was open late in the Georgetown game but one of my teammates took a shot himself and missed it. He later said that he was recruited to take that shot, and I told him that I was recruited to MAKE that shot!

JT: You were named ECAC Rookie of the Year as a freshman and later were a two-time All-American. What did it mean to you to win such outstanding individual honors?

JR: I won the Haggerty Award during my junior year (given to the metropolitan New York Division I college basketball Player of the Year). Not to sound full of myself, but I actually thought that I should have won it the two previous years as well.

JT: In the summer of 1980 you left school early and were drafted 25th overall by Golden State (10 spots ahead of Rick Mahorn, aka "McFilthy"). Why did you decide to leave school early, and what did it mean to you make it to the NBA?

JR: I left school early because I messed up and signed with an agent. Future Hall of Famer Larry Fleisher told me that I would be taken in the top-16...then called me up right before the draft and told me that he could not represent me. I was a little bitter about being picked 25th, but it was a dream to finally make it to the NBA.

JT: Instead of playing for Golden State you decided to play professionally in Barcelona for one year (where Ruland averaged a double-double), and $8,000 of your contract money was confiscated/impounded by the Spanish court when your agent George Kalafatis tried to take it out of the country. Why did you decide to go overseas, and did you ever get the money back?

JR: George lost my money, and then I was cheated out of the money. George took $10,000 and I told him to put it in his luggage, but he decided to play "I Spy" and sew it into his trench coat. The police found it, and then they took it.

JT: The following year you returned to the US after Golden State traded you to Washington, and in your first year with the Bullets you averaged 14 points and nine rebounds per game off the bench while playing behind Spencer Haywood. Was it weird to be traded before even playing a single minute for the Warriors, and how were you able to be so effective off the bench?

JR: It was weird because the Bullets took Wes Matthews 11 spots ahead of me in the draft, which gave me a little chip on my shoulder. I liked coming off the bench because I could watch the flow of the game and then come in and do some damage, including getting to play most of the fourth quarter.

JT: You were twice named an All-Star, including the 1984 game that was a nine-point overtime win for the East. What did it mean to you to be an All-Star, and what do you remember most about the 1984 game?

JR: It was a great honor, although I had hoped to be selected the year before as well. 1984 was special because my daughter Courtney was born about one week before the game. Playing with Dr. J was great, as I had watched him play a lot while growing up.

JT: In 1984 you lost to eventual champion Boston in the playoffs while putting up an amazing 24 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists per game. How were you able to put up such great stats, and where does that Celtics team rank among the best you have ever played against?

JR: That Celtics team is definitely in the top-3, if not the best. I just tried to play hard and do what was asked of me. Boston was double-teaming me a lot, so I was able to find my teammates quite often to get a lot of assists.

JT: After playing an average of 79 games during your first three seasons, you broke a bone in your foot in 1985 and played just 72 total games over the next three years. How devastating was that injury, and do you ever wonder how your career would have been different if you had remained healthy?

JR: I came back too early from an ankle injury and came down after a shot and it just popped. It was tough to deal with at age 28, as I was never the same again. Then again, if that had not happened I might not have gone back to get my degree and go into coaching. I believe that everything happens for a reason.

JT: In 1991 you made a comeback with Philadelphia, but after 13 games you sustained an Achilles injury after a Celtics employee allegedly slammed a luggage cart into your leg outside Boston Garden. Is that a true story, and do you think it was an accident?

JR: It is true, and it was not an accident. Earlier that day I had broken up a fight between the ballboy and a Celtics traveling secretary. The guy ran the cart into me, which had about 50 bags on it. I had eyewitnesses and I sued the team, but the case was tried in Boston so they had a little home-cooking. I made the seconnd-greatest comeback behind George Foreman, but sadly I did not have a grill!

JT: You played 11 games with Detroit the following season before retiring for good in January 1993, and you are one of a very few former players to average 17-plus points, ten-plus rebounds and a field goal percentage above 55% for your career (Artis Gilmore and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the others). Did you feel frustrated that you could not go out on your own terms, and do you consider yourself to be one of the best big men in NBA history?

JR: Those numbers could have been even better if I had not played at all after the injury. I am proud of the seasons when I was healthy. As far as being one of the best big men: yes and no. Deep down I know I was but I just did not have the longevity. My mother (God rest her soul) messed up by having me too early before the salaries became what they are today!

JT: After retiring you became an assistant coach in Philadelphia under Fred Carter. What was it like to work under Fred?

JR: I learned a lot under Fred, but it was not fun working under owner Harold Katz.

JT: You later returned to coach at your alma mater, where you won three MAAC titles. What made you such a successful college coach?

JR: I had played the game all my life and I recruited pretty well, but it ended badly at Iona.

JT: What are your memories of the 2000 NCAA Tournament (Iona fell behind 23-4 to start the game before losing by 15 to Maryland)?

JR: Our guys were a little awestruck. After falling behind early we actually played them even the rest of the game.

JT: What are your memories of the 2001 NCAA Tournament (Courtney Fields drove into the lane and had the ball knocked away by Rahim Lockhart with two seconds left in a two-point loss to Ole Miss)?

JR: We lost our big freshman PF Greg Jenkins in the 1st half which hurt us inside. I thought Fields got fouled, but in retrospect maybe I should have had us shoot a three to try to win it.

JT: What are your memories of the 2006 NCAA Tournament (Glen Davis led LSU to the win with 22 points and 13 rebounds)?

JR: LSU had to go to a zone defense to beat us, which is saying something. We actually did a pretty good job against "Big Baby", but a couple of his teammates helped out as well.

JT: In 2009 you became the head coach at the University of the District of Columbia, and your team had to play several games with only five players due to health and eligibility problems. How on earth do you coach a team that does not have a bench, and how did you hope to bounce back?

JR: Let me just say that I got the job one week before the semester started while we were on probation. It was a horrible year but it is over with, and we had a good recruiting class going into the next season.

Ruland is also on Jon's list of best fantasy players in MAAC history.

Canisius: Ray Hall (1985) 2226 PTS (#1), 219 STL (#1), 77.7 FT% (#5), All-American
Fairfield: Joe DeSantis (1979) 1916 PTS (#2), 667 AST (#2), 84.9 FT% (#1), All-American
Iona: Jeff Ruland (1980) 1855 PTS (#4), 1067 REB (#2), 63.5 FG% (#1), 2-time All-American
Loyola (MD): Kevin Green (1992) 2154 PTS (#2), 162 3PM (#3), 40.5 3P% (#4), 159 STL (#3)
Manhattan: Luis Flores (2004) 2046 PTS (#1), 163 3PM, 161 STL, 88 FT% (#1), All-American, 2-time conference POY
Marist: Rik Smits (1988) 1945 PTS (#2), 811 REB (#3), 345 BLK (#1), 60.9 FG% (#1), All-American, 2-time conference POY
Niagara: Calvin Murphy (1970) 2548 PTS (#1), 84.9 FT%, 3-time All-American
Rider: Jason Thompson (2008) 2040 PTS (#3), 1171 REB (#1), 235 BLK (#1), 52.6 FG% (#1), conference POY
Siena: Marc Brown (1991) 2284 PTS (#1), 796 AST (#1), 221 STL (#2), 224 3PM (#4), 42.3 3P% (#5), 2-time All-American, conference POY
Saint Peter's: Keydren Clark (2006) 3058 PTS (#1), 501 AST (#2), 265 STL (#1), 435 3PM (#1), 36.5 3P% (#2), 85.5 FT% (#1), conference POY