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Former NBA Big Man Got Start at Sachem

Jeff Ruland was an all-star and is still well known in basketball community.

In the gymnasium and lobby at Sachem High School North sits a No. 43 Sachem jersey.

Thirty years ago the general population of Sachem was giddy about Jeff Ruland’s rise to NBA big man. Although the former Sachem, Iona and NBA standout is out of the basketball limelight, he left a lasting impression on Suffolk County and was a household name during the late 1970s.

In 1977 Sachem was busy capturing its first county title in football, a win that propelled the Arrows into a premier gridiron team known across the region. Not many remember the Arrows loss to North Babylon in the county playoffs on the basketball  court the winter before, or the culmination of Ruland’s high school basketball career, one with a resume packed with every all-recognition team imaginable: all-league, all-county, all-island, all-state and All-America by Parade, Street & Smith’s, Basketball Weekly, Scholastic Coach and others.

Not many remember him scoring 1,186 points in his career, which ranks first all-time, or his program-records 583 points, 133 free throws or game average 28.2 points in the 1976-77 season. He also scored 44 points and 42 points in different games, ranking him fourth and fifth, respectively, for points in a single game.

Simply put, Jeff Ruland made Sachem a basketball school for a short period of time and propelled the gym at North to loud ovations and magnificent performances long before the days of Nicole Kaczmarski, the other main notable hoops figure to graduate from the Lake Ronkonkoma institution.

At 6-foot-11 he was no slouch, graduating as the tallest figure to walk the halls of Sachem North. He and Steve Levy, the current county executive in Suffolk, made the class of 1977 one of Sachem’s most popular in history.

During a phone interview earlier this winter from his new abode at the University of the District of Columbia where he was hired in August 2009 to resurrect the lowly Division II program, Ruland was quick to credit a handful of former Sachem coaches as the guiding forces in his early basketball career. Men like Fred Kreutzer, Steve Rich, Dom Savino and even Tom Sabatelle, an eventual athletic director, who coached him as a freshman.

He remembers playing tough games against Long Island Lutheran and growing up with a core group of basketball players all big in size like himself. By his senior season he was being recruited by Kentucky, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Indiana.

“It was important for my mother to see my play,” he said.

So the Farmingville native stayed close to home and joined coach Jimmy Valvano at Iona.

Everyone knows Jimmy V for the monumental support his foundation has raised for cancer awareness since his death. True to what you’ve heard about the coaching legend who eventually left Iona for North Carolina State, Ruland said he was a kind and inspirational man.

“He did a lot for me,” said Ruland, who was big man on campus in college, helping the Gaels to a 29-5 record in 1979-80 and a No. 19 national ranking, the best the school has ever seen.

The Golden State Warriors selected him with the 25th pick in the 1980 NBA Draft and 10 minutes later his rights were traded to Washington. Since Spencer Haywood was the resident big man with the Bullets, Ruland figured a year of playing in Europe would help his own cause. He went to Barcelona for a season before playing in Washington, a team he spent five seasons with.

“I was a pioneer,” Ruland said of forgoing the NBA for a season. “I was like Brandon Jennings, but before Brandon Jennings was even an inkling in his dad’s head.”

Jennings, of course, followed his prep career as Gatorade National Player of the Year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia with playing for Lottomatica Roma in Italy for a season, earning close to $4 million between his contract and an endorsement deal with Under Armour. The only difference is Jennings, who is on the Milwaukee Bucks, went straight from high school to Europe before playing in the NBA, not from college.

Off the bench his rookie season Ruland was averaging 17 points and eventually earned a starting role during the 1982-83 season and capitalized, making the NBA All-Star team thanks to his 55 percent shooting from the floor and 11 rebounds per game.

A year later his numbers improved again as he averaged over 20 points, making him one of the most dominant forces in the NBA. Gradually, though, his knees and feet became injured from the constant pounding and his stats and game diminished. He eventually lost his starting spot to Manute Bol in 1985 and was traded to Philadelphia the following season in a deal for Moses Malone. By that point, the prime of his career was done.

“It was a life long dream,” he said.” When you get to that plateau, to be an all-star, one of the top 10 players in the league, it’s tough to deal [with walking away].”

He left the game, went back to college and finished his degree, something he said he is most proud of besides the birth of his daughters.

Five years later in 1991 he pulled a Tiki Barber and came out of retirement, playing in just 24 games with Philadelphia spread across two seasons.

“That was pretty amazing after five years,” he said.

He was averaging about 20 minutes a game, but it all ended when he tore his Achilles after a luggage cart hit into the back of his leg next to an altercation between a Celtics ball boy and someone else outside of Boston Garden.

He has coached at some familiar places, twice spending time at Philadelphia as an assistant and landing the head coaching gig at Iona, where he led the Gaels to three 20-win seasons, including three MAAC titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.

Every time Iona has landed in the tournament, Ruland has had something to do with it: twice as a player, once as an assistant, three times as a head coach and twice with the players he recruited before he parted ways with the school.

Last March in an interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN, Ruland made allegations of racism at the university – he was dating an African-American woman when the interview took place.

To say the least, “it was a bitter ending,” he said.

Green pastures were a few hours south at the University of the District of Columbia where Ruland got the head coaching job a week before school began last season.

“Coach Ruland is the perfect choice at the perfect time,” said Dr. Allen Sessoms, the president of the University of the District of Columbia system, when he was hired. “As we continue to strengthen and raise the profile of this institution, athletics is a serious component, and adding quality leadership like that of Jeff Ruland creates a strong foundation well into the future.”

During year one the Firebirds finished 1-20, but they showed major signs of improvement after a year of recruiting under his belt, finishing with 11 wins this season.

"Overall, the players did what we asked them to do,” he said. “I think our team played together. I reminded them how far we have come. We were starting from scratch. I asked them to believe and hang in there and they did.”

He could have walked away from the game after the Iona situation, but it’s all he knows. The feeling of an empty gym during an early Saturday practice, the rolling of the ball cart, the playing and rewinding of tapes and DVDs. It’s his life.

“It’s about giving back and trying to develop young men,” he said. “As a player I could have more of an impact. I could put a team on my back and win ball games. No matter how big you are you, you can always teach these guys day in and day out.”

The last time Ruland was at Sachem was in 2003 when he was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame.

“It’s a big part of my life,” he said proudly. “I’ll never forget where I came from. It’s a big part of the success I’ve had.”

The Ruland File

Birthday

Dec. 16, 1958

Height

6-11

Sachem Graduation Year

1977

Career NBA Points

5,763

Career Sachem Points

1,186

NBA Averages

17.4 pts, 10.2 reb, 3 asst per game

College

Iona

College Coach

Jim Valvano

Current Job

Head coach University of District Columbia

Interesting Fact

Voted most likely to succeed at Sachem

 

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