McNasty's Next Move

NBA All-Star. Successful college coach. Head man at an obscure DII school. In that order.
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Seven minutes before tip-off, the man once referred to as “McFilthy” or “McNasty” sits alone on an empty home bench, each vacant chair around him emblazoned with the logo of the University of the District of Columbia Firebirds. Jeff Ruland is watching that night’s opponent, Malloy College of Long Island, warm up. He appears much smaller than his broad-shouldered 6’10” in a half-empty gym that is surrounded by the million-dollar houses of World Bank bureaucrats and directly down a hill from a trio of bunker-like foreign embassies.

A basketball lifetime ago, Ruland was in those layup lines, then banged and battled with Kareem and Moses Malone. Today, Ruland—part of the first McDonald’s All-American class, an All-American for Jim Valvano at Iona College and an NBA All-Star with the Bullets before injuries scuttled his career—is far removed from that past. The University of the District of Columbia's gym is modest and manifestly not full; his team plays after the women’s game between the same two schools. As head coach of UDC, a Division II school with no dorms and whose recent history of athletic impropriety has the program on NCAA probation—a school many D.C. residents wouldn’t know about unless they happened by it on their way to the nearby National Zoo—Ruland's job is to keep things clean, and coach his 21-win squad into the upcoming NCAA tournament. The Division II version, that is.

Ruland reached three Division I NCAA tournaments as the head coach at Iona, including a trip in what wound up being his next-to-last season, but he was fired after an injury-plagued 2-28 disaster in 2006-07. After a year spent coaching in the D-League, Ruland lost his wife to leukemia in 2008, then was odd man out after a coaching change cost him his job as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant. Unemployed and widowed with three daughters Ruland was willing to listen when an old friend who was friendly with the Athletic Director asked him if he might be interested in the UDC job.

“To be honest, I went to three NCAA tournaments and had a couple of top 25 wins but for some reason, it didn’t end well at Iona and there wasn’t a lot of people beating my door down,” Ruland says with a knowing grin. “I had a chance to leave earlier when I was there and I was loyal and I stayed and it came back to bite me in the butt, but this came at the right time and it kind of just made sense. [And] I really missed college as compared to the pros.”

The game against Malloy is Senior Night for five of the Firebirds. Coach McNasty greets each of them and meets their families, poses for a photo and wraps a long arm around them. For Ruland, it’s both part of the job and part of what brought him back to this sort of job. For the seniors, this is a moment they will remember, a last home game as a college player, among the last organized games they may ever play. For players at Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas this moment may blend with other, bigger, basketball-related moments, and become something a professional will get sentimental about years hence, in Zagreb or Guangxhou or Milwaukee. But for guys like Nigel Munson or Brandon Herbert, UDC seniors and grown men whose lives have become about much more than basketball, this will be a moment to savor, and Ruland is there for it. “You know," Ruland says later, "they don’t have Senior Night in the NBA.”

Munson starred at D.C. prep hoops powerhouse Dematha, and joined Kevin Durant and Greivis Vasquez, among others, as a District All-Met pick back in 2006. He began his career at Virginia Tech, but wanted to return to D.C after one homesick year in Blacksburg. It wasn’t so easy. Denied a transfer to George Washington, he spent two years working a day job—and away from basketball, except at local rec centers—before landing with Ruland and the Firebirds. Now, four years after leaving Blacksburg behind, Munson is home, playing ball, and working towards his degree. Herbert, a Baltimore native, left the University of Binghamton to return home to DC to be near his mother, who suffers from MS. These two, along with three other transfers, have helped Ruland rebuild UDC’s program. None harbor NBA dreams anymore. Ruland can relate—the understanding that there is more to life than basketball is a bond Ruland shares with his guys.

“Without a doubt [it is]," he says. "The first one, obviously, was Nigel. I think they do relate [to my path], on and off the court.”

His second-chance seniors start the game slowly before Herbert gets hot from behind the three-point line. A back-and-forth game in the first half becomes a rout as UDC continues pushing the tempo on offense. Five minutes into the second half, it’s a twenty-point game. Throughout the action, Ruland is stoic, save an occasional palm to his face or a passing comment to his assistant, the former University of Maryland point guard Terrell Stokes. A few minutes later, sitting on a 23-point lead, Ruland rises from his chair and berates a nearby official, finally shows some of that old McNastiness that originally prompted the nickname from legendary Celtics announcer Johnny Most.

“He’s pushing off!” Ruland screams, throwing a hard elbow out at the air, the kind he once fired into Bill Laimbeer's lower back. The ref tunes him out. Not long after, Munson follows a teammate’s missed layup with a thunderous follow slam and the UDC bench erupts, along with the previously drowsy home crowd. It’s the kind of play only a former ACC-caliber athlete could make, and the only one of its kind on the night.

The game gets out of hand, and the Firebirds reach the 100-point mark with four minutes left. On the bench, Ruland has the look of someone with other things on his mind. When the seniors leave to a polite ovation ahead by 35, he shakes their hands without a word. Munson finishes his final home game with a school-record 16 assists, and Herbert with six threes and 28 points. The alumni band pumps up the crowd to the final buzzer, albeit with a few raw notes. One side of the gym’s bleachers never fills beyond 20 or so people, many of whom spend the game with their heads down, texting. But that’s not really the point, any of it, at least not here.

This year’s team has won 22 games just a season after they won only 11 and just two removed from a 1-22 debacle in Ruland’s debut campaign. When he took the job, he had just five players available until the athletic department sent him a soccer player to help out. In one memorable game that first year, one of his five available players turned an ankle in warm-ups and was unable to play. So that night they played with just four— “the box and none,” Ruland calls it.

A pair of banners is barely visible in the rafters above the court. They honor the University of the District of Columbia’s 1982 NCAA Division II national championship team as well as the 1983 runners-up. There are very few others. If Ruland came to UDC as something of a last resort, he is trying hard to leave something behind, and to salvage some measure of his own professional pride. Yes, he needed a job. But he also doesn’t want to be judged by his two-win final season at Iona, nor by his first two seasons at UDC. If he’s using this as a stepping-stone to something else, he doesn’t let on.

“I really haven’t thought about that. I’m just focused on finishing out the season and trying to get us another banner,” he says. “We’re building an atmosphere. Last weekend we honored the 1982 team. We’re good, man. If we play together, I think we’ll be in [the NCAA D-II tournament].”

Though he admits he had no other options, it is difficult to believe that Ruland’s goal is really nothing more than turning things around at this tough-to-find, urban, Division II school. That's certainly part of it, but Ruland's considerable ambition and toughness—like that of his college coach and friend Jim Valvano—suggest that he has not given up on a grander redemption, and a second chance at a coaching career. Nicknames like McNasty don't get affixed by accident; the man is tenacious, if humbled, and winning matters to him exactly as much as it does to other hyper-competitive people. But to hear Ruland talk about his life here, maybe it actually is simpler than that now.

“You make a difference in someone’s life," he says. "Hopefully when you’re gone they’ll say, 'Hey, he made people better on and off the court.' Just like as a player, when you make the people around you better you’re considered a great player. Hopefully, you can say that about yourself as a person, you know?”

The interview over, Ruland greets an older man waiting nearby who describes himself as someone who remembers and admires Ruland the player. McNasty shakes his hand and thanks the man for coming out to the game. Then he ducks under a doorframe far too small for someone of his stature and disappears into the locker room.

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