- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

Perhaps Michael Ruffin is finding a home on Fun Street.

Perhaps this is becoming his team, too, in the understated fashion of a complementary piece.

Ruffin is one of the anonymous vagabonds of the NBA, part of an archetype sentenced to exist on the fringe of the game — forever en route to the next team, the next chance, the next hope. His game is as modest as his Tulsa pedigree.

Yet he is willing to play larger than his 6-foot-8 frame might indicate, willing to bang bodies and pick up bruises and floor burns and donate blood to the cause.

There is no commercial relevance in the substantive core of what Ruffin does. They don’t run highlights of the best picks and screens late at night on ESPN. There is nothing sexy about the game at its grittiest. But the grit is as necessary as the pretty stuff.

Ruffin has come to this role as one who is always fighting to belong, always looking to show what he can do as opposed to what he cannot do, always looking to fit into a system built for others. He completes the almost unnoticeable plays because that is what players like Ruffin have to do if they want to earn a living in the NBA.

If not, they can play with Caprabo Lleida, as Ruffin did in parts of two seasons. They can bounce from here to there, with no guarantees, with only a collection of pink slips. So they adapt and learn and keep knocking on the NBA door. And they become inured to the game’s hard choices, even toughened by them.

And Ruffin is tough, if subtly so. No, he does not beat his chest to announce his toughness. He does not resort to primal screams. He does not eyeball opponents after making a play, as if mimicking a beady-eyed gunslinger out of a Wild West flick.

Ruffin has shown no need to be conspicuous. He is too smart for that, this 1999 member of the Academic All-America first team. He knows his position amid the budding stardom of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes. Ruffin is just there to do a thankless job, to put in a hard night’s work and then go out in the cold night air secure in the validation of the effort.

And this is how he validated himself in the last game: seven points, five rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot in 22 minutes. And he employed five of his fouls, because that is part of his assignment as well. If you are an undersized role player in the frontcourt, you use your fouls to protect the basket. Foul trouble is not a concern.

Ruffin was one of Ernie Grunfeld’s quiet acquisitions last August, signed as a free agent after spending last season with the Jazz. It loomed as possibly another basketball layover for Ruffin, his fifth in five seasons after being a second-round pick of the Bulls in the 2000 NBA Draft.

It is his lot as an unrefined version of Charles Oakley, minus the outside shot. Yet his is a necessary prototype if a team wants to be relevant. The acquisition has proved more salient following the prolonged absence of Etan Thomas and the recurring injury problems of Kwame Brown.

So now, there is Ruffin soaring in the air late in the game, looking to attempt a tomahawk dunk, only to be fouled as the ball bounces off the iron.

And there are Ruffin’s teammates on the bench, erupting in affectionate laughter, finding humor in the Dr. J-like maneuver coming from this hopelessly blue-collar soul.

Maybe this was a moment of sorts for Ruffin. Maybe this was a way of his teammates, saying, “You are a big part of this, part of our unexpected success, and we love your contributions even if the public could not pick you out of a lineup of neighborhood gym rats.”

And maybe this nomad is finding a sense of permanence in his basketball life.

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