Sneakers squeak to a halt and the drumroll of basketballs fade to a distant echo inside the University of the District of Columbia gym.
Coach Jeff Ruland towers at the top of the 3-point line, holding a basketball and the attention of his team in his fiery gaze. Frustrated, the 6-foot-10 coach dressed in a red jump suit glares at an offensive player.
He lollipops the ball to the guard on the right side of the offense to imitate an errant pass that the young man threw just seconds earlier in practice.
"Every time, no matter where you are on the court, good passes," Ruland demands, raising his hands to receive the ball back from his player. He turns to the left side of the court and with two hands delivers a crisp strike into the waiting hands of another guard. It seems neither years nor injuries have hampered the 53-year-old Ruland, who was named to back-to-back NBA All-Star Games while playing for the Washington Bullets in the 1980s.
"That's how you get better."
Getting better — whether it's by getting back on defense, boxing out or taking extra shots after practice better has been the emphasis since Ruland took this job just a week before classes started in 2009.
The Firebirds were coming off back-to-back losing seasons. And even if the team had recorded a winning season, all UDC athletics programs were banned from the postseason for keeping improper records of financial aid and eligibility. The report by members of the NCAA Division II infractions panel called the act, "the single most egregious lack of institutional control ever seen by the committee."
While newly hired athletic director Patricia Thomas worked to clean up the school's probation issues, Ruland worked to reconstruct a struggling basketball team.
Injuries and other issues further depleted the limited roster, leaving the Firebirds practicing 3-on-3 toward the end of the season. In the 15th game that season, Ruland dressed just five players against Apprentice School. Then, Purvis Rollins rolled his ankle early in the second half, leaving the Firebirds with just four healthy players.
Senior point guard Nigel Munson recalls sitting on the bench with a cast on his right arm watching his team play a man down.
"We needed our full team, and I think we could have won that game," he said. "... Looking back on it, I just think it was embarrassing that we only had four players on the court."
Now, third-year coach Ruland and the Firebirds have no reason to be ashamed. The team weathered what became a 1-20 season in 2009-2010, and thanks to Ruland and the coaching staff, improved to 11-15 last season. This season, the Firebirds (15-3) are fighting for the East Coast Conference title led by four transfer starters: Munson, guard Brandon Herbert, Dishawn Bradshaw and Diyaaldin Kelley.
"It just shows you where we've come from and how far we've come," Ruland said. "No matter how bleak it might look, with some hard work and some belief, you can accomplish a lot."
Back in UDC gym on a windy Friday afternoon, the team nods, silently acknowledging Ruland's command to do the little things right, and practice resumes.
"Tough love," senior guard Bradshaw said of Ruland's coaching. "He's really like a tough father to us. ... I've been through a lot growing up, and not everybody that's around you is going to care about you. And he really does. The whole coaching staff, from on the court to off the court, they really care about you."
Ruland frequently speaks in sayings. Talking about the knee and ankle injuries that ended his career, he described himself as having the "mind of a very intelligent 15-year-old and the body of a 90-year-old."
"Every day you're going to hear something new. He's got sayings for days," Munson said. "I can say that I laughed at each and every one of them, because they were funny. A couple of them, I was crying laughing because they were so funny."
The "tough-love" may have been exactly what the Firebirds needed to continue to get off probation and into the spotlight as a premier team. Ruland demands respect and focus in practice. But he's not afraid to share a laugh with his team.
Munson added: "I think that he's a funny coach, but like I said, he means well and we all love him."
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