- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

He cleans glass like ammonia and sports shoulders that might make Atlas consider another line of work. But don’t be fooled. Michael Ruffin sometime takes the path of least resistance.

To wit: As a college student, the Washington Wizards forward chose not to major in pre-veterinary studies. Too difficult. Too much memorization. Ruffin needed something cushy, a subject that would let him focus on basketball.

He settled on chemical engineering.

“I know it sounds weird,” Ruffin said with a smile. “But I knew I was good at math, knew I was good at science. For me, it wasn’t the toughest of majors.”

For Ruffin, this qualifies as slacking off. On a pedal-flooring Wizards squad that ranks second in the Eastern Conference in scoring (101.8 points a game), the 6-foot-8, 248-pound reserve plays the role of mud flap — a pick-making, charge-taking basketball custodian whose appetite for floor burns and dirty work makes everyone else look pretty.

Helping compensate for injuries to frontline regulars Etan Thomas and Kwame Brown, Ruffin ranks fifth in the NBA in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes (5.7). During Washington’s victory over Indiana Feb. 7, he grabbed eight rebounds — and notched a crucial fourth-quarter block — while tangling with Pacers center Jermaine O’Neal.

Ruffin also fouled out, which came as no surprise: In his fifth season, he has more career fouls (558) than points (459). Still, Ruffin is the only Wizard besides All-Star forward Antawn Jamison to play in all 50 games this season, proof his value isn’t measured in highlights.

“He might not score the ball, but he’s a heck of a player on both ends of the floor,” guard Juan Dixon said. “He attacks the offensive glass and plays good defense. You need a player like that on your team. He’s willing to give up his body, do all the little things that help the team win.”

Against San Antonio on Wednesday night, Ruffin was at his hard-hat best — setting forceful screens, batting loose balls to his teammates, dipping an unfriendly shoulder into Spurs center Rasho Nesterovic. With less than a minute left and the Wizards leading 88-84, guard Gilbert Arenas missed a driving shot. Ruffin tipped the ball to himself, keeping the play alive. Arenas scored on a subsequent jumper, and the Wizards went on to a 95-87 victory against a Western Conference power.

“[Ruffin] has a knack for being where the rebound is going,” said Thomas, who grew up in Oklahoma and has been trading elbows with Ruffin for years. “He pushes everybody else to play to his level. He’s relentless.”

Always has been. A three-time academic All-American at Tulsa, Ruffin graduated with a 3.77 grade-point average as the Golden Hurricane’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocks, and he became the only player in school history to collect 1,000 points and rebounds.

None of it came easy. As a freshman, Ruffin dropped a Calculus I class — elementary stuff — and enrolled in Calculus III. Soon he was prefacing basketball practice with six hours of lab work, pulling all-night study sessions before games.

On particularly brutal days, Ruffin wouldn’t have time to eat. Other students came to dread their broad-shouldered classmate — not because Ruffin was a jock but because he was setting the curve on quizzes and exams.

“Honestly, engineering was more competitive than basketball,” Ruffin said. “I didn’t think of it that way. I was competing with myself to get good grades. But during my junior and senior years, people would come up to me and say they were scared of me being in their classes.”

Following his junior year, Ruffin landed on the short list for the U.S. Goodwill Games squad in 1998. An ankle injury forced him to withdraw. He spent the summer as an Amoco intern, testing lubricant performance.

Even as Ruffin led the Golden Hurricane to the 1999 NCAA tournament, he never felt as if he could devote his full attention to basketball. Go figure: One of his college projects was titled “Design of an Automated Temperature Controlled Impedance Spectroscopy System.”

Don’t ask.

“[School] definitely took a lot of focus, a lot of energy,” Ruffin said. “I actually have more free time now. But I wanted to do well at academics and basketball.”

Such was the plan. Ruffin’s college-educated parents, Bruce and Gladys, expected academic excellence; their son figured that if professional basketball didn’t work out, he could make a good living as an engineer — or perhaps go back to school to become a veterinarian.

Animals long have fascinated Ruffin. At one point, he owned two ferrets, two tortoises, a rabbit, a hedgehog, two Labradors, a bearded dragon lizard and something called a coatimundi.

Lucky for Ruffin, college sweetheart Mistye was of like mind; she once gave him a python as a Christmas present. Talk about true love. The two are married and have four children, including a 2-month-old daughter.

“I don’t have as many of those pets now because I have children,” Ruffin said. “But we still have a dog. And a tortoise.”

Never a gifted scorer, Ruffin was outplayed by Duke’s Elton Brand in an NCAA tournament loss. Pro scouts loved Ruffin’s toughness but questioned his size. He moved to Bloomington, Ind., to live and work with a personal trainer, Joe Abunassar.

Three times a day, six days a week, Ruffin lifted weights, ran, built his core strength. He added 10 pounds of sculpted muscle, dropped his body fat to 3 percent. At a predraft camp in Chicago, he was a revelation — rugged on the block, able to run all day, cut like an anatomy textbook model.

“I was in the best shape of my life,” said Ruffin, who still works with Abunassar during summers. “It helped tremendously. I didn’t have to pace myself. I could just keep going hard.”

The hard work paid off. Chicago selected Ruffin in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft. Platooning at center with Brad Miller, Ruffin gave up inches and pounds night after punishing night. In his second season, he managed to grab nearly six rebounds a game despite averaging less than 20 minutes.

The Bulls didn’t win. They took high school players Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry in the 2001 draft, then signed veteran Charles Oakley as a mentor. Adios. Ruffin played 15 games with Philadelphia, endearing himself to coach Larry Brown, and 1 seasons with Caprabo Lleida of the Spanish League before landing in Utah at the start of last season.

Ruffin was thrilled. The Jazz seemed like a good fit, a blue-collar franchise coached by old-school devotee Jerry Sloan. Ruffin hoped to make a home in Salt Lake City, keep his family in one place.

He never had a chance. Ruffin missed 41 games with an injured abdominal muscle, and his 5.0 rebounds and 2.2 points a game were too little, too late. He left disappointed.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” Ruffin said. “I felt like I could establish myself on a team that had won a few games. But I wouldn’t turn anything around now.”

Indeed. After playing with Ruffin on the Wizards’ summer league team in Las Vegas, Dixon got in touch with Eddie Jordan: Coach, we need to get this guy. Washington signed Ruffin to a one-year minimum deal — in retrospect, a bargain. Not that Ruffin is complaining.

“Winning is always good,” said Ruffin, who would like to return next season. “My family loves it here so far. I love it here.”

The feeling is becoming mutual. As Ruffin walked to the bench near the end of the Spurs game, the MCI Center crowd rewarded his three-block, eight-rebound effort with a loud ovation. Try getting that as a chemical engineer.

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