Michael Ruffin: Hard hat sighting in Miami

Hard hat sighting in Miami
Relentless Ruffin makes welcome return to line-up
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

Michael Ruffin missed 18 games with a left wrist fracture, but returned to action last Monday in Detroit. (Getty)
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January 4, 2008

MILWAUKEE -- Here's a trivia question for the would-be National Basketball Association aficionado:

What do Jackie Butler, Wayne Simien, Milwaukee's own Mike Wilks, Tremaine Fowlkes and Mengke Bateer have in common?

The answer is twofold. They helped their respective teams win the last five NBA titles, and they received little notoriety for doing so.

They do possess something that such all-time NBA greats as Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton do not have, though: an NBA championship ring.

Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley and Larry Brown have coached the NBA's last five champions. And they would be quick to point out that their championship drives were achieved because all of their teams' parts functioned consistently, cohesively and effectively.

With models such as these in mind, Milwaukee Bucks General Manager Larry Harris went fishing last summer for a veteran power player with a winning background to bolster his young roster. He landed a 6-foot-8-inch, 245-pound mountain of muscle in seven-year NBA veteran Michael Ruffin and signed him to a free-agent contact back on Sept. 22 of 2007.

"Michael has made a career out of being a high-character, high-energy player who does the little things to help his team," Harris said at the time. "He is a very good rebounder and excels on the defensive end of the court."

Ruffin indeed built a reptutation as both a glass cleaner and a winner over three successful seasons with the Washington Wizards spanning 2004-07. During the 2004-05 campaign, he ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes (5.0), and the following year, he ranked third in the league in the same category (5.8).

He helped the Wizards reach the playoffs in each of those seasons.

Ruffin, who will turn 31 years old Jan. 21, not only shares the Bucks team lead with his seven years of NBA tensure, but is the only member of the current Milwaukee team who was born before Al McGuire coached Marquette University to the NCAA championship in 1977.

Leaving Washington meant Ruffin would no longer be wearing a blue collar on the court, but he brought along the work ethic that went with it and embraced his opportunity to come to Milwaukee.

"When I come out on the court, I want to feel like I worked," Ruffin said. "At the end of the day, I want to feel like I did something to get better that day."

If these words sounds familiar, they should. Similar ones have been uttered numerous times by Larry Krystkowiak, both during the years he played for the Bucks and nowadays as their head coach.

"Coming to Milwaukee was a great opportunity for me," Ruffin said earlier this season. "'Coach K' is pushing us and making us work. For me, that's the kind of coach I've always wanted to play for. I enjoy being pushed and I enjoy working. That's the only way to get better.

"You can't say 'Coach K' doesn't push you to do that."

The partnership was ideal, but it was sidetracked just six games into the season when Ruffin was undercut while attempting to block a shot during the Bucks' Nov. 11 game against the San Antonio Spurs. He crashed to the court off-balance and landed on his left wrist. X-rays later revealed a fracture, and the injury sidelined him for 18 games.

Both Ruffin and his coach tried to put the best construction possible on the situation.

"Injuries are part of the game," Ruffin said at the time. "You have to take the good with the bad. They give other guys the opportunity to come in, step up and play well. I'll do anything I can to be ready when I come back."

Krystkowiak, too, tried to put a positive spin on the adversity.

"He'd been working his tail off, and it's unfortunate that he got hurt, but it's an opportunity for other guys to step up," Krystkowiak said. "It's the first significant injury we've had. So now we need the depth of our roster to come into play with guys like Jake (Voskuhl) and 'Danny G.' (Gadzuric) getting more opportunities."

Ruffin probably felt more pain having to spend the next seven weeks watching from the sideline than he did when he landed on his wrist. Relegated to wearing a cast and street clothes, he looked on helplessly as the Bucks won just one December road game and went 4-11 in their first 15 outings of the month.

Through his adversity, though, he managed to find a silver lining, observing and admiring the progress of the Bucks' 2007 lottery pick and the man he had backed up, forward Yi Jianlian.

"I like his attitude," Ruffin said of Yi. "It's great to see young players when they come into the NBA. Not many have come in with the hype surrounding them that he has, and that makes it tougher for him. But I enjoy watching young guys come in, experiencing things for the first time and looking at everything with a sense of joy, like they can't believe they're here.

"He goes out there and he plays. That's all you can do when you first come into the NBA. Of course you're going to make mistakes. You're not going to be 100-percent comfortable. But if you're able to come out and continue to work hard and play hard, you'll get better, and Yi does that."

Ruffin was finally able to rejoin Yi and the rest of his teammates in the team's final game of 2007 Dec. 31 in Detroit. But he wasn't able to truly celebrate his return to the lineup until Jan. 2 of 2008.

On that night, he sank two of three field-goal attempts, one of two free throws and snagged a rebound during an 11-minute, 30-second stint as the Bucks captured their third road victory of the season, 103-98, in Miami.

Wherever the remainder of the season takes the Bucks, Krystkowiak knows he can count on finding Ruffin with his nose to the grindstone.

"Nothing in this game comes easily," Ruffin said. "Nothing in life comes easily.

"You've got to work for it."