Every new day Jeff Ruland wakes up without a throbbing pain in his left knee and plays another game for the Philadelphia 76ers, he says to himself, "I'm a medical marvel. . . . I can't believe I'm playing again."
There have been a number of amazing comebacks in sports in the past decade. Baseball pitcher Tommy John, heavyweight boxer George Foreman and Washington Bullets forward Bernard King coming to mind. But none was more improbable than Ruland's, the 6-foot-11 center who rejoined the 76ers earlier this month after eroding knee cartilage had forced him to retire only five games into the 1986-87 season.
"I never really thought about playing again," said Ruland, who faces the Washington Bullets at the Baltimore Arena tonight. "I was more interested in just leading a normal life and being able to move, sit and walk without experiencing all the pain.
"I've got a normal knee again, but playing again is really beyond belief, and every day the knee gets a little better and a little stronger. I've been gone five years, but it's not like I'm ancient. I'm 33, and probably in better shape than when I was 27."
Several professional athletes, including King, have had knees rebuilt and continued their careers. But the odds were greater for Ruland, whose left knee, in his own words, "had turned to oatmeal."
"I had heard of a Dr. [Richard] Steadman performing a procedure where he used scar tissue to give you the same cushioning effect as cartilage in the knee," said Ruland, who underwent surgery in August.
"But I guess I wanted some guarantee of success. Dr. Steadman had performed the operation successfully on some 300 people, and it worked for a couple of pro football players. But the doctor warned me that the risks of re-injury were far greater in basketball, playing on a hardwood floor.
"But so far, except for some pain I had in my sciatic nerve, it's been great. The doctor didn't want me doing this, but I'm not going to worry. Heck, I can be hit by a car walking across the street."
Ruland, 270 pounds, always played in a hellbent fashion. Tonight's appearance against the Bullets rekindles memories of when he played for Washington and was considered one of the league's premier big men, averaging 18.7 points and 10.8 rebounds his first five seasons in the NBA.
In June 1986, Ruland was involved in the blockbuster deal that sent him and forward Cliff Robinson to Philadelphia for center Moses Malone and forward Terry Catledge. But he hardly had a chance to get acquainted with his new teammates when his knee collapsed, the result of a degenerative condition.
Although he is limited to about 20 minutes a game, Ruland's return has been as surprising to NBA general managers, coaches and players as to himself.
"It all happened so quickly this year that no one gave it a lot of thought," said 76ers general manager Gene Shue, who coached Ruland for four years in Washington before being fired in 1986.
"I'm pleasantly surprised, but extremely happy for him," said Bullets general manager John Nash, who was the assistant general manager in Philadelphia when Pat Williams engineered the Ruland-Malone trade.
"When Ruland went down, I took a lot of the blame for the trade," Nash said. "I didn't become acting general manager until a week after the trade, when Williams took the job with the expansion Orlando Magic.
"But everyone favored the trade, from [owner] Harold Katz on down to assistant coach Fred Carter," Nash said. "We felt that Moses was no longer a dominant force, and Jeff was one of the players I respected most in the league. I admired his toughness, work ethic and his team-oriented style. He's always been more concerned about winning than personal goals."
It is one of the reasons Katz and 76ers coach Jim Lynam were so anxious to welcome Ruland back, hoping his toughness and leadership would rub off on the 76ers, who are fighting for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Ruland, averaging eight points and four rebounds, is backing up Charles Shackleford, who has failed to provide consistency or competitive fire as the 76ers starting center.
"One of the things Jeff gives us is a no-nonsense approach," Katz told the Philadelphia Daily News. "I think we've had a little selfishness, too many games where we hold the ball and there is no movement.
"All Jeff wants to do is play basketball and do it the right way. He's hard-nosed and makes the other players better. You need role players, and we don't have enough of them."
At this point, Ruland is happy to be helping the team any way he can. He missed the sport, especially the physical contact, bumping bodies with rival big men and setting tooth-rattling picks.
With the financial security of several million dollars he received from a personal insurance policy, he tried a number of different jobs, all with moderate success and little satisfaction.