“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”
— Chinese Proverb
Dear Class of 1977,
I should have written this tribute for your 20th reunion, but I am grateful to be able to write it as you celebrate your 40th.
I remember 1976–77 as much as any of my 45 years of teaching and coaching. The reason it is most memorable was the Flaming Arrows boys’ basketball team that represented Sachem so beautifully that season. I want to thank so many of you for packing our gym that season to root for a great team led by your classmate Jeff Ruland. We should all be aware of Jeff’s post high school achievements. He followed up being an all-American at Sachem by becoming an all-American in college. He made the NBA all-rookie team, was an NBA all-star, and his career rebounding and scoring numbers would have garnered Hall of Fame consideration had injuries not cut his career short.
I would like to particularly celebrate the high school career that earned him an induction into the Sachem and Suffolk County Hall of Fame. He cemented Sachem as a place where good basketball was played in front of standing-room only crowds. Jeff’s career ended with a disappointing loss in the County finals at the Nassau Coliseum. Even though we lost, Jeff was named the MVP of the tournament — well-deserved recognition not only for his playoff performance, but for his team and school leadership throughout a wonderful championship pursuit that came up just short.
Jeff’s quest for excellence started long before that season. In a preseason questionnaire before his sophomore year he completed the statement, “Someday I will…” with the following words: “play in the NBA.” His coaches and teammates saw him strive to fulfill that aspiration every day. No one at Sachem ever worked that hard. No one made more sacrifices. No one believed in themselves more.
His journey began on a Friday night at home against Riverhead. First game nerves caused the sophomore to shoot 0–6 in a Flaming Arrow victory. No one saw a future Hall of Famer that night. But less than 24 hours later against Catholic school powerhouse St. Agnes, Jeff dominated the game. That night was the start of a three-year pilgrimage of college coaches to Lake Ronkonkoma. Bill Guthridge, Dean Smith’s longtime assistant at North Carolina, had attended the game to see St. Agnes’s Mike Palma. He rushed over to me afterwards to exclaim, “Tell me about that sophomore, he is going to be very special!” Coach Guthridge was right and so was Coach Steve Rich who made a similar observation after watching Jeff play in 8th grade.
While Jeff’s career would go on to encompass many individual achievements, he always put the team first. I recall his yearbook quote epitomizing his belief in the “five fingers-one fist” approach. He truly cared about his teammates. When he learned of his all-county selection at the end of his junior year his first question was, “Did John (teammate John O’Brien) make it? He really deserves it.”
Jeff made his teammates better. Poor passes became assists. Double and triple teams created open shots that were knocked down. Jeff set the tone for how hard we worked. I can’t remember him ever losing a competitive drill in practice. Five of his teammates went on to play Division I basketball. Fellow classmates Tommy Evans made Newsday First Team All-Long Island and Harry Edwards was an All-League I selection. Jeff brought out their best, but never forgot to acknowledge that they helped him achieve his greatness.
At a pre-season meeting before his senior season Jeff asked: “How do you want us to dress for away games?” While I wanted the team to look sharp, I had no interest in being a dress-code disciplinarian. I answered, “Dress like it’s important to you.” Jeff showed up for the first away game in a three-piece suit. By the end of the season we were all wearing three-piece suits.
Jeff’s season ended with a tough 64–57 loss in the county finals that I never will forget. I continue to second-guess myself for not having a better scheme to handle North Babylon’s furious “32 minutes of hell” press. But before that game I vividly recall Jeff’s performance in the semifinals against undefeated East Hampton. Clutch fourth quarter shooting by Tommy and Harry sealed the victory with Jeff scoring a heroic 40 points hobbling around on an injured leg.
I didn’t get to see Jeff play very often as he put Iona College on the map. Because of Jeff and Sachem’s reputation I had received a college coaching job in West Virginia. I missed seeing Jeff’s legendary performance when he went for 37 against the 1980 NCAA champs Louisville at Madison Square Garden.
I did get to watch Jeff’s teams play after he began coaching at his college alma mater. I realized that his passion for the game had not wavered. His desire to become a successful coach mirrored his desire as a 10th grader to become a great player. After one of the games he coached, Jeff made a point to once again thank me for his experience at Sachem. He referenced a college teammate who, despite immense talent, had struggled without “the foundation of a high school program like Sachem.” I appreciated his gratitude and know that his other coaches Steve Rich, Tom Sabatelle, Luke Morgan, Dominick Savino, and Jeff Stone did as well.
Jeff had talent, size and opportunity, but the intangibles he brought to the gym everyday were what separated him from everyone including other all-Americans. He showed us passion and dedication. He inspired others to follow his lead and be great teammates. His goal was to get better every day, which propelled our team and program to do the same. Jeff is now a scout for the Washington Wizards. He is looking for another Ruland. I am not sure he will ever find one. That’s why we were lucky to have him walk our halls and represent us on the court.
The Class of 1977 should be very proud. So many of you have tremendous accomplishments. Whether its feels like yesterday or a lifetime ago, 1977 at Sachem was a truly great time. I can’t come to the reunion this month but I promise to attend your 50th. Hopefully Tommy, Harry and Jeff will be there and I can congratulate all and celebrate in person. We will run some of those competitive drills.
Sachem High School