NBA history from today’s perspective would look a whole lot different if Washington Bullets center Jeff Ruland injured future superstar Michael Jordan in his first regular-season game as a pro.
On October 26th, 1984, the Chicago Bulls hosted the Washington Bullets, and 13,913 anxious fans in Chicago Stadium had a unique chance to witness MJ’s first professional game.
With the Bulls ahead by 17 points, the rookie received a pass from point guard Ennis Whatley on the left-wing. It was the Bullets 2nd year pro Darren Daye, who would later star in Italy, covering Jordan on this particular play.
When MJ got the rock, he instantly tried to shake off Daye by using his extra quick footwork. But there was a lot of traveling ‘music’ on this move by a Bulls rookie and the ref called the violation. Nevertheless, after the whistle was blown, the action hungry rookie continued with the move!
But as soon as his Air Jordan 1s skyrocketed off the parquet, it was the Bullets corpulent 6’11’ center Jeff Ruland who suddenly stepped in the lane, trying to prevent the MJ’s to dunk the ball. With Jordan still ascending, Ruland took position right in between him and the basket, with his arms up, thus preventing him from reaching the rim!
“I was vertical, baby! Vertical, baby! Straight up!”
Jeff Ruland, via Yahoo Sports
While Jordan was on his way down from his first dunk attempt as a pro, he collided with Ruland’s left leg right before coming down hard on his back. With Jordan firmly lying on the floor, his destiny as a professional basketball player, but also the Chicago Bulls and the NBA destinies, were suddenly at stake.
It’s hard to imagine the NBA in which Dominique Wilkins is a virtual lock for the most dominant scorer every season, in which Magic vs. Bird finals rivalry extends until 1991, in which Pippen and Grant don’t get drafted by the Bulls, in which the Pistons and the Knicks advance to ’91 and ’92 finals. But MJ got up, and while on his way to the Bulls huddle, he gave Ruland a high five!
Biting his tongue, Jordan led the rejuvenated Chicago Bulls to a 109-93 win over the Bullets in his pro debut. That night he scored 16 points to go along with 6 boards, 7 dimes, 2 steals, and 4 blocked shots.
Later on that season, two-time All-Star Ruland suffered a broken bone in his foot, which limited him to appear in only 37 games during 1984-85 and triggered a rapid downfall in his career. Next season, Ruland appeared in only 30 games before being traded to Philadelphia 76ers, the team which eliminated the Bullets in the 1985 and 1986 NBA postseasons. At the very beginning of the 1986-87 campaign, after appearing in only five games for 76ers, Ruland again suffered an injury and thus retired.
Five years later, amid 1991-1992 NBA season Ruland made a successful comeback for 76ers but again soon went down injured (Achilles tendon). Next season (1992-93), he concluded his NBA career path as a member of Detroit Pistons for whom he appeared in a total of 11 games.
During his stellar career, Michael Jordan had come across many obstacles to achieve his GOAT status. It happens that Jeff Ruland was the first one who stepped in his way.