The pack of young women politely waited for the one player they had come to see from the visiting team.
They stood, milling in anticipation, with pen and homemade posters in hand for a professional athlete who has truly touched their uncomplicated lives.
About 15 minutes after the final buzzer sounded at Sunday night’s American Basketball League game between the Seattle Reign and San Jose Lasers, Jenni Ruff, their hometown product, emerged from behind a wooden barrier outside the dressing room.
She had played only 8 minutes and didn’t score in the Lasers’ 93-74 loss, but now Ruff needed to put on a different show for her fans, a “Hi, how are ya?” autograph session. It was filled with as much grace and passion as Ruff has been known to display on the court.
“Thanks for coming you guys,” said Ruff, flashing a broad smile while moving closer to her 125 or so fans who had made the 2-hour drive on the damp roads to Seattle.
The southwest Washington posse included folks from her cozy hometown of Mossyrock as well as men, women and children from Centralia, Chehalis and Onalaska.
Sally Haslett, Ruff’s mom, rounded up 35 girls from Mossyrock Middle School. They, too, are students of the game who play on the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade teams. Haslett coaches the young teens.
She gave up her assistant coaching job at the high school when Jenni, now 22, and her younger sister, Emily, now 19, finished high school. Their father, Terry Ruff, coached his daughters on the elementary school level. Jenni, by no surprise, shows up back home to help out at summer clinics.
Although Ruff’s parents are divorced and both remarried, there is no discrepancy over the way they feel about their oldest daughter.
At Sunday night’s game, all four parents were there.
Haslett, dressed in a Lasers sweatshirt and surrounded by her lively young players, who where cheering at times when almost all the others in the crowd of 3,481 were not, never stopped smiling. It resembled the plastered-on grin that has been perfected by beauty pageant contestants.
But this one was real.
It was the expression of a mother who must have been thinking, “that’s my daughter out there, and she’s making a living playing pro basketball.”
Ruff, a 5-foot-11, thin 140-pound forward, set the Pacific-10 on fire last season when she led the conference in scoring for Washington State at 23.6 points per game and finished ninth nationally. She made the first cut in the ABL inaugural season when she was included on the eight-team draft pool. But on draft day, she was left out.
Shortly after the season started, Ruff, who had one foot on the SAS Jetway with the intention of playing pro ball in Sweden, got the call. She has been picked up by the Lasers.
“I told her, when she wasn’t originally drafted by the ABL, ‘Jenni, in my heart, I know something is going to happen.’ I really felt that I really knew this is the place where she’d end up,” Haslett said.
“I’d love to see her play more, but that’s the coach’s decision, not mine.”
Spoken like a mother first and a coach second. And Ruff speaks like the former Cougar who averaged 35.2 minutes per game her senior year: Give me the rock and let me show you what I can do. But much of her doing has been watching from the bench. Ruff has played in 23 of the Lasers’ 28 games, averaging 3.1 points and 12 minutes per game. She did get the chance to start in five games, most recently 10 days ago against the New England Blizzard. Her best game was Dec. 10, when she came off the bench and scored 12 points against the Atlanta Glory.
Sunday against Seattle, Ruff played 2 minutes in each quarter. During the Lasers’ first trip Nov. 8, Ruff slipped on the court, tore a ligament in her right knee and missed three games.
“I’m not just frustrated because we lost …, ” Ruff said after Sunday’s game, which put the Lasers and Reign in a dead heat for second place (14-14) behind Colorado (20-11) in the West Division. “I asked (why I don’t play more) and there aren’t any answers. I started three games in a row last week and then we went and played Portland down there and I played 4 minutes.”
But ask Lasers coach Jan Lowrey, the women’s coach for 20 years at NCAA Division II Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, and she answers.
“I think Jenni can do a lot of things,” Lowrey said. “She’s got a great shot, she can penetrate. One of the things I think Jenni has to get better on is handling the pressure.
“She has a good future with the team. She knows the things she can improve on and there are certainly things that can be improved. It’s not like it’s not there. She’s at another level now.”
Another level, loaded with Olympic athletes and All-Americans. And another lifestyle, which includes a one-year contract that pays her $40,000, her own apartment in San Jose, and just maybe another career to go along with basketball.
Ruff hired an agent based in Los Angeles and also had a modeling-like photo taken of her that appeared in a San Francisco newspaper. It came about when a photographer representing Macy’s department store came by and shot pictures of the team.
Ruff was among one of the Lasers selected. Her photo was used in the newspaper to promote health and fitness for women. Last week, she and teammate Trisha Stafford appeared at an autograph session at the Macy’s in Santa Clara, Calif.
A new life, but her ties to Pullman remain constant. She calls Amy Saneholtz, a junior forward on the WSU basketball team, her “best friend.” Last weekend, Ruff had the chance to see Saneholtz and the Cougs play at UW, while Saneholtz came to see her at the Mercer Arena the next night.
Ruff’s college boyfriend, Kearney Adams, a senior wide receiver on last year’s WSU football team, remains her main squeeze. They see each other every 2-1/2 weeks and Ruff said she’s thinking about moving to Phoenix, where Adams lives, during her offseason.
And then there’s her pal, Mark Hendrickson, WSU’s other Class of ‘96 pro basketball player, who is earning a living in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The two caught up with each other in San Jose the first week of January when the Sixers where at Golden State.
“I had him over for dinner,” said Ruff.
And the two compared notes.
“In the NBA, they get their bags delivered to their hotel rooms. We have to wait for ours at the airport. “
… and we wash our own uniforms.”
It’s a chore that seems fitting for a new league. But a lot of things are rough in the beginning.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)
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