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Lakeland alum looking to move up the ranks to the NBA

Eric Ruffin first found out about the Tru Hope Trailblazers by playing against them.

During his senior basketball season with the Newport News Apprentice School, Ruffin and the Builders scrimmaged the Trailblazers. After his college career came to a close, Ruffin, a Lakeland alum, contacted the owner and head coach of the Trailblazers, Emory Addison, and made the team for this season, the second season of the Trailblazer organization.

Last year, the Trailblazers set out on a path that, according to Addison, is destined for a spot in the NBA Development League by 2012. The Trailblazers, despite playing all but two games on the road in 2008-09, finished with a 12-6 record against a mix of minor-league pro teams.

After only one year, the Trailblazers took a significant step toward their ultimate goal by joining the Eastern Basketball Alliance.

The EBA, a minor-league pro league with roots going back to 1946 and with teams ranging from Virginia to Connecticut, “gives us exposure and experience,” said Addison a couple days after his Trailblazers had improved to 5-0 with a 106-83 win over the Alexandria Avengers in a home game at Atlantic Shores Christian School in Chesapeake.

Addison’s squad includes guys who played collegiately on much bigger stages than Ruffin did with the Builders. Former University of Virginia standout Jamal Robinson has had short stints in the NBA with Miami and Washington. A couple more Trailblazers have gotten as high as the NBA Development League, or the NBA’s rough equivalent to AAA baseball. From last year’s squad, former Maryland Terrapin John Gilchrist has since gone on to a pro contract in Australia.

Even with all of that into account, Addison has serious praise for Ruffin, and more importantly, for Ruffin’s future possibilities.

“Magic, we call him ‘Magic’ because he brings the magic to our team,” said Addison. “The guys all say he’s fun to play with and he’s fun to coach.”

Ruffin, who as a strong, 6-foot-4, point guard has the build to impress scouts from a higher level, is scoring around 15 points per game and leading the EBA with 10 assists per game. Ruffin spurs a Trailblazer offense that puts up huge numbers. The Trailblazers have scored more than 120 points in three of their five games.

In that contest, Ruffin totaled 19 points, 12 assists and two turnovers.

“As a coach, that’s (the turnovers) what I love,” Addison said.

“Turnovers have always been my downfall before,” Ruffin said, “but this season, I’ve had very few turnovers. I’m learning more about what it means to be a good leader as the point guard of a team.”

Every player in the EBA is shooting for the chance to move up the ranks to the NBA-D League, an overseas league or, of course, the grand stage of the NBA.

“I won’t be surprised, and I told Magic this right after Sunday’s game, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in the Association (NBA). He’s got that high of a ceiling and he’s got that much potential,” Addison said.

Since joining the Trailblazers, Ruffin, 24, has had to face a step up in competition from playing for a small college. With the Trailblazers joining the EBA, it’s a perfect situation says Ruffin.

“It means a lot. It’s giving me a much better test of my skills. I’m having to step up a notch every game, but it really shows that I can excel against good players,” Ruffin said.

As a 6-foot-4 point guard, Ruffin has an advantage over many guards he’s playing against. But as his coach brings up, it also means there’s more Ruffin has to master to grab the attention of a higher league.

Against smaller guards, Ruffin is improving his game in the post.

“He’s starting to get double-teamed when he gets it in the post, but he’s a great passer and we actually want the other teams to do that. He’s a playmaker,” said Addison.

If an opponent puts a larger player on Ruffin, Addison said, he has to have the quickness to beat him off the dribble and create plays for the Trailblazers.

“Magic gets it done on the defensive end, too. His length of course helps, but he’s got good feet and great anticipation,” Addison said.

For the Trailblazers, the future, if all goes perfectly to plan, is to be the NBA Development affiliate for the Washington Wizards or Charlotte Bobcats by 2012.

“We’ve been in contact with the NBA D League president and we’re taking the right steps and on the right path to establish that,” said Addison.

For Ruffin individually, he could still be with the Trailblazers by the time they move up in two years, but in reality he hopes that’s not the case.

“It really gives me motivation. I’d been told by a lot of people, ‘I could do this or do that,’ but to play for someone (Addison) who’s helped players in the past, it lets me know I’ve got a great chance to be the next one,” Ruffin said.

The Trailblazers have their last home game of the regular season, the Trailblazers will play seven straight road games to finish the regular season, on Sunday at 4 p.m. against the Northern Virginia Hawks at Atlantic Shores.