Coming Home: Miller School Alum Joins the Miami Heat

Dr. Jeffrey Ruiz received his doctorate in physical therapy from the Miller School and in October became the Miami Heat’s senior director of rehabilitation.
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Dr. Ruiz is impressed by the body awareness exhibited by NBA players.

When basketball fans watch a Miami Heat game, they see the strength of Bam Adebayo boxing out to snare a rebound, the agility of Jimmy Butler driving to the basket and the dexterity of Jaime Jaquez Jr. as he maneuvers to free himself for a jump shot.

Dr. Jeffrey Ruiz, who received his doctorate in physical therapy from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in 2015, sees that, and quite a bit more.

“NBA players move at such a high rate of speed and generate so much power when they’re doing anything on the court,” Dr. Ruiz said. “When they’re coming down the court at full speed, they have to be extremely aware of their bodies to be able to get around a defender and go in for a layup.”

That confluence of raw physical ability and bodily awareness blends with the precision required to shoot a jump shot or complete an in-and-out dribble in a way that stands out to an eye trained to spot physical deficiencies.

“It’s such a technical sport,” he said. “The athleticism of an NBA player is just different. These enormous human beings are able to withstand significant forces and still be so technical. It’s absolutely impressive to watch.”

Dr. Ruiz has to do more than admire the Heat players. Named the team’s senior director of rehabilitation in October, Dr. Ruiz is responsible for restoring health to those enormous bodies when they go awry. The Kendall native who, as a youngster, rooted for Heat luminaries like Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem now formulates a plan to get current Heat players back on the court as quickly—and safely, he emphasizes—as possible, no matter how serious the injury may be.

After a two-year professional sojourn north, this Miami boy has come home.

Early Love for Sports and Science

Dr. Ruiz was an avid youth athlete. His first love was baseball and Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams from the New York Yankees, who trained in Tampa, where Dr. Ruiz had family. He also played football and basketball and boxed.

“I was always interested in different types of sports,” he said, “and wanted to be as active as possible and outside the house.”

He attended the University of Miami and, as an undergrad, discovered an affinity for science that eventually complemented his love of sports, though that was not his initial motivation.

“I loved anatomy and was always interested in kinesiology and motor control,” Dr. Ruiz said, who worked as a trainer at university’s Herbert Wellness Center. “To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about sports.”

He earned undergraduate degrees in exercise physiology and psychology while working two separate internships, in neuropsychology and physical therapy. Though intrigued by neuropsychology, Dr. Ruiz’s experience with training athletes sealed a move to physical therapy exclusively.

An Invitation to the Hurricanes Training Room

Accepted to Miller School’s physical therapy doctoral program, Dr. Ruiz’s “gap year” was the week between graduation and Miller School matriculation. There, he benefited from the expertise and influence of Luis Feigenbaum, D.P.T., now the University of Miami’s senior associate athletics director for performance, health and wellness and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the Miller School.

Dr. Ruiz says the “art” of rehabilitation is to push athletes to their limits but do so safely, so as not to risk re-injury.
Dr. Ruiz says the “art” of rehabilitation is to push athletes to their limits but do so safely, so as not to risk re-injury.

Dr. Feigenbaum noted Dr. Ruiz’s affection for working with high-level athletes and encouraged him to consider it as his life’s work.

“He opened the door” literally and metaphorically, Dr. Ruiz said. “He said, ‘Come on in. Come to the (Hurricanes) training room.’ That allowed me to recognize that I was passionate about sports medicine.”

Under Dr. Feigenbaum’s tutelage, Dr. Ruiz worked with Hurricane football players, basketball players, track-and-field athletes and divers, focusing on injury prevention and biomechanical modifications for at-risk athletes. He also learned the basis for future professional roles—the art and science of evaluating injured athletes and clearing them to return to sport.

“We analyze an athlete’s strength, but also their range of motion and how they’re moving,” Dr. Ruiz said. “We look at how they tolerate tissue loading and how that translates into more functional movements.”

Doing that requires both the hard science Dr. Ruiz absorbed from his Miller School curriculum and what he calls “the art” of rehabilitation.

“An athlete’s movement patterns can start to fall apart when they start to do more strenuous activities, putting them at more risk for injury down the road,” he said. “The art of medicine is trying to develop relevant milestones that ask them to do as much as possible, but in as safe a manner as possible.”

In doing so, Dr. Ruiz dispels the tough-guy sports ethos that demands athletes keep playing, no matter the injury, as proof of personal valor.

“Years ago, there was probably more dialogue about gritting your teeth through an injury and letting it rip,” he said. “That’s not how sports medicine has evolved. The key is to work smarter, not harder.”

But tell that to an athlete whose competitive instincts have been honed and encouraged for much of their lives. Effective communication between athlete and the rehab team is the key to keeping both on the same timeline.

“We have to be completely transparent about what the next goal is,” Dr. Ruiz said. “Rehab can be draining and mundane at times. They need something to look forward to, a goal to achieve.”

Leaving Miami, Coming Back to the Heat

Dr. Ruiz received his doctoral degree in 2015 and followed that with a one-year orthopaedics residency. He stayed with the Hurricanes, ascending to the position of director of rehabilitation for the Department of Athletics in 2019, before joining the Washington Commanders (then known as the Washington Football Team) as a physical therapist.

“It was a very big change of pace,” Dr. Ruiz said. “Moving away from Miami and getting into a new dynamic with a professional organization…it was eye opening. It was honestly one of the most intense and fun experiences of my life.”

He stayed involved with academia during his time with the Commanders as a faculty member of the Miller School’s sports physical therapy and orthopaedic physical therapy residency programs. And he kept in touch with Wes Brown, a friend and the former associate athletic trainer for the Hurricanes who was now head athletic trainer for the Heat. One day, Brown mentioned an opening on the Heat staff.

Now married and father to a baby boy, Julian Jaxon, Dr. Ruiz couldn’t resist the call of Miami and the team he grew up rooting for.

“It was home and the Heat were an organization I loved,” he said. “I also wanted to get back to basketball, because you can devote a lot more time to individual athletes.”

He doesn’t regret the decision, calling the Heat “a dream organization.”

His faculty positions for the Miller School sports medicine and orthopaedic rehabilitation residencies continue, as well. In his teaching, Dr. Ruiz thinks often of the instructors who inspired him.

“I had a lot of great teachers who made sure everybody felt like they could ask a question,” he said. “As a teacher, I have to recognize not everybody’s coming from the same background or has the same skill set. I have to allow something to be taught and understood from different capacities and exposures.”

Dr. Ruiz’s own life, and his time at the Miller School, taught him about the difference a good teacher can make.

“Everybody has to start at some point,” he said. “If you make it interesting enough, maybe you can actually even spur a career.”