OAKLAND, OCT. 31 -- Kermit Washington's recurring nightmare stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"I'm playing basketball. I'm up against Kareem. That might sound like a dream come true to a lot of people," says Washington. "I considered it a nightmare."

In 1982, after an eight-year career in the NBA with Los Angeles, Boston and Portland, Kermit Washington limped away from the game. He didn't pick up a basketball for three years. He suffered no withdrawal symptoms when the public spotlight was unplugged.

"I never missed the game for a second," he said.

So why is this 36-year-old man with a pair of bad knees and a stiff back, a first-team all-America from American University who says he doesn't need the money, attempting a professional comeback?

"I need a challenge," he said, sitting in the Oakland Coliseum with a bag of ice on his right knee after a two-hour practice. "I get bored so quickly with life."

Washington's comeback is only slightly more surprising than the Golden State Warriors' response to it. Unless Washington reinjures himself, the balding, 6-foot-8 forward is going to make this team.

"Kermit is a veteran, a leader we think can do a lot of things for us rebounding and at the defensive end," said Warriors Coach George Karl. "We're looking for him to play from eight to 19 minutes a game."

The Warriors have gambled more than a spot on their roster for Washington. As compensation to Portland, which has kept Washington on its suspended list since he retired in 1982, the Warriors gave up next year's third-round pick in the draft. And if Washington plays more than 15 minutes in at least 79 games this season, the Trail Blazers will get a second-round pick instead.

Washington approached Portland team officials last summer about a job, but not as a player. The former conditioning coach at Stanford University wanted to do the same work with the Trail Blazers. Portland officials took one look at his weightlifter's physique and offered him a uniform.

But Portland could not accept Washington's demand that he sit out practices periodically to rest his knees. Washington left camp resolved that his comeback had failed. Then the Warriors' Don Nelson called.

In the first five preseason games with Golden State, Washington averaged 15 minutes, 5.6 points and 5.4 rebounds. Against Portland, he scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Old Man River was for real.

"You're looking sensational. I thought it would be well over a month before you'd be doing the things you're doing," Nelson told him after a practice last week.

At the end of practice, while the rest of the team works on foul shots, Washington spends half an hour sweating through strength and agility drills. In one he runs up court, dragging a conditioning coach who holds Washington from behind.

He says he is motivated by fear.

"I don't want to embarrass myself," said Washington, a 1980 NBA all-star and one of just seven players in collegiate history to average 20 points and 20 rebounds per game in a season. "There's always the fear of that. But I'm willing to take the chance."

So why leave a wife and two pre-teen children in Oregon to play a game that gives you nightmares?

"Here's the thing about Kermit Washington," he said, adjusting the ice pack on his knee. "The things I have the most fear of in life, I try to face. Once you face them, they tend to disappear."