Everybody has a secret ambition in life. James Geathers's was to play in the National Basketball Association.

"Basketball's my first love," he said. "In basketball, you can hear the crowd. And it's more of an individual sport because there are only 12 guys. You have it made in basketball."

But Geathers has done all right for himself in football even though he didn't play the sport in college until he was a junior and the NBA started looking a lot less attainable than the NFL. Today he may be activated from the Washington Redskins' physically unable to perform list, so he can play in Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions in the Silverdome.

The Redskins coaches said yesterday they have not decided whether they will make the move, which likely also would involve placing defensive tackle Tracy Rocker on the injured reserve list. Rocker has been replaced as a starter by Eric Williams and is having trouble with both knees as well as the after-effects of a torn bicep he suffered during training camp.

If the Redskins do not activate Geathers by 4 p.m. Tuesday, in order to activate him any time afterwards, they would either have to use one of their five free moves from the injured reserve list or attempt the high-risk maneuver of activating him through waivers.

Sunday's game would be Geathers's first for the Redskins and his first since injuring his right knee in the penultimate game of last season as a member of the New Orleans Saints. The injury, which forced Geathers to have his second major knee operation in three years, prompted the Saints to let him become a Plan B free agent.

The Redskins won the bidding over the San Francisco 49ers, and now it appears they soon will find out what they have in this 6-foot-8, 290-pound hulk of a defensive lineman who at age 30 still goes by the unlikely, but appropriate, nickname "Jumpy."

"When people call me by my first name, I don't usually react," said Geathers, who explained that his nickname comes from his grandparents and his propensity as an energetic youngster for jumping on things. "People who call me James on the street get on my nerves. When somebody calls me Jumpy, I know they know what's going on. I like my nickname."

Ironically, Geathers said his path toward a basketball career was blocked in part by calcium deposits in his thighs that inhibited his ability to jump.

When he was growing up in South Carolina, he said he "ignored football because my brother played football and I wanted to make a difference in something else." With his older brother Robert eventually going on to become a third-round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills in 1981, that was probably a good move.

Jumpy played football in high school, but he described his career as "off and on -- they used to kick me off. I never was a good football player." But he was a good enough basketball player to earn a basketball scholarship at Paducah (Ky.) Community College.

He played only basketball for two years at Paducah, then transferred to Wichita State. But that's when his legs and the presence of Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr on the Shockers basketball roster sent him back onto the football field.

"With those guys there, I didn't see any daylight time," Geathers said. So he went about making sure quarterbacks didn't see much daylight time. He recorded 34 sacks in his two seasons at Wichita State and, as a senior, made 10 or more tackles in five games.

The Saints selected him in the second round of the 1984 draft. In a reserve role as a rookie, he made only 10 tackles, but six were sacks. He also forced two fumbles. He recorded 6 1/2 sacks in 1985 and nine in 1986.

However, he tore ligaments in his left knee in the final preseason game of 1987. Miraculously, he returned for the final regular season game. His sack total dropped to three in 1988, but he forced six fumbles and recovered three. Prior to his injury last season, Geathers recovered five fumbles.

After the injury, he said, "I figured New Orleans would let me stay another year, let me ride it out and then cut me after that." He added the Saints left him unprotected because they didn't think other teams would be interested in a player with two bad knees. The opposite proved to be the case.

Geathers had so many offers, he was able to eliminate all the teams that played their home games on artificial turf and still end up signing a three-year, $1.5 million contract with the Redskins.

"It was the best deal," he said. "My base salary is probably about the same as it would have been in New Orleans. But I got a bonus up front, and with two bad legs, you don't know whether you're going to be able to come back."

Now a comeback seems certain, and Geathers finally will be able to go back to being in games, not just at games. His only appearance at a game this season was for the Giants at RFK Stadium. "I was a nervous wreck," he said. "I was hitting guys on the pads and yelling because I couldn't go out there and do something, make something happen."

He may get the chance to do so Sunday.

"He's made real strides," Gibbs said. "I felt the first week or two he was out here, he looked real rough on the run stuff. He wasn't used to that. But the pass rush was excellent. I think now he's a lot more comfortable and I think he's ready to go.

"He's been a real quality player in this league and if he can come back to that level, then we'll have a first-rate lineman."