- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

Officially, Peter John Ramos has a sore shoulder, which came before the bum foot, which is why he haunts the Washington Wizards’ injured list like the ghost of Chris Webber.

Unofficially, his windmill jam needs a little work.

Ramos shuffles across the MCI Center floor, 40 minutes before an early game between Washington and San Antonio. For the record, the Wizards’ rookie center is shelved with tendinitis in his right shoulder — yet here he is, a medical marvel, swishing jumpers from the baseline.

Ramos sets up in the paint, raises his right hand. Washington player development director Mitchell Butler throws entry passes. Catch and shoot. Ramos slams down an alley-oop, then elevates his 7-foot-3, 275-pound body, spinning his arms in a circle.

Clank! The ball bounces off the rim. Must be the shoulder. Or not, since Ramos hardly flinches.

Such is the curious nature of the NBA injured list, where faux ailments rival real ones and today’s bogus lower back strain is tomorrow’s make-believe bilateral knee tendinitis.

Is he or isn’t he? Only the team doctor knows for sure.

“Oh yeah, I had Achilles’ tendinitis almost my whole rookie year,” recalled former pro Steve Kerr, an analyst with Turner Sports. “It was killing me.”

Kerr laughed.

“I can’t remember which foot it was.”

Don’t get the wrong idea: Many of the league’s sidelined stars sport genuine maladies. Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal had an honest-to-goodness sprained knee. Washington’s Larry Hughes truly did break his thumb.

Teammate Kwame Brown’s hard-luck ankle? Ouch, ouch, a thousand times ouch!

Other players, however, inhabit the same wink-and-a-nod medical purgatory once familiar to Kerr — not exactly hurt, not quite part of the rotation, stashed away on the injured list like money under the mattress.

“You’re not really stashing a player,” said Butler. “You’re saying, ‘We have a commodity here that we believe in. It’s just not this commodity’s time to show his production.’ ”

Oops. The first rule of NBA player stashing? Call it something else. Better yet, avoid discussing it at all.

“I have to be careful of what I say,” said Comcast analyst Brian James, a former Wizards assistant coach. “Because I want to coach again.”

Wizards forward Etan Thomas put it this way, laughing: “There’s a whole lot I want to say about it. But I can’t.”

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, with a smirk: “Nope, I don’t think what the NBA does is screwy at all. All right?”

Right. Peel away the pseudo sprains and the phony strains, and the system works as follows:

Limited to 12-man active rosters, NBA teams are allowed a maximum of 15 players under contract. If a club has a dozen healthy bodies but wants to keep up to three more around, it can place those players on the injured list.

Injured, of course, being a loose term.

“When you look down that list, you can see anything,” Butler said. “Plantar fasciitis [sore feet]. Back pain. Knee sprains. Chronic headaches.”

Wait. Hold up. Chronic headaches?

“Chronic headaches.”

Butler smiled. No worries. After all, the league’s walking non-wounded don’t have to park in handicapped spaces, don phony neck braces or otherwise carry on like the principals in a two-bit auto insurance scam. To the contrary, they’re free to lift weights, run the treadmill, even practice.

While the NFL once docked the New England Patriots a draft choice for stashing a player with a counterfeit concussion, the NBA doesn’t monitor feigned injuries. Unofficial league policy. Just make sure the paperwork is filed, the player signs off and everyone agrees that a spurious strained arch isn’t actually an imaginary sore heel.

Confusion can be embarrassing. Asked about his knee tendinitis, New Jersey guard Brandon Armstrong once told reporters, “They had to tell me which knee.”

Said Kerr: “To be honest, in most cases it works fine. When I was a rookie, I didn’t care. I got to stay in the league. It was just another way of putting me on a taxi squad. They wanted to make it more official. Or more unofficial, I guess.”

Besides, Butler said, most players suffer from some sort of physical malady during the course of a season. Walk into a locker room. Who has a sore knee? An achy foot? Every hand will go up — and half will have finger splints.

As such, even the most dubious injury report is telling the truth. Kinda sorta.

“Very rarely will you have an athlete who doesn’t have something,” Butler said. “So there’s some justification to it. But to the extent of being on the list for the whole year, and never getting better? Uh-uh.”

Stashing has two basic uses. At one end of the spectrum, teams can maintain depth while tutoring projects like the 19-year-old Ramos; at the other end, stashed veterans act as insurance policies should roster regulars go down.

When Wizards guard Steve Blake came off the injured list in November, teammate Laron Profit suffered a sudden, tragic case of right knee tendinitis; when Blake hurt his left foot three weeks later, Profit reappeared on the active roster, spry as ever. Rather than sign a street free agent to a 10-day contract, the Wizards were able to cover for Blake with a familiar, experienced face.

“It’s more of a smooth transition,” Butler said. “If you don’t have that injury list and bring a guy in on a 10-day contract, it’s hit or miss. That can be the difference between making and missing the playoffs, between a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.”

NBA teams agree. Though official, league-wide numbers don’t exist — duh! — New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn once estimated that as many as 40 percent of players on the injured list at any given time are healthy.

Do the math: Of the 68 players currently sidelined, up to 27 may be faking it. No one knows for sure. While teams have the right to question any injury on another club’s roster, they seldom do.

Why spoil a good thing?

“Everybody knows that every team does it,” said Washington forward Samaki Walker. “It’s pretty much an open secret.”

Some disapprove. For years, former Atlanta Hawks general manager Pete Babcock refused to stash players, calling the practice unethical. Walker worries that widespread injury fudging makes ailing players look bad and stashed players look fragile.

In January, Miami placed guard Wesley Person on the injured list to make room for free agent Qyntel Woods. One snag: The Heat neglected to clear the move with Person, who claimed his supposedly achy right knee was fine.

Person filed a protest with the NBA Players Association, demanding he be waived or traded. Miami later cut him.

“You don’t want to be the bad guy or be perceived as the bad guy,” Walker said. “But I don’t think anyone is satisfied with not playing.”

Walker, a nine-year veteran, currently is out with a lower back strain. Officially speaking.

“This is the first year I’ve really been on the injured list,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed working with the guys. It’s better than nothing. But at the same time, this is a business, and each night is an audition.”

With the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement expiring at season’s end, change may be imminent. Last summer commissioner David Stern discussed scrapping the injured list in favor of a plan that would expand the role of the National Basketball Developmental League.

Under Stern’s proposal, NBA clubs would have a 15-man roster limit. Players under a certain age could be assigned to an affiliated NBDL team for seasoning, while veteran players drop down for short injury rehabilitation stints.

Let the injured list rest in peace, Stern said.

“It’s long overdue,” Kerr said. “If there were a system that allowed teams to send young players down to the NBDL and give them playing time, how much better would they get?

“The product would be better for the league. And it would be good for young players to get some perspective, take some bus rides, stay in shabby hotels, learn that playing in the NBA is a privilege.”

In the meantime, injured lists continue to pull double duty. On Feb. 14, the Wizards activated Ramos. He played four minutes in a blowout loss to Houston, grabbing a single rebound. He was thrilled.

Nine days later, Ramos returned to the injured list, this time with plantar fasciitis.

“Playing meant the world to him,” Butler said. “It’s hard for Peter to sit and watch. The best I can do is keep encouraging him, tell him this all happens for a reason.”

Which is one way to look at it. Following a recent Washington practice, forward Antawn Jamison waved Ramos over for a quick game of one-on-one.

Pete! Pete! Over here!

Ramos dipped his head, hustling across the court. Oddly enough, he ran without a limp.

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