IT'S IMPORTANT TO be ready to play. It must be, because basketball coaches are always talking about players being ready to play - i.e., "he was ready to play," "he wasn't ready to play."

By this, we assume they mean basketball and not the type of play that, say, Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman engage in after hours. Coaches want their players to be ready to play, as opposed to ready to sleep, ready to read, ready to watch the women in the third row.Evidently, it is more difficult than you might imagine to determine if a player is ready to play before he actually plays, because it's almost always after the game that the coach announces a player's readiness. If a player scores 20 points, the coach says he was ready to play; if a player has 2 points and 12 turnovers, the coach says he wasn't ready to play.

Coaches are trained to pick up on the game's subtleties.

Other helpful signs:

- 15 rebounds (ready)

- 0 rebounds (not ready)

- a 20-point win (ready)

- a 20-point loss (not ready)

- shoes on the wrong feet (not ready).

Some players are readier than others. You could roll John Stockton or Karl Malone out of bed in the middle of the night, and they'd start doing the pick-and-roll before their eyes were open. Then there's Chris Morris. Sometimes he's ready to play - and sometimes he's not.

Morris had 20 points in 20 minutes last week against the Suns, and Jerry Sloan said, "I think he was ready to play." Sloan had to make hay while he could because waiting for Morris to be ready to play is like waiting for Hale-Bopp.

"It was a good opportunity for us to put him in the game, and he was ready to play," the coach said. "That's all we're looking for."

Two days later Morris had zero points against the Rockets, plus a foul, three missed shots, two turnovers in four remarkable minutes of play. He did not play anymore. Why?

Because he was not ready to play. He was ready to be traded. He was ready to slit his coach's tires. He was ready for an Orlando vacation. But he wasn't ready to play.

He was, however, semi-ready to play against Toronto Tuesday, scoring eight points in 14 minutes.

It would be advantageous to determine if a player was ready to play before the game, and how hard can this be? Everybody sure looks ready to play. They're all wearing uniforms. Their shoes are tied. They showed up for the game.

You would expect the players to have reasoned that they are going to play. Let's see, it's in their contract, they don't have another job, they have a million dollars in their checking account, they arrive at the arena three hours early so they know they're not just a fan, the security guard salutes them so they know they're a VIP, they pull their BMW into their private parking spot, 24 kids ask for their autograph, they walk through a locker room (past the fruit plates) to the locker with their name on it, chiropractors and trainers are at their service, ballboys are lacing up a new pair of shoes for them, there's a uniform (washed and pressed) in their locker with their name on it.

It sure looks like they're going to play. Yet somehow many players don't have a clue.

Coaches need to recognize the signs of when a player is not ready to play BEFORE the game. Sloan could then give Morris' four minutes to someone else. He could determine whether to send Morris into the game or out for team treats.

Here are the Top 10 ways you can tell if a player isn't ready to play:

10. When the coach tells him to get into the game, the player asks, "What game?"

9. Player shows up for game with a Barcalounger under one arm and "War and Peace" under the other.

8. Two words: cell phone.

7. During a timeout, player wanders up to the concession stands and returns with a Coke and a couple of dogs.

6. Keeps asking who's winning?

5. While coach is diagramming a play with colored marker, the player says, "Pretty."

4. Some time late in the third quarter he proudly tells his teammates he has just completed counting and the attendance is 18,323.

3. Knows all the Jazz Dancers' routines by heart and sometimes joins in the fun.

2. Participates in halftime frisbee-throwing contest trying to win a free hamburger.

1. When coach looks to his bench for a substitute, player hides under his chair.