It's 1 a.m. last Thursday, a few hours after he helped usher the
Chicago Bulls into the Eastern Conference finals by retrieving
21 rebounds in a 93-84 defeat of the Charlotte Hornets, and
Dennis Rodman has had enough. He decides to take leave of the
human menagerie assembled to wish him a happy 37th birthday at
Illusions in downtown Chicago. Implausible though this may seem,
the night holds more compelling amusements than a dwarf in a 'do
rag, a second-string Elvis impersonator, a man who claims to be
Miss Gay Humboldt Park, an extravagantly endowed woman known
professionally as Colt .45 who emerged from a birthday cake with
both barrels blazing, sundry commoners who tithed $10 apiece to
fete the Worm on his natal day, and a male emcee in a feather boa.
This is an article from the May 25, 1998 issue
Rodman slips behind the wheel of his black pickup, only to
discover that a valet has thoughtlessly parked it facing the
wrong way on a one-way street. When there's a ball to get to,
the NBA's rebounding champion isn't one to bother with anything
like a three-point turn. So with Baywatch siren and Rodman
consort-of-the-moment Carmen Electra, swaddled in a tiger-print
catsuit, sharing the front seat, he throws the transmission into
Backward down three city blocks he goes. Then a dogleg left and
up a freeway on-ramp, backward still. Here he gets the truck
pointed in the right direction, but only so he can floor it.
With each stitch in and out of traffic, with every bend in the
road, you can feel the G-forces gather and you can envision the
Bulls' chances for a sixth ring being scuppered on a shoulder of
the Kennedy Expressway.
Thus the remotest hours of the night unspool: first at a strip
club, the Crazy Horse Too, and later at a darker palace of
priapism called Crobar--places peopled by writhing dancers and a
handful of jocks (the Chicago Blackhawks' Chris Chelios, the St.
Louis Rams' Todd Lyght and Keith Lyle, the Hornets' freshly
eliminated Glen Rice) and a parade of ring-kissing grotesques,
male and female and in between, all ready with a schmooze or a
At one point Rodman reiterates an old theme. "My life is
different from the rest of the team--an X-rated type of deal,"
he says. "You know why people cheer me? People want to be
individual and free. Life is all about connecting with freedom.
Because this world's going to hell. So just write what you see,
bro. Write what you see."
This particular strategy of public relations does not sit well
with Lyght, who as Rodman's friend and sometime workout partner
marvels, as do the Bulls and people around the league, at the
season Rodman is having--a season highlighted by a seventh
straight rebounding title and on-court comportment that has
Chicago coach Phil Jackson remarking at how "in control" Rodman
has been. Lyght has already spent 10 minutes talking up Rodman's
industry in the weight room and indispensability to the Bulls.
But that isn't primarily what Rodman wants the world, through
his amanuensis, to know.
Rodman and Lyght adjourn to the men's room. "Hope you're telling
him about the work ethic," Lyght says.
Rodman scoffs. "I'm filling him up, man. Filling him up like a
Rodman is less keen to address curricular matters: how he has
become among the most effective passers in the Bulls' dauntingly
complex triangle offense; how it's virtually impossible to
fast-break against Chicago because of his knack for jamming
opposing rebounders and forestalling their outlet passes; how,
even after the Bulls are scored upon, he'll light-foot behind
the end line and hurl length-of-the-court strikes to set up
equalizing baskets; how, in a coda to his magnificent season, he
has spent these playoffs sacrificing his 6'8", 220-pound frame
to guard the taller Jayson Williams of the New Jersey Nets, the
wider Anthony Mason of Charlotte and the taller and wider
Antonio Davis of the Indiana Pacers, who lost 85-79 in Game 1 of
the conference finals on Sunday--in short, how someone so
flagrantly unfettered off the court can be so slavishly devoted
to the subtlest of the basketball arts on it.
After some reflection Rodman concedes that, about this too,
inquiring minds might want to know. "Tomorrow," he affirms, by
which he means later today. "Hooters. We'll talk quietly."
There would be no sedate sit-down later on Thursday. The
birthday jag lasted so long into the Bulls' off day that Rodman
showed up late for Friday morning's practice, thus earning him a
fine from a ticked-off Jackson, who refused to let him work out
with the team. In February, Rodman had lost his starting spot
for six games after blowing off back-to-back practices, and
before that, after taking no pity on Atlantic City during a
January road trip, he missed a morning shootaround, and Jackson
simply sent him back to Chicago. "Sometimes I just have to get
away, get free a little bit, to keep my mind in the game,"
Yet with a single exception--Rodman got thumbed from a game in
April for what he calls "barely touching the ball at the free
throw line with my foot," and more disinterested observers agree
that his nudging of the ball after a foul was skimpy grounds for
ejection--his truancy hasn't extended to the court. "Not that
he's centered," says his agent, Dwight Manley, "but he's more
centered than he has ever been."
A year ago, after missing 14 regular-season games because of
suspensions, Rodman drew at least one technical in each of the
Bulls' first 13 playoff games, got tossed three times and
averaged only 8.4 rebounds during the postseason. Few understood
the reason: He had hurried back in four weeks from a knee injury
that normally requires eight weeks of recovery, and, unable to
pinball around the floor with his usual abandon, he reverted to
theatrics, he says, "to just try to get into people's heads, to
get them off their game."
This postseason has been markedly different. After a forgettable
playoff opener against New Jersey, in which the Nets nearly beat
Chicago largely because Williams outrebounded Rodman 21-8 and in
Michael Jordan's words "kicked Dennis's butt," Rodman apologized
to Jackson and got back on the pogo stick. Since then he hasn't
failed to rebound in double figures. The Worm may never act his
age, but one of these days he may well rebound it.
Rodman didn't start Sunday's game, not because he had swanned
into the United Center about 65 minutes before tip-off, but
because Jackson wanted to match him against Davis, who comes off
the bench. During a first half in which the Bulls shot a hideous
27.3%, Rodman led Chicago in scoring with nine opportunistic
points, adding a charge taken and a shovel pass here, a putback
and a stolen entry pass there. The Bulls trailed by only three
at the break, largely because Rodman scored the final four
points of the half on an athletic follow-dunk and a fast-break
feed from Scottie Pippen. Though he neither started nor
finished, Rodman wound up with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 23
minutes and earned a standing ovation upon fouling out.
Afterward four people--Jordan, Pippen, Indiana guard Reggie
Miller and Pacers coach Larry Bird--used the word energy or
energized to describe Rodman's effect on the game. He turns
everything else on its head, so why not the proverb? The late
Worm catches the Bird.
Rodman's current one-year contract, believed to be the most
incentive-driven deal in NBA history, resulted from negotiations
that Bulls vice president of basketball operations Jerry Krause
calls among the easiest he has ever been involved in. "Dennis
said, 'Pay me for what I do,'" says Krause. "I said, 'Fine, no
problem.' We structured the contract accordingly. He's got to be
in the games. He can't get thrown out. He was comfortable
knowing everything was in his hands."
Rodman is reportedly drawing a base salary of only $4.5 million,
but he can pick up another $5.95 million in incentives,
including a $1 million bonus if he fails to suit up for no more
than one game for which he is healthy enough to play. No one
thought it possible, but Rodman has found a new way to shock: Of
the millions in sweeteners built into the agreement, he's on the
verge of collecting all but a few hundred thousand dollars. "It
would be a hell of a coincidence if his playing in so many games
this season had nothing to do with the clauses in his contract
giving him millions," says Chicago guard Steve Kerr. "As often
as Dennis says he'd play for free, I've never actually seen him
Hence the sudden Gandhi in his act. During the conference
semifinals, when Charlotte center Vlade Divac wrapped him up in
the post, even when, on another occasion, Mason wrestled him
down by the neck, Rodman walked serenely away. "All the act
Dennis puts up distracts you," says Atlanta Hawks guard Steve
Smith, who's among those who have watched Rodman with wonder
this season. "He gets under your skin, and then you turn around
to fight him, and he's laughing at you. He's the one who's under
control, and you're not."
His stoic demeanor has allowed onlookers to focus on the rest of
his game, including sequences like one in the second quarter of
the clincher against the Hornets: After Bulls guard Randy Brown
had muffed a layup, Rodman got one, two, three taps on the
glass, the third of which Pippen obligingly dunked home.
Then there was a moment in the fourth quarter of the same game.
With Charlotte still buzzing irritatingly around, Hornets
guard-forward Dell Curry had a bead on a loose ball bounding
toward the sideline. The Worm ran down Curry, slithered over his
shoulder and, even as the two went tumbling into the Hornets'
bench, knocked the ball off Curry and out-of-bounds. As much in
frustration as grievance, Curry protested to referee Danny
Crawford that Rodman should have been whistled for a foul.
Crawford hit Curry with a technical, his second of the game.
Curry, not Rodman, was gone.
For the third time in as many years, Rodman is set to become a
free agent this summer, and he and Manley have hinted at their
interest in the Los Angeles Lakers. The Shaq Pack has plenty of
scorers, along with youth that would relish Rodman's style and
benefit from his substance. But the Lakers' salary-cap
limitations will probably keep such a scenario from coming to
pass. If the rest of the Bulls' core were to stay intact, Rodman
would likely want to remain in Chicago. "Once I get close to
something, I don't want to separate," he says. "I stayed in the
house for a month because of the disintegration of the
[championship] team I played on in Detroit.
"It's difficult now because of the situation with the other
players," he adds, referring to the uncertain futures of Jordan
and Pippen, both of whom are at war with the Bulls' front
office. "I don't hate the other players, and I don't hate
management. I just hate the business of management."
In a sort of invocation to party hearty, at his birthday bash
Rodman told well-wishers, "It's not about me. It's about
camaraderie, about everybody just collaging together." Those
words have particular relevance for the defending champs, whose
players have cohered almost in reaction to what they see as
front-office penury and ineptness, and whose coach and vice
president hardly speak to each other.
Could Rodman turn out to be Chicago's rock, a unifying figure in
this dysfunctional family? He alone among the Bulls' stars is
cordial with both Jackson, a counterculture vulture during his
playing days in the '60s and '70s, and Krause, the
underappreciated architect of the Bulls' five titles, who last
week extended to the Worm an invitation to go fishing that was
courteously turned down. "Phil looks at Dennis as a 3-D version
of his fantasies, of what he might be if he could let his hair
down," says Manley. "Jerry is a person who hasn't always gotten
a fair shake, who knows what it's like to be ostracized. Both
can identify with Dennis in some way."
Hard as it is to fathom, there may be no more stable a figure,
no more likely a candidate for Bull for Life, than Rodman.
As the guy in the feather boa pointed out, he's a Taurus.
seen him do it," says Kerr.