Showtime has given way to burlesque here in Los Angeles, and you
know what? The people seem to like it. No more Decorum at the
Forum these days. The Lakers are all nose rings and funny hats,
sudden coaching changes, tear-stained press conferences and
front-office intrigues. They're a total entertainment package, a
tabloid team for today's fan, the one who might stand by a
freeway to cheer a white Bronco or program his VCR to tape the
Jerry Springer Show.
These aren't your father's L.A. Lakers, let's put it that way.
But owner Jerry Buss, the aging blue-jeaned satyr who has taken
a sharp interest in his team as it lumbers toward the new
millennium, may know his changing fan base best. Responding less
to a 6-6 start from a supposedly contending team than to the
boredom it seemed to be casting over his clientele, Buss grabbed
the franchise by the throat last week and gave it a good
shaking. Result? By Friday, Forum operators were answering the
phones with that near-forgotten mantra: "I'm sorry, tonight's
game is sold out."
Nothing, apparently, plays like chaos, scripted or not. What
today's customer wants, if a championship team is unavailable,
is cartoon confusion, and lots of it. Boy, did Buss and his guys
They began by romancing a cross-dressing power forward who kept
scheduling public appearances to announce that he couldn't
decide whether to play for the Lakers. They followed up by
firing their ordained minister-coach, a white-haired benchmark
of decency in this outfit who had rejected feelers to leave the
Lakers last year (even when the team, tellingly, declined to
extend his contract). As Del Harris, getting a little choked up,
said at his going-away press conference on Feb. 24, he had hoped
to dedicate this season to the memory of his recently deceased
March 8, 1999
Only hours earlier the Lakers had finally signed the
cross-dressing power forward, who, at a Planet Hollywood press
conference he had set up apparently to prolong the process,
broke down in tears after he was hectored by an incredulous and
furious press corps into announcing his decision to play
basketball again. "No matter what I do," Dennis Rodman said,
tears leaking from behind a pair of shades, "I'm never going to
Then management bungled the coaching change by announcing a
quick decision that turned out to be not so quick, with Buss
unexpectedly showing up in the locker room after the Lakers'
game last Thursday and entertaining the idea of Phil Jackson as
coach. "Everything's possible," said the 66-year-old owner while
his young date gently stroked his cheek. This just hours after
he and the front office had agreed to promote one of Harris's
This kind of day-by-day soap opera, some of which actually
appeared on daytime television (live and--a big apology to all
you parents out there who had to explain masturbation to your
children--uncensored), was in sorry contrast to the old Lakers
style, which relied more on the development of
championship-caliber teams than on the advancement of story
lines. But neither basketball nor popular culture is what it was
11 years ago, when this marquee franchise last won an NBA title,
and now pandering pays better than contending. Feather boas all
around, boys! And man those turnstiles!
And so it was last Friday that Rodman appeared at the Forum for
his first game as a Laker (and, on a minor note, for Kurt
Rambis's first game as a head coach) and simultaneously lifted
ticket sales and lowered standards of propriety. The times being
what they are, there wasn't a Lakers player or fan who wasn't a
little breathless in anticipation, although not for the usual
reasons. Would Rodman wear a full-length gown? Would he slink
from the bench for a spontaneous gambling outing to Las Vegas?
Would he kick a photographer? Cry?
Or, for about $250,000 after taxes (minus another $100,000 of
his salary that he has earmarked for charity), would this
37-year-old veteran of five championship teams save a
floundering and underachieving franchise? You wouldn't want to
have to decide one way or the other on the basis of Friday's
99-83 win over the Los Angeles Clippers or even Sunday's 106-90
victory over the somewhat more challenging Houston Rockets. As
the Lakers themselves must admit, even a short season with a
volatile personality like Rodman is going to be one long held
breath. "We're rolling the dice here," says Mitch Kupchak, the
team's general manager.
But, as even the franchise's critics must admit, Lakers
basketball looked kind of fun again. The team that was desultory
in losses earlier last week to the Denver Nuggets and the
Vancouver Grizzlies--Goodbye, Del!--was, while Rodman was on the
floor anyway, positively frenetic. Suddenly the Lakers were
playing full-court basketball, running for their lives as Rodman
scraped off rebounds with his signature scissors kick and fired
off floor-length passes. Shaquille O'Neal, who had been
agitating for Rodman's acquisition ("I need a thug in my life,"
he said of a guy he had once dismissed as a bum), spoke for
teammates and fans alike after Friday's game, in which Rodman
grabbed 11 rebounds and had six assists: "I've been waiting for
this for a long time."
That game was a reminder that contrary to his public persona as
a sad doofus, Rodman is a sort of basketball genius. As much as
he cultivates and refines his singularity, he is the ultimate
team player, doing everybody else's dirty work. Of course,
contradiction is basically his reason to live. While everybody
was anticipating the ways in which Rodman would disrupt this
young team, he spent his first practice learning the system by
helping the rookies with their plays. "Don't get me wrong," said
Rambis. "Our playbook doesn't give you instructions on
performing a lobotomy. It's only basketball. But still.... " He
was a little surprised.
And what bigger surprise was there than Rodman's electrifying
performance in his first game back, after an eight-month layoff
that was highlighted, physical conditioning-wise, by his Las
Vegas marriage to Hyperion Bay babe Carmen Electra? Friday's
victims were the winless Clippers, but Sunday afternoon against
the Lineup of Legends Rockets, Rodman was just as amped up.
Coming off the bench again, he grabbed 10 rebounds against
Houston, which had Charles Barkley back in uniform. Shaq again:
"This is a pretty fun team to play on right now."
And it's fun to watch. The fans loved Rodman even more than Shaq
did, keening for his entrance, roaring at every reckless
rebound, cheering for him to shoot, on their feet for each of
his loose-ball scrambles. It's been a while since crowds at the
Forum were excited enough to do something like wear socks with
button eyes on their hands, holding them aloft in homage to the
All this came to pass without Rodman's doing anything more
seditious than arrive 15 minutes late for a Saturday practice.
The Lakers didn't see or hear much from him except when he was
playing basketball. Attended by two bodyguards (the same ex-cops
he employed in Chicago), he dressed in a room apart from the
team. Rodman may become even more invisible to his fellow Lakers:
He asked for an exercise bike he can ride during the game,
somewhere off the court, to keep himself energized until he
enters the fray.
Interestingly, his teammates didn't seem to mind this double
standard one bit. They seemed excited by the prospect of having
such an exotic in their midst. "It's going to be bananas," said
20-year-old swingman Kobe Bryant, happily. "Dresses! Trips to
Veteran point guard Derek Harper was also looking forward to
living the Rodman experience. "Face it," Harper said, "a lot of
people wish they had the cojones to do and say what he does."
Even team leader Shaq, a military kid whose idea of discipline
might differ from Rodman's on key points, was prepared for the
Worm's act. Perhaps even admiring of it. "What he does," says
O'Neal, himself a multimedia impresario, "is what I call homeboy
marketing. He is very good at getting free telecommunications
from you guys." Shaq's own purple fedora was off to Rodman.
By the way, when it comes to hats, there is a new sheriff in
town. Rodman's skimmers, of which there appear to be many, seem
to be out of the Dr. Seuss catalog. And one more thing while
we're updating Rodman: No Laker dare play catch-up with him when
it comes to nose rings. Rodman has enough iron in his face that
in a medical emergency, the docs will have to go at him with a
For now the Lakers are prepared to accept him as an act whose
entertainment value is nice but wholly beside the point. Rodman
rebounds, gets loose balls--"Rookies trying to make the team
don't dive for loose balls these days," says Lakers forward
Robert Horry--and dresses funny. Of course, that's what his
supporters have been saying all along: that he's not a dangerous
personality at all but just someone who discovered how much fun
it is to irritate all of us decent folk.
"He's not insane," says Barkley, "he's just playing with
everybody. Like crying at his press conference. Everybody fell
for it! This guy cries on request, I'm telling you. I've seen
him do it on Oprah. He plays everybody like fiddles, which is
almost too bad, because it keeps him from getting the credit he
So far, in fact, Rodman has been a model of mental health
compared with the rest of the Lakers' organization. The front
office, which for 17 years has been guided by the wisdom and
authority of executive vice president Jerry West, looked to be
in disarray last week as even West was overtaken by events. It
got so bad that when it came time to announce Rambis's
appointment as the new coach, West wasn't even up to attending
the press conference. "He asked for the day off," says Kupchak.
Although Kupchak says everybody in management was on the same
page throughout the week, the facts suggest they weren't even
reading the same book. Rodman clearly was Buss's idea, while
West's and Kupchak's emotions were mixed. "Is Dr. Buss as
concerned with the distractions that Dennis might pose as we
are?" Kupchak asked diplomatically. "I don't think so."
The overall implication was that Buss, who had left decisions on
players to West in the past, was feeling his oats. However, it is
likely that West himself decided to make the coaching change,
although Buss kept the confusion quotient high. West, who saw in
Harris a wonderful person and a dear friend, had hoped to ease
him out with dignity after last season, which ended with another
embarrassing playoff loss to the Utah Jazz. Harris, after four
full seasons, had lost the team. Bryant admitted that some
players had "tuned him out" from Day One and that as much as he
himself liked the "old school" technician, he too tuned him out
from time to time. But Buss preferred to see how this season
began before making a move.
It began badly, so there was no question that Harris was gone.
Given the Lakers' philosophy of hiring from within, there wasn't
much question throughout the organization that the job would go
to either Rambis or fellow assistant Larry Drew. But that
apparently couldn't happen before Buss raised the possibility
that Jackson, the former Chicago Bulls coach and Rodman
caretaker, might replace Harris. Kupchak insists that Jackson's
name never came up, so he was a little surprised, he says, to
pick up the newspaper the day Rambis's promotion was going to be
announced and read that his boss had said the job was still
open. "It was like, Is there something we don't know about?"
Kupchak remembers asking West.
In the end Rambis, who was solicited for the Clippers' head job
in the off-season, appears to be the ideal coach for this team.
In a way, he was the Rodman of his time, picking up loose balls
for Magic Johnson's championship teams in the '80s and looking a
little eccentric himself. Anybody remember those thick black
glasses, all taped together? Think of those as the nose rings of
a decade ago. Rambis certainly has a better chance of
communicating with Rodman than Harris had. When Rambis asked
Rodman last Friday how many minutes he would like to play,
Rodman said, "Yes." Rambis seemed to know what he meant.
Of course, the whole thing could go south in a second. A rookie
coach, a high-energy misfit who favors mascara over after-shave,
and an increasingly impatient owner--these are not the
ingredients of a dynasty. Whether the Lakers win an NBA
championship this year or end up in ruins, it's not going to be
boring. People will pay money to see this, you just watch.
A Ring and a Prayer
Dennis Rodman (above left) is one of six members of last year's
championship Bulls team seeking to appear in back-to-back NBA
Finals with different clubs. But while Rodman (Lakers), Scottie
Pippen (Rockets), Luc Longley (Suns), Steve Kerr (Spurs), Scott
Burrell (Nets) and Jud Buechler (Pistons) all landed with
playoff contenders, it will be a miracle if any of them get
close to another ring this year. Only four players have ever
appeared in the Finals the year after winning it all for a
different team, and only one has won the second time.
NAME ORIGINAL TEAM SECOND TEAM RESULT
Hermsen '47-48 Baltimore '48-49 Washington L to Minneapolis
Bullets Capitols Lakers
Schulz '47-48 Baltimore '48-49 Washington L to Minneapolis
Bullets Capitols Lakers
Pep Saul '50-51 Rochester '51-52 Minneapolis W over New
Royals Lakers York Knicks
Walker '76-77 Portland '77-78 Seattle L to Washington
Trail Blazers SuperSonics Bullets
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU