The Worm Has Pistons’ Opponents Squirming

The Worm drives to work in a vintage Mustang. The car is equipped with wall-to-wall, state-of-the-art stereo components--and, for good measure, a portable television. If you like to shake, rattle and roll while you ride, if you like to feel your seat vibrate beneath you, then come on, says the Worm, you are invited to be his passenger.

The Worm once worked at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, handling baggage. One day he was accused of stealing stolen wristwatches. Another employee swiped a pocketful of jewelry from the airport gift shop, and, for lack of a safer hiding place, stashed it in the Worm’s private cubicle. That’s where security forces found it. The Worm almost got into some real hot water over that one.

The Worm lived in six cities before he was 6. His father was a military man who moved around. When the old man shipped off for the Philippines, the Worm’s mother said no way, enough of this moving stuff. A basketball-playing friend from a local gym told the Worm he was welcome to come stay with his family. Love to, said the Worm, who immediately became the tall new black “son” of a lily white Southwestern family.

The Worm grew up with unbridled enthusiasm and unending desire. He also grew up, up and up. One day he looked into a mirror and saw that he was pushing 6-feet 8-inches tall. The basketball coach from a small college in Arkansas noticed that, too, and offered the Worm a chance to enroll. What he didn’t know, what nobody knew, was whether or not this gangly kid who never seemed to get tired would turn into much of a player.


The Worm turned, all right. He turned into Dennis Rodman.

Still stuck with the nickname childhood friends gave him for the way he wiggled while playing pinball, Rodman is one of the rapidly rising talents in the National Basketball Assn. Rodman, the man who once again will be harassing Michael Jordan tonight when the Detroit Pistons resume their Eastern Conference championship series against the Chicago Bulls, has become as big a surprise as anybody to come along in this league in years.

He doesn’t look like anything special. There are taller players, more muscular players, faster players, far better shooters. “I’m not a bulky-type of guy,” the Worm said. “I just use determination against those 250-pound, 300-pound guys. I just work hard.”

He is slippery, the Worm is. He slips, he slides, he cuts, he slashes, he finds ways to position himself around the hoop, enabling him to grasp offensive rebounds--Rodman had eight in Monday’s 86-80 Detroit victory at Chicago--or to slip through picks to keep up with his man, the way he tormented Jordan into a 23-point day. Jordan had trouble even getting off a shot against Rodman.


“I’m not in this league because I’m a great shooter,” says the Worm, who was given a personal free-throw shooting coach this season. “But it’s hard for people to really stay with me because I have such a tremendous work ethic as far as going for the ball. It’s mine. It belongs to me coming off that rim.”

What disturbs Rodman still is the way Utah’s Mark Eaton was voted the NBA’s outstanding defensive player. Eaton, a 7-4 tree trunk who needn’t shadow the Jordans and Larry Birds and James Worthys of the world from end to end.

“Eaton only blocks shots,” the Worm argues. “But I play total defense. I shut my man down. I rebound. I run the floor and make steals.”

And then he tells you about it. The Worm is no shrinking violet. He is the league’s latest M.L. Carr, orchestrating crowds, wagging fingers, waving towels after Piston baskets. Rodman is one of the most emotional, demonstrative players anywhere in any sport. The other day, after committing a foul, he knelt on the opposite end of the court, a hand over his eyes, and meditated for nearly a full minute, while a Chicago free throw was being shot.


Alongside his kindred spirit, John (the Spider) Salley, Rodman has given Detroit the deepest, toughest and possibly most outrageous bench (Michael Cooper and Mychal Thompson might argue) in basketball. They laugh and goof off on the sidelines, functioning as cheerleaders. But they get down to serious business once they get into the game, although Coach Chuck Daly keeps reminding the Worm to use his instincts, not his intellect.

“He still screams ‘Don’t think! Don’t think!’ at me,” Rodman said. “When I start thinking too much, I mess up. When I just go out there and work my tail off, play my game, I play a whole lot better.”

Rodman is a little wild, a little wooly, a little wacky, yes. He is neither dumb nor a braggart, despite some of the things that come out of his mouth. The thing you sometimes miss about the Worm, see, is the friendly manner that accompanies most of his conversation, the effervescence that often gets lost in the verbatim repetition of direct quotes, and the genuine modesty that is part of his everyday personality.

Sometimes, the Worm’s brutal honesty gets him in trouble. Two years ago, distraught over being eliminated by the Boston Celtics, the strangest thing came out of Rodman’s mouth, the insinuation that Larry Bird was overrated and over-publicized. Rodman regretted that one, not necessarily because he was wrong, but because it was uncalled for, and came across as sour grapes.


More than that, Rodman was accused of being unqualified to make such a crack. In some people’s eyes, the Worm hadn’t proved anything in the NBA to enable him to criticize one of the game’s leading figures.

“I shot my mouth off about somebody who had accomplished a lot more than I had,” the Worm recalls, “and I learned a serious lesson.”

The lesson is, let your defense do the talking. Bird had a hard time against Rodman’s defense when he was healthy and playing, as Jordan is having at the moment. Who ever thought Rodman would get to be so good, so soon? Who ever thought the Worm would get the Bird? Who ever thought Dennis Rodman would become one of the best players in professional basketball?

He has, you know.