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Desperately in Need of a Rebound : Pro Basketball: Dennis Rodman fights to explain, perhaps to understand, the circumstances that have conspired to cloud his future. He wants answers--clear, concise answers--but they don’t exist.

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THE SPORTING NEWS

Dennis Rodman can’t stand still. The energy seems to start down near his toes and flow up through his arms and legs like a current of electricity. His dark eyes dart around the Detroit Pistons’ training room, his feet move and his body appears to be making one continuous adjustment. All this while standing up.

It’s hours before his first game back from a three-game suspension, a slap worth almost $100,000 in fines. Detroit has lost five in a row and the Charlotte Hornets, one of the many suitors in line to dance with “the Worm,” will soon push the streak to six. For the moment, however, Rodman doesn’t sound like a man worried about impending defeat. Nor does he seem capable of tormenting the Hornets for 20 rebounds in 33 minutes.

Indeed, Rodman fights to explain, perhaps to understand, the circumstances that have conspired to cloud his future. He wants answers -- clear, concise answers -- but they don’t exist. Not for Rodman, not for the Pistons from whom Rodman collects $2.3 million a year to play All-Star basketball. He is a black-and-white guy caught in a plaid world, and Rodman can’t seem to navigate the lines.

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As a result, the principals are torn, all of them. Detroit’s front office, its players and even other National Basketball Assn. teams don’t understand the troubling wounds that have opened on Rodman’s psyche.

“A ghost,” is how Indiana Pacers President Donnie Walsh describes Rodman after an early season game against Detroit. “It was amazing. It was like the ghost of Dennis Rodman out there. The energy wasn’t there, the attitude. I don’t know how else to describe it but as a ghost.”

Rodman talks openly, but the thoughts often collide. Clearly he has thought about what has happened these past months, the changes on Detroit’s bench, the acrimonious divorce proceedings and the reasons behind them. But the hurt runs so deep and no doubt has so many psychological roots, that not even Rodman can be expected to understand all the feelings.

“With the situation with me and my wife, I never really paid enough attention because I was too involved with my job,” Rodman says. “I knew in the back of my mind that she and my child were the most important things. But I never really showed it. I was out of balance.”

During a three-hour meeting between Rodman, his agent Bill Pollock, Pistons personnel director Billy McKinney and team president Tom Wilson, Rodman had let loose for the first time since his spiritual retreat.

Labeled crazy by some and stupid by others, Rodman proved to be neither. He talked about the team, what he could do, what he could add. He told them what he could teach the new guys and then proved his point in a moving oral report on defense. From Larry Johnson to Alonzo Mourning, Rodman dissected every Charlotte player. He explained their tendencies and how to stop each.

“He put on a verbal clinic,” Wilson says. “He told us what this guy did, what that guy does late in a game. He was exactly right. He was right on. As he described it you could get a mental picture of every player on the Charlotte team. And he was right.”

Still, the first thing you have to understand about Rodman and the problems facing Detroit is that nothing makes sense. Consider Rodman’s suspension for refusing to join his team during a disastrous West Coast trip. Though insisting he had a “sore knee,” Rodman spent three hours a day with Detroit’s strength and conditioning coach.

“He was doing stuff you can’t do,” Wilson says, “stuff no one on this team can do.”

Even now, as he talks about the ease with which he could walk away from the game and the lack of motivation that stalled his season, Rodman admits to being “in the best shape of my life.”

Rewind to last season, a shining year for Rodman but one that also produced the first shadows of darkness that now surround him. Few players in any sport have focused more clearly on a goal and done more to make it happen than Rodman.

He routinely arrived two or three hours before game time to complete a series of aerobic exercises. On the court, Rodman, who weighs only 210 pounds, played 48 minutes a league-high 11 times, taking a pounding that often left his arms and his legs throbbing, his elbows and knees screaming and even his shoulder and wrists aching.

But with few exceptions, Rodman’s nights didn’t end when he walked off the court. Sore and spent, Rodman would trudge back into the training room. He might force himself onto a stationary bike or slip on gloves for a 45-minute weight-training session. The pace was numbing, if not scary.

“He had played 47 or 48 minutes and he was dragging,” Wilson says. “When he came out to do an interview for television he had an ice bag on his shoulder, ice bags on both elbows, ice bags on both knees. He looked like he couldn’t move and you’d swear that he couldn’t even get dressed. Then he goes back in and he’s on the exercise bike for another 45 minutes.”

“I never looked at it as extraordinary,” Rodman says. “I looked at it as going out there and doing my job.”

Black and white. Simple, clear, concise.

But all the while, Rodman’s support system was disintegrating. For all the rebounds and defense, Rodman couldn’t come close to covering all the holes that had opened along the Pistons’ bench. Nor could he win enough games to make Chuck Daly, who had become a father figure of sorts, happy enough to stay or the Detroit front office happy enough to want him. Rodman’s agent, Billy Diamond, was on his way out of the business, leaving Rodman in the capable but unknown hands of Pollock and Neil Draddy. And then one stone in Rodman’s foundation, the one constant, began to crumble as well. Rodman admits he took his family for granted, focusing too much on the game and all that revolved around it. A nasty divorce process soon followed, and instead of basking in the glow of superstardom, Rodman was left drifting. Again.

From the beginning, he had been ill prepared for any of it. This is, after all, a complex and often contradictory man who named Hank Williams Sr. and AC-DC when asked about his favorite music. A man who entered the NBA as a 25-year-old rookie with fewer than four years of organized basketball, finishing at tiny Southeastern Oklahoma State, an NAIA school. A man who became a star in a game that revolves around points by playing defense and rebounding.

“Dennis Rodman is unique in the NBA in that the vast majority of these guys, 98%, and certainly anybody who is an All-Star, as Dennis is, and everybody who is recognized across the country, as Dennis is, all those people have been trained for this role,” Jim Grossman, a local marketing expert who has worked with Rodman, told the Detroit News. “Everybody except Dennis.”

Rodman wasn’t groomed for much of anything -- and certainly not the emotional give-and-take that comes with stardom -- when he wandered away from the rough Dallas neighborhood he grew up in and landed in Bokchito, Okla. Only 5-foot-11 in high school, Rodman never played basketball, even though his younger sister, Debra, was a local star. When Dennis shot up to 6-8 after his senior year, he often stayed in the house, self-conscious about his suddenly long and slender frame.

The growth spurt was only the first of an assortment of fateful twists and turns. Rodman was almost 22 when he met a 13-year-old white kid named Byrne Rich. During the next three years, Rodman would become part of the Rich family, the unlikely unit fighting the kind of petty racism that can swell in a small (607 people), isolated town that rarely saw an African American much less socialized with one.

That strange history is one reason Isiah Thomas, who was headed toward greatness as a teen-ager, has stood by Rodman through all the disruptions. The other reason, of course, is self preservation. Thomas knows the Pistons are trying to accomplish the impossible, to bridge one great era with another without first collapsing into the lottery. Thomas sees Rodman as the cornerstone.

“Can he make a difference? Yes. He is as valuable defensively as (Michael) Jordan is offensively,” Thomas says. “If you would compare it to football, he is the Lawrence Taylor, he’s your Broderick Thomas. That’s what he is to us. He changes the whole flow of an offensive game because of that defensive pressure he’s able to apply.”

The Pistons do not know for sure whether Rodman can rebound against the demons inside. The divorce remains an open sore and so too does the sudden separation from his 4-year-old daughter, Alexis. Talk to Rodman long enough and he will tell you how much he misses his wife, Annie. He will show you the picture of his daughter that he had tattooed into his left forearm. He’ll tell you he likes Detroit and is thankful for everything it has given him and then wonder aloud whether anyone should stay in the same place very long. Most of all Rodman will tell about how he wants to make people happy, his teammates, fans and family.

“You’re talking about a guy whose number would be hanging from the rafters if all this played out the way we’d like it to,” Wilson says.

Moments after the loss to Charlotte, Rodman moves inside the Pistons’ training room. He had spent much of his time before the game working various machines. Now he was back at it. With his uniform replaced by regular gym clothes and hands covered by weight training gloves, Rodman continued to work.

Amid the turmoil and indecision only one thing seems clear: If Hank Williams Sr. and AC-DC have anything in common, it’s Dennis Rodman.


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