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THE NBA : Two Ringmasters? : With Rodman a Bull, Jordan’s Life Looks Normal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just what they needed in this circus, another clown.

On a team from which star players retire to play baseball and come back for the playoffs, or take themselves out of the game if they can’t have the last shot, they’re extending a big Bull welcome to the wildest child of all.

Short of Elvis returning as a basketball player, this is the greatest bonanza the NBA could imagine, the outlaw icon, Dennis Rodman, united with the All-American virtuoso, Michael Jordan. Before their first game, they’ve made the covers of Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports and In the Flesh, the last a journal devoted to tattoos and skin piercing.

On media day, while Jordan joined the other players, Rodman got his own private session, with a horde of reporters attending instead of the usual handful.

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“When I was with Madonna,” said Rodman, striking the perfect note for the occasion, “it was like this.”

Of course, great stars can be difficult. So for its cover, SI had to shoot Jordan and Rodman in a game because Mike, still upset at the magazine’s he’s-embarrassing-baseball story, refused to pose. (The supposedly shy Rodman was no problem. He was glad to don his shades, take off his shirt, put his stick pin in his nose and extend his painted fingernails for a portrait.)

Journalism is warped by celebrity, and in blissed-out Chicago, where fans left flowers at the base of Jordan’s statue while he pondered his return and 41% of respondents told a radio talk show that Mike should be named king of the world, it disappeared long ago.

The Bulls are more like rock stars, surrounded by paparazzi, known for limos, bodyguards, media boycotts, snits and fits of pique. Last spring, NBA Commissioner David Stern, arriving in Chicago for the ratings-grabbing Chicago-Orlando playoff series, was dismayed to learn that Jordan had stopped talking after the controversy about his number change. Most of the Bulls and the Magic followed. Stern had to issue an edict ordering everyone to cooperate.

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A manic Chicago press vacillates between exploiting Jordan’s charm for profit or his foibles for greater profit. Last week, the Chicago Tribune’s Sam Smith, whose “The Jordan Rules” first suggested that reports of Jordan’s sainthood had been exaggerated, published a sequel, “The Second Coming,” setting off another flirtation with hysteria. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Jay Marriotti asked if the “snitch” who was ratting out Jordan for “another Michael-as-devil book” wasn’t . . . Coach Phil Jackson?

Jordan, asked about it, reportedly mused: “Maybe Phil.”

A day later, it was forgotten. Among the Bulls, controversies, real or imagined, come and go with the breeze.

When Scottie Pippen took himself out of that 1994 playoff game against the New York Knicks in a nationally televised fiasco, the furor lasted but two days. Pippen said he was sorry, led the Bulls to a Game 4 victory and, except for a controversial call in Game 5, they might have pulled off the upset.

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In the two seasons before Jordan retired, there were feeding frenzies relating to “The Jordan Rules,” to his snubbing the visit to the White House, to his playing golf with felons and his six-figure gambling debts. The Bulls won their second and third championships in a row in that period.

Rodman? What can he show them they haven’t seen before?

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Ask the Spurs.

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In Rodman’s two seasons in San Antonio, he won two more rebounding titles while they won 55 and 62 games and made two rude exits from the playoffs.

In 1994 under forgiving Coach John Lucas, Rodman had his fling with Madonna during the first-round Utah series and was suspended for a game for hip-checking John Stockton. The Spurs’ dressing room went up in fire and smoke.

Last season, new, no-nonsense General Manager Gregg Popovich told Rodman he knew nothing of a promised $6-million extension and suspended him in camp. Rodman tested Popovich all season, bending all the rules the Spurs claimed to be enforcing. When Rodman returned after his motorcycle accident and had a monster game, Popovich actually barged into the TV trailer and told the director to stop focusing on the player.

In the playoffs, Rodman showed his disdain for the program, provoked more incidents and benchings and the dressing room went up in fire and smoke.

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“Dennis and Popovich rarely spoke at all other than in four-letter terms,” says Jack Haley, a former Spur and Rodman’s confidante, who has been prudently signed by the Bulls in case they have to get in touch with Rodman.

“They did not like each other. It was two guys that just didn’t get along.

“It’s very easy to point the finger and say it’s Dennis’ fault, but the bottom line is when it’s time to play, the man laces up his shoes and he goes to war with the best of them. But off the floor, yeah, there were some things that he caused and he was a distraction at times.

“But there were several other distractions that melted down our team. We had a complete and total chemistry meltdown throughout the entire team.”

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In San Antonio, they’re going for a simpler theory.

“I’m not going to miss Dennis,” David Robinson told the Chicago Tribune. “We tried to show him we loved him, we cared: ‘Do what you want to do and just play basketball, we’re not trying to change you.’ We put the hammer down when it was needed. You just get no response. It was a zoo last year. We’re a basketball team again.”

Said Chuck Person: “With us, against the hottest team in the league, Houston, he decides to go south on us, not practicing, being late.”

In the wake of a second annual springtime disaster, it was uncertain if the Spurs could find a taker. Besides Rodman’s reputation, he wanted a two-year, $12-million extension. The Lakers looked into it and passed.

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The Bulls looked into it and, surprise, traded Will Perdue for Rodman, who makes $2.5 million this season.

After years of proclaiming their insistence on Good People, they were desperate for a Good Rebounder. They were also embarrassed by the one they let get away, Horace Grant, who returned to average 18 points against them in the playoff loss to Orlando after Jackson directed his defenders to sag off him. General Manager Jerry Krause was so mortified, wrote Jackson in his own book, “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior,” he asked his coach if they could guard Grant and sag off someone else.

Without cap room for such modest free agents as Anthony Mason and Jayson Williams, the Bulls began thinking the unthinkable: Rodman.

They flew Rodman in. Krause put him up. Jackson came over to meet him. Seeing as how there were real concerns--career, money--on the line, Rodman was lucid.

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Of course, soon after the Bulls acquired him, he told a radio station, “If I do decide to go there, it’s not because of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc or anything like that. That don’t mean nothing. I don’t bow down to any man, whoever they are or what stature they have. . . . If I feel like it’s going to be like San Antonio, I’ll just sit the whole damn year out, period. I feel like the NBA stripped some of the heart and soul out of Dennis Rodman the last eight, nine years and now the last couple of years I’ve regained most of my identity back.”

But then a man’s got to look out for his image.

On media day, Rodman showed up with the Bulls’ logo emblazoned in the back of his haircut. This was nice, if less than a commitment. Rodman has moved his hairdresser, Fred Baldarrama, formerly of Olga’s Salon in San Antonio, in with him and can change logos quickly.

In the exhibition season, despite eight technical fouls and one ejection, Rodman was on his best behavior. The Bulls are ebullient; there are stories in the Chicago press of a 70-victory season.

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“Thus far, it’s been a 110% reversal,” Haley says. “It’s been a fantastic working relationship so far with management, with Jerry Krause and the coaching staff.

“He’s excited to be here, has great respect for the team. He’s 20-30 minutes early every day. He’s doing everything he can to make it work. He’s trying to connect and build some type of relationship with Scottie and the guys.”

Is Rodman actually talking to teammates, something he didn’t do in San Antonio?

“No,” says Haley, “but when it comes to basketball on the floor, he communicates with them and he’s trying to let them know he respects them. But as far as conversation and hanging out and stuff, no, there hasn’t been any of that yet.”

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Well, you wouldn’t want him to rush it. He has at least until next spring.

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When Jordan heard they were getting Rodman, he wondered about it.

“I didn’t really know his attitude, if his desire to win would be strong enough to accept the system that we have here,” Jordan says.

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“He’s still got a lot to learn about the system, but his enthusiasm, his work ethic--it’s not surprising, but it’s welcome.

“It’s still the beginning, you know. It’s tough trying to keep him calm on the court whenever he loses his temper or goes through one of those tantrums.

“I mean, we’ve talked, but in terms of just sit down and iron things out? Nah. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I mean, I think we respect each other as professionals. So we may not know each other from a personal standpoint. . . . I don’t think either one of us wants to make that approach.”

Jordan is as relaxed as he has been in years, delighted at talk he’s over the hill, which has given him a needed challenge in a sport he can play.

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When he came back last spring, he was rusty and defensive. For his first game, he flew to Indianapolis on his own jet and stayed at a friend’s home. He traveled with a six-man security detail of off-duty Chicago cops (“Four to carry the litter,” the New York Daily News’ Mitch Lawrence said, “two to scatter the rose petals.”) In Orlando, they put him in a van with smoked windows to make the trip to the arena across the street.

The Bulls who didn’t know Jordan were even more intimidated than the few who did. In “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson recounts a game in which Jordan passed up an open Steve Kerr. Jackson told Kerr to let Jordan know about it. Kerr gave Jackson a what-can-I-do shrug.

Jackson says he and Jordan have talked about not distancing himself from teammates again. There are several sides to Jordan, including the unpretentious guy who’s dismayed at the special treatment and the superstar who insists on it. Jackson is rooting for the former to hang in there.

“Wouldn’t everybody like to have an entourage of bodyguards to escort them through life, with the chauffeured existence?” Jackson asks.

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“It’d be a sweet way to live. It’d be a pampered way to live. But I think Michael’s checks and balances are pretty good. . . . There’s the Michael Jordan who drives his kids to school and drops them off, who takes his daughter to day care. He’s still staying in touch with being a father. He’s got a good wife who’s got good standards. There’s a family structure there that keeps him attached.”

Another check has just arrived, all tattooed, dyed and pierced, to balance out Jordan.

Rodman is the greatest thing that has happened to Mike. Next to Rodman’s, Jordan’s foibles look minor indeed. For the first time in his pro career, Jordan isn’t the story.

“Even when we went to Lincoln, Nebraska [for an exhibition against the Clippers], they said Dennis Rodman and the Bulls were coming,” Jordan says, smiling.

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Michael Jordan, a rhythm guitar player in someone else’s band? Rock on, Worm.

* WHITHER ALONZO?: Charlotte center Alonzo Mourning might be available, but Jerry West says the Lakers won’t be able to get him. C4

* EASTERN CONFERENCE: Mark Heisler previews the season in capsules and says it should come down to a matchup between Orlando and Chicago. C5


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