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The Crying Game: Why Is Everyone Taking Dennis So Seriously?

Every once in a while, a personality in the public eye gets under the public skin. Something about his (or her) attitude, appearance, ethical boundaries or ethnic background is so provocative, it makes others intolerant, no matter what this individual’s skill might be.

It can be a Jerry Lee Lewis wedding and bedding a cousin or the conscientious objection and proselytization of a Muhammad Ali; you never know. It can be a John McEnroe stamping his feet and throwing a racket like a rattle, seemingly unwilling to act like a grown-up, or a Michael Jackson moving ever backward, seemingly uncomfortable to be in the company of grown-ups.

We all recognize the species. It is a type some love to hate and some hate to love.

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Such a character is Dennis Rodman, the nightcrawler now employed as a Los Angeles Laker, easily the first in the history of basketball to look underdressed in purple and gold. He is in town, so lock up your women . . . I mean men . . . well, better make it both. I haven’t seen the population of Southern California this uptight about an approaching menace since the last mention of killer bees.

A Laker Girl with male hormones, Rodman is here for the rest of the season, or at least until he injures himself with a self-inflicted bikini wax.

Anyway, here he is. Dennis, anyone?

Ever since a team superstar urged management to roll the dice on Rodman--whereupon upper management apparently overruled lower management--it is the Lakers and their followers who have turned into basket cases, squirming in their seats over what the Worm would do for (or to) their team.

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When he got all weepy at his very first public appearance--"I’m not never going to win at this game of basketball, no matter what I do,” said the Winston Churchill-like public speaker Rodman, in sport’s first misty-eyed HELLO address--I heard people speculate already how unstable Dennis is, as if these were his first lonely teardrops.

Man, this guy cries when the wind blows. He cried in Detroit when he broke the team’s rebounding record. He cried when he made the league’s all-defensive team. (No pun intended.) Dennis Rodman would cry if he went out to the Forum parking lot and found Bob Costas locked out of his car.

I don’t just wonder what makes Dennis Rodman tick; I wonder when the cuckoo will come out of his clock.

He is a man who once said if he ever lost his hair (in its all 64 Crayola colors) or shaved his head, he would have two eyeballs tattooed on the back of his skull so he could always see who is out to get him.

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He is a man with a self-described “death wish” who has openly addressed suicide. He once stole from a convenience store and also robbed 50 wristwatches from a gift shop, while a TV surveillance camera was recording it. He suspected being “tricked” into his first marriage, then, after his latest, was defended by an agent who said Dennis wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t been so drunk.

But, doggone it, no matter what he does in this game of basketball, he’s not never going to win.

Funny thing is, he DOES win. While his new teammate Shaquille O’Neal wins praise galore without having won much of anything else, Dennis Rodman owns five NBA championship rings, two of which he won without--repeat, without--the help of Michael Jordan. And he came within seconds of winning a sixth, at the Lakers’ expense, 11 years ago, which happens to be the last time L.A. won the NBA.

Yet people say Rodman is wrong for the organization, as if the golden Lakers have never been so tarnished. What rot.

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Among the greatest Lakers have been one who claimed to have slept with 20,000 women, one who slept with so many that he contracted a lethal virus, one who was picked up with a prostitute, one who was accused of beating his wife, one who broke an opponent’s jaw with a punch, one who flipped a car while driving drunk, one who pushed a referee and one who threw a towel at his coach.

So don’t hand me that “Dennis has no class” stuff. This is business, not pleasure.

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I wonder what annoys anti-Rodman factions most.

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His wardrobe? In tennis, Andre Agassi often wears outfits that the Salvation Army would refuse. In golf, Payne Stewart dresses so clown-like, all he’s missing is a seltzer bottle. In baseball, David Wells pitches with his shirt unbuttoned and askew, a slob in pinstripes. Rodman wears his stuff AWAY from work.

His hair? I’ve seen World Cup soccer stars who make Howard Stern’s look like Larry King’s.

We won’t change Dennis Rodman. We may wish he’d be more like Michael Jordan, acting maturely except when making cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. But Jordan has to be Jordan. Just as Rodman has to be Daffy Duck.

Mike Downey’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com.

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