PONTIAC, MICH. -- There are things you don't know about Dennis Rodman.

He's a pinball wizard. He used to put quarters in his ears when he'd shoot baskets on the playground. He didn't play organized basketball until he was 21. His two sisters were all-Americas. He was a busboy and pounded fenders at a body shop before joining the NBA. He was asked to retake his first physical with the Pistons because his nervous heart was beating too fast.

Rodman was a pretty nice success story until last May 30, when he uttered these words after the Pistons lost the seventh game of the conference finals in Boston Garden:

"Larry Bird is overrated in a lot of areas. I don't think he's the greatest player. He's way overrated. Why does he get so much publicity? Because he's white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest."

Moments later, Isiah Thomas said he agreed with Rodman's comments.

The locker room comments quickly turned into something else. NBA Commissioner David Stern arranged a news conference in Los Angeles at which Bird and Thomas shook hands, and Bird did his best to lead Thomas out of the swamp. Thomas went on national television with Brent Musburger and did more backpedaling.

There were no news conferences, no CBS "At the Half" for Dennis Rodman. He drove home with the big red "R" (for racist) stamped on his forehead and started opening hate mail from throughout the land.

Editorial writers spanked Rodman, and sociologists crossed into sports to speculate on the rookie's motives and manners. There were isolated pockets of support for the kid who dared say what a few others had thought, but no one went public in defense of Dennis Rodman.

It seems certain that Rodman's name forever will be mud in Boston. Some things are sacred and above reproach. Outsiders simply are not allowed to critique Arthur Fiedler, the Kennedys, Bobby Orr, Durgin Park and Larry Bird.

Rodman understands this now. He's willing to give Bird his due but still says, "Obviously, you can't say anything bad about him."

The 26-year-old guard/forward regrets going public with his remarks, but has more difficulty explaining what he really meant.

"It was a mistake on my part for saying that," Rodman says. "I was very upset, and I didn't know it was going to be like that. I got on a roll and it just kept coming out. I apologize for saying those things. He's a great player and a smart player, and I don't mind admitting it to myself."

It took Rodman a while to make that concession. Close friends remember that Bird was young Rodman's least-favorite player in the old days. The Riches of Bokchito, Okla., a white family that accepted Rodman as a satellite son, remember Rodman watching TV and rooting against Bird. Rodman rooted for his "brothers" and the Riches cheered Bird.

"That's when a little bit of prejudice would come out," Pat Rich told Jan Hubbard of the Dallas Morning News. "We wouldn't even think about it, and we'd be hollering for the white guys."

"I didn't like him {Bird} because he was so slow motion," remembers Rodman. "But once you play against him, you get a different opinion. On TV, I thought he wasn't very good, but once I played against him, I realized."

Rodman guarded Bird during his rookie year. There was some woofing between the rookie and the legend, but nothing compared with the hard feelings that surfaced during the 1987 Eastern Conference finals.

Last spring, the Pistons felt they were better than the Celtics. Detroit beat Boston by a total of 52 points in the three Silverdome games. If not for Thomas' passing error in Game 5, the Pistons would have won in six. Adrian Dantley's Game 7 concussion was the final blow, and Boston won the clincher by three points.

Detroit Coach Chuck Daly remembers, "When any of my teams loses a playoff series, I always talk to them and tell them, 'Look, it's the end of the year; they beat us. Let's handle it and be careful what you say to the press.' I thought we had everything under control, and then this happened."

"We felt like we were better," remembers Rodman. "But you take those five seconds in Game 5, and that was the season."

Rodman knows he's in for a bad time. The Celtics were in Detroit recently, and Detroit's swing man was asked about Bird all week.

"He gets a lot of vicious hate mail," says Daly. "White Americans basically are against him when normally they wouldn't think anything of him. I think it's a lack of understanding . . . He definitely wants to do the right thing. He's a good kid, contrary to what happened."

"I did get a lot of bad mail in the summer," said Rodman. "It's toned down some. But once we play Boston, it's gonna come back out. I don't pay no attention. I know it's gonna come, but I'm prepared for it.

"I think people just need to get to know me before they pass judgement, but they had a right to write the bad fan mail to me. It was one of those things that shouldn't have been said."

Before his Bird blast, Rodman was an emerging Boston Garden villain because of his court antics. He has a habit of raising his fist in celebration. He does sack dances and points his index finger skyward.

Rodman said, "I don't think I'm going to calm down any less than last year. It's just my game. It just happens.

"I don't do it on the other team's court. I don't try to show up anybody. I'm not a hot dog."

There is plenty of substance to go with this abundance of style and controversy. Rodman is a consistent second-year player with a reservoir of untapped talent.

He never tried out for his high school team in Dallas. He stayed busy by taking the quarters out of his ears and pumping them into pinball machines at the 7-Eleven. Rodman was 5 feet 10 after his senior year of high school, but then his pants legs started creeping toward his knees and his treetop sisters (Debra, an all-America at Louisiana Tech, is 6-3) got him some tryouts.

He played at Cooke County Junior College and Southeastern Oklahoma State, picking up the nickname "Worm." He was an all-America center at Southeastern Oklahoma and finished his college career with a 46-point, 32-rebound effort against St. Thomas Aquinas in the NAIA tournament.

He was "discovered" in the spring all-star camps, then joined the Pistons as a second-round pick. In 1986-87, he averaged 6.5 points, playing 15 minutes per game. Rodman established himself as a valuable defender who could run the floor with any player in the league.

In his second season, his role is expanding. He's playing more back court, but he is still sweeping the boards from both guard and forward positions. He came off the bench to guard Michael Jordan when Detroit played Chicago. Bird says Rodman hits the offensive backboards as well as any NBA forward.

"Fundamentally, in a lot of ways, he has a long way to go," said Daly. "He relies heavily on his instincts and his physical abilities. But he's probably been our most consistent player, and he doesn't know anything but how to hustle. I'm very happy with his play. He's a great athlete, and he's understanding more about the game."

Daly said he trusts Rodman with the ball, but his ballhandling and shooting remain his weak points. His jump shot is flat and his range is limited. Sometimes, he lacks concentration.

"I have to work harder every year," he said. "Players get to know your moves and you have to keep working harder. I see myself as a two-guard in the future."

Detroit has displaced Philadelphia as Boston's strongest conference foe, and there is a truckload of animosity to fuel the new rivalry. Rick Mahorn and Robert Parish went years without shaking hands when Mahorn played for the Bullets.

All of the Celtics detest Bill Laimbeer, and Laimbeer is still smarting from the sneak attack he took from Parish. Thomas will never be able to forget the bad pass he made in Game 5, and now former 76er Darryl Dawkins has been added to the Pistons' engine.

And there's Rodman, the man who tweaked Bird's beak. Detroit doesn't play in Boston until Jan. 13, but Rodman is certain to be the new Public Enemy No. 1 for Celtics fans.