It was one of those sights that makes you do a double-take. There was Dennis Rodman sitting on the Detroit Pistons bench, the visitors' bench, at USAir Arena. He was calm, even serene. Too calm, in fact. Rodman, you see, had taken off his shoes. His socks were pulled down. His legs were crossed. There was something that looked like a cape draped around him, a towel on his lap. He was so far down the end of the bench there must have been paying customers sitting between him and the rest of the Pistons. Rodman looked, well, detached, like he was sitting on the lido deck of a cruise ship waiting for the cabin steward to deliver a gin and juice. And that wasn't the worst of it. As God is my witness, Dennis Rodman was reading a magazine. During the game! Like he was at B. Dalton's.
Now, I know what you're thinking: It was garbage time, somebody was down 30, he was out of the game for good. It's like when Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman take off all their gear, up 30 in the fourth. But it wasn't garbage time. It wasn't even the fourth quarter. It was the third quarter! All over the arena, kids were asking their fathers, "Pops, why is Dennis Rodman reading a magazine during the game?"
This is my favorite Dennis Rodman moment, surely to be replaced in the next few weeks by something even more bizarre, even more inexplicable. Rodman has, however, ceased to be a source of entertainment. This isn't a matter of his hair color or whether he and Madonna are going to produce the strangest baby of all time. He has become a danger not just to himself, but to an entire league of players, teammates and opponents, maybe even coaches and referees. The three-game suspension without pay slapped on him by the San Antonio Spurs is a start, but that's all it is. Rodman, as you might recall, has been suspended before. Like during last year's NBA playoffs, which probably cost the Spurs a game, and early elimination from the postseason. You know what Rodman's reaction to this latest suspension was? "It'll all work out." Like we're talking about a muscle cramp. The Spurs didn't cite one misbehavior; they called it a "behavior pattern." Rodman can't behave himself for $2.4 million a year.
Apparently no amount of money or shame is going to make Rodman behave himself. Rodman has a problem. It doesn't take Freud to determine that Rodman, also known as "The Worm," who has pierced, tattooed and dyed himself almost beyond recognition, is a self-destructive man who is still in search of love and the kind of true family that eluded him, first as a kid who essentially left his mother for an adoptive family in Oklahoma, and again as an adult whose marriage turned into an ugly public war.
Dennis Rodman needs help. Can you make an adult seek help? Probably not. But if you're the NBA, you're hoping to find somebody close to Rodman to persuade him that seeking help is in his best interest. On the floor, he has become a menace. During the Pistons years, he once tried to slam Scottie Pippen's head into the front row seats. Last year, he head-butted Stacey King, head-butted and tripped John Stockton, tried to undercut Tom Chambers and trashed the court after being ejected. He has gone a long way toward ruining the Spurs. If a guy can't play for John Lucas, the patron saint of second chances, whom can he play for? All Lucas did was let Rodman have his own set of quasi-rules; he came and went to practices when it suited him, warmed up for games if and when he wanted to. Rodman needed a lot of rope, and Lucas gave it to him. But instead of thriving under him, Rodman treated Lucas like just another authority figure who needed to be given the finger.
Rodman's first couple of years in the league, I hated him. He seemed to be an irresponsible loudmouth idiot with an evil streak who was lucky to be in a Pistons clubhouse with so many level-headed veterans. But as time passed it was clear that Rodman wasn't an idiot. He was troubled, also starved for attention. He has the capacity to be sweet as cherry pie one minute, then (if we're to believe his troubled ex-wife, Annie) forget his daughter's birthday the next. One night, he was found sitting outside The Palace of Auburn Hills in his truck with a shotgun.
It didn't help when the Pistons, the closest thing he had to a true family, began to break up, when John Salley left for Miami, when Bill Laimbeer and James "Buddha" Edwards and Chuck Daly left, when Rodman was traded away to San Antonio. Nobody in San Antonio knew what to make of Rodman last year. He'd gone from playing video arcade games in suburban Detroit to dying his hair and hanging out with Madonna. Mostly, everybody from teammates to league officials had to shake their heads and laugh nervously because all he did was lead the league in rebounding the past three years. What do you do if the most eccentric player in the league is also the guy with (when he played) the best work habits, with a special understanding of the lost art of rebounding?
I don't hate Rodman anymore; I feel sorry for him, like most people who need help. At 33 years old, he's running out of chances. He can't fetch much in a trade anymore. No serious contender is going to risk poisoning the locker room by adding him to the mix. Dennis Rodman has said on occasion -- particularly after his divorce -- that basketball is what he lives for, that basketball is all he has. If this is how he conducts himself with basketball in his life, we don't want to know what misbehavior or harm awaits Rodman, or those in his path, without it.