PONTIAC, Mich. — "Banana in the tail pipe!" Isiah Thomas shouted across the locker room to Dennis Rodman when he saw a reporter talking with the Piston swingman.
Translation: Watch what you say.
It was good advice.
Rodman was in the center of controversy last year when he called Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics' All-Star forward, an overrated white guy.
Rodman, then an outspoken, brash rookie, berated Bird after the Celtics beat the Pistons, 117-114, in the seventh game of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals at Boston Garden.
Rodman is nicknamed the Worm because, he says, he twists and turns like a worm when playing pinball. After his comments about Bird, he probably wished that he could have crawled into a hole.
"I'm not a racist. I regretted what I said about Bird because it wasn't true," Rodman said. "I said it out of frustration. I blew up for no reason.
"I should have never said it. I had people call me from everywhere asking me why I would want to say something like that about Larry Bird. I knew that everyone would criticize me. I just had to overcome it."
Rodman's family and friends say he's not prejudiced.
Annie Bakes, Rodman's fiancee, is white. Rodman will marry Bakes, a former model, after the birth of their first child, due in September.
"By all means he's not a racist," Bakes said. "That whole incident was out of madness. He treats everyone equally. He's a very unique person, but he just has to learn to control himself."
Rodman, who was raised by his mother, Shirley, after his father deserted the family, lived with a white family on a 600-acre cattle ranch in Bokchito, Okla., a town of 700 about 100 miles north of Dallas, while he attended college at Southeastern Oklahoma State.
James and Pat Rich, who raised three sons, treat Rodman as another son. "Dennis ain't no racist," James Rich said in a Southern drawl. "He drove straight to our home from Detroit after the last game of the season because he wanted to explain what he'd said. He knew he had done something wrong and he wished he hasn't said it."
Rodman came into the family after he coached Bryne, 18, the youngest of the Rich boys, at a basketball camp five years ago. Rodman helped to fill a void in Bryne's life, which was created after Bryne accidently shot and killed his best friend while they were hunting.
Rodman and Bryne Rich are close. Bryne flew here to watch the Pistons play the Lakers today in Game 3 of the National Basketball Assn. finals.
"I wanted a little brother," said Rodman, who has two sisters. "And Bryne wanted someone to look up to."
Bryne, a 5-11 guard who will attend college at Tarlton State in Stephenville, Tex., on a basketball scholarship, idolizes Rodman.
"He motivated me a lot by pushing me," Bryne said. "We put in a lot of time on the court together."
Pat Rich, has written a book--"Big Worm, Little Worm"--on the relationship between Rodman and her son. She flew to Los Angeles last Thursday to sign a deal for a TV movie with a production company.
"I couldn't believe the Worm meant what he said about Larry Bird," Pat Rich said. "But our family stood behind him. I know Worm isn't prejudiced. We're a white family, and he lived with us for four years. He stayed here more than he slept in the dorm. I never saw any sign of prejudice when he was here. He was a great inspiration to our kids."
Dennis Rodman wasn't good enough to make the basketball team at South Oak Cliff High in Dallas, but if he continues to improve he may eventually make the All-NBA team.
After he finished high school, Rodman got a job as a janitor at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.
"I wasn't motivated to go to school," Rodman said. "But I wanted to make something of my life."
Basketball was his ticket to a better life.
Rodman, who grew from 5-11 to 6-8 after high school, went back to school, attending Cooke County Junior College in Gainesville, Tex. He transferred to Southeastern Oklahoma State, an NAIA school in Durant, Okla., where he earned small college All-America honors for three straight years.
Detroit selected Rodman in the second round of the 1986 NBA draft after he made a good showing at several postseason All-Star games, and he has made a big impact on the Pistons, who are making their first appearance in the NBA finals since moving to Detroit 31 years ago.
Rodman is one of the keys to the Pistons' bench, which has outscored the Laker bench, 63-12, in the first two games of the championship series.
Said Detroit Coach Chuck Daly: "Dennis is a great natural talent with world-class speed. He's as good an offensive rebounder as there is in the league. And he's a great defensive player.
"He's a very emotional kid who plays on instinct."
Laker Coach Pat Riley said: "With all due respect to the other great defensive players in the league, Dennis Rodman is the best defensive player in the league."
Rodman, who averaged 6.5 and 4.3 rebounds per game last season as a rookie, nearly doubled his production this season, averaging 11.6 points and 8.7 points.
He started 29 consecutive games at small forward after Adrian Dantley suffered a sprained right ankle, and averaged 16 points and 10.8 rebounds.