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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BASKETBALL

Rodman Steals Scene From Dream Team

Men's basketball: Colorful NBA star becomes the talk of the game even as a fan as the U.S. routs Croatia, 102-71.

July 29, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Sunday night brought the cruelest blow. For a Dream Team with an image problem, what could have been worse than to be joined at this tender moment by the most outrageous, most controversial, least Olympian mercenary of them all?

Roll over Baron de Coubertin, it was Dennis Rodman.

The wild one strolled down the aisle in the Georgia Dome, fashionably late as usual--with five minutes left in a 102-71 rout of Croatia--wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap on backward as the crowd oohed and ahhed.

Rodman had been brought to town by a singles bar in suburban Buckhead, which was paying him to host a party for 6,000. Despite having no credential--even Dream Teamers have to wear participant badges--he was ushered by ACOG volunteers into the Americans' dressing room after the game, a 6-foot-8 tattooed, hair-dyed breach of procedure.

Rodman then emerged to brief the press, not on his impressions of the Games, the Dream Team or international basketball but . . . his negotiations with the Chicago Bulls.

They are at such an acrimonious impasse, he is vowing to retire. Rodman wants two years at $11 million each, putting him and the Bulls only $16 million apart. The team is adamant at one year and $6 million, with clauses penalizing him for tardiness, head-butting referees, etc.

"I want to be with the Bulls," Rodman said. "But if you're going to pay me $6 million, I can't deal with that."

Doesn't really sound like that Olympic spirit they're always talking about, does it?

Oh yes, the game. It was the usual one-sided, uncontested walkover. Running out of new plots, everyone tried to reprise an old one--the Toni Kukoc shutdown--but it was like the others.

Better in Barcelona.

Four years ago, Kukoc was only a Bulls' draftee, a favorite project of General Manager Jerry Krause, and, as such, resented by Scottie Pippen who was upset at Krause's refusal to renegotiate his contract. With help from Michael Jordan, another Krause-baiter, Pippen held Kukoc to four points.

This time Kukoc improved to 10. Pippen had nine so you could call it a standoff if you really cared, which Pippen and Kukoc did not.

This one was a lighthearted, trash-talking romp for both players. Four years later, they're teammates and it's not the same.

"We have more of a friendship now," Pippen said. "It wasn't as big a challenge because we know each other now. We have more mutual respect for one another."

Pippen came out firing but missed four shots in the first three minutes and thought better of it.

Kukoc barely shot in the first half, in which he scored two points. However, after making a three-point shot in the second, he motioned to the U.S. bench for Pippen to return to the game.

"He didn't want me back in but I did see him," said Pippen, smiling. "He didn't want me back in. He had a pretty good game today--after I left."

For the record, the U.S. is 5-0 and has advanced to the medal round. For anyone hoping one of these games will turn into something, here's a bad omen. Croatia, which has three NBA players and a fourth, seven-footer Stojko Vrankovic, who once played for the Boston Celtics, making it as legitimate as any contender, gave up before the opening tap.

"It's the least-important game we have in this tournament," said Dino Radja a few days ago, when asked about the U.S. team.

"I don't want to think about what's going to happen. I know who's going to win the gold so I'm concentrating on more important things for us."

True to his word, Dino and the rest of the Croatians rested their great fighting hearts in this game.

"Why should I be disappointed?" asked Radja after the game. "This was a good practice game for us to be ready for the game on Tuesday. You want to be honest. I can tell you as many lies as you want."

No, even when one team is overpowering and the others are quitting, even in an Olympics that includes Rodman's bulletins on his negotiations, honesty is the best policy. At this point in this competition, it's all we have to hold on to.

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