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Unique Rodman Keeps Jazz, Not Bulls, Off Balance

June 14, 1998|MICHAEL WILBON | WASHINGTON POST

CHICAGO — Let him wrestle, let him show up late for practice, let him skip practice altogether if he wants. How in the world are you going to scold a man, even this lunatic of a man, when he almost single-handedly wins the pivotal game of the NBA Finals? Forget everything you've been taught, stuff like discipline and unselfishness and team-first, when it comes to Dennis Rodman.

He grabbed 14 rebounds, he made four straight free throws when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were offering nothing but bricks from the foul line. That's right, Dennis Rodman bailed out Jordan and Pippen.

What in the world do parents tell their kids now?

Distraction? Without Rodman, the Utah Jazz has control of this series, 2-2, with the final two games in Salt Lake City.

"He's a child in a man's body," NBC analyst and former teammate Isiah Thomas said. It's the most accurate description possible.

You can't try to figure out a universe where Rodman tells his coach, his teammates, the entire franchise essentially to go to hell, but a decent hard-working man like Karl Malone ends up as the goat of goats.

When the Bulls and Utah began this series, Rodman couldn't keep up with Malone. Now, Malone looks like a complete scrub while Rodman makes all the plays at the time Malone should. How can a 55 percent foul shooter for the season, with his thumb injured and his right hand wrapped, make the free throws that decide Game 4 of the NBA Finals? Go figure. No, don't figure. Trying to apply logic to Rodman's world will only make the rest of us as crazy as he is.

The Bulls put themselves in a precarious position because they insulted a worthy opponent. From the middle of the fourth quarter Sunday in Game 3, when Jordan and Pippen laughed brazenly on the bench, to Rodman appearing in Detroit for a clownish wrestling extravaganza Monday night, the Bulls behaved arrogantly. So did an entire town around them. The city of Chicago announced plans for a civic celebration of a sixth championship Monday night, presuming, of course, not one Bulls victory, but two.

It was reminiscent of what happened here in 1993 when the Bulls were going for their "Threepeat" against the Phoenix Suns in the finals. Leading 3-1 with Game 5 scheduled at the old Stadium, Chicago businessmen began boarding up their windows in fear of downtown looting. It was as if the Suns were just supposed to come in, run around for 48 minutes, and go home with parting gifts. That prompted Charles Barkley to write "Save the City" on the blackboard in the Suns locker room. "I don't want to see Chicago trashed," Barkley said that night. "So we decided we had to save the city and beat the Bulls."

The Bulls then had to travel back to Phoenix where they beat the Suns in the final seconds on John Paxson's jumper.

Of all the stuff that enraged the Jazz players Monday and Tuesday, Rodman's blowing off practice Monday was the one that left them feeling most belittled. Rainbowhead, in their minds, thought so little of them as opponents he blew them off to go to this wrestling stupidity.

Even if Jordan and Pippen do return for another season, don't look for Rodman back. Bulls management did a smart thing by loading Rodman's regular season contract with behavior incentives. But there was nothing they could do, really, about the playoffs. So after the best behavior in many years, Rodman has held the Bulls hostage during the postseason, coming late to practices and games.

The person who has really gotten trampled in all this is Phil Jackson, who has to admit there's nothing he can do. "I had to tell him he overstepped his freedom rights again," Jackson said. "That is one of the things he can't do, when he hurts the group."

The group learned long ago that Rodman's behavior in no way reflects on the group. Yes, Jordan does seethe and Pippen gets annoyed. But there are guys like Ron Harper to put everything back into perspective. Harper said he was taking a nap Monday night, with Rodman AWOL, when his daughter woke him up rather frantically. "She said, 'Dennis is on TV.' I got up and we watched it. It was very entertaining. I like how he took the chair and hit the guy."

Humor certainly works better than a fine, because Rodman was reportedly paid $250,000 for appearing at the Palace in Auburn Hills, and was fined $10,000 by the NBA for missing the media session and $10,000 by the Bulls for missing the team meeting. I'm no mathematician, but isn't that $230,000 on the plus side?

Problem is, the Bulls made their Deal with the Devil three years ago when they traded the functional and respectful if limited Will Perdue to San Antonio for Rodman. Down in Texas Rodman would take his shoes off during the game, read a magazine as he did one night in USAir Arena several years ago.

Rodman didn't leave his footwork in that 'rassling ring in Detroit. His quickness clearly bothered Malone, but once again the Mailman didn't use his strength and body mass to get closer to the basket. His missed open layup, instead of dunking the ball, incited such laughter in the United Center the Jazz players seemed to sag again after getting within one point several times. When Malone's missed layup was followed by Pippen's driving basket, that made it a four-point turnaround and put the Bulls ahead by 52-47, giving the defending champs just enough breathing room for Rodman to save them at the end.

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