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On the rebound, yet again

With typical spectacle, Dennis Rodman worms his way back into fans' hearts.

January 19, 2004|Alan Rifkin | Special to The Times

It was a rededicated Dennis Rodman who arrived to play professional basketball in Long Beach. You wouldn't even have recognized him, except for the sunglasses, the hair dyed orange and blue like all-weather carpeting, the black Von Dutch T-shirt with red reflecting signature, the tattoos, the earrings and the two cameramen backpedaling ahead of him to the door. And the white Mercedes-Benz detailed with something like flames, and Rodman's face.

Actually, it was pretty easy to recognize Dennis Rodman.

Outside, fans of the Long Beach Jam of the American Basketball Assn. were arriving early Friday night for his debut, many of them obviously new fans.

"Which way to the Pyramid?" a woman entering the parking lot hollered at a pedestrian who was crossing the street to play racquetball.

"Right over there." The racquetball player gestured toward the towering blue structure shaped precisely like a pyramid. But the driver seemed confused.

"That pointy thing," he added finally.

Hulk Hogan sat courtside. Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock and Magic Johnson all reserved seats but didn't show up, the celebrity attention span so efficient today that it can sometimes expire before the actual event.

There was Rodman's blond new wife, Michelle Moyer -- 36 years old but from a distance she looked 20, with tattoo vines and thorns climbing her hips from inside lowrider jeans. Beside her stood Rodman's old Chicago teammate Jack Haley, slick as a pit boss ("the untalented Jack Haley" was his full I.D. in the New York Times Magazine's profile on Rodman last year), greeting friends with white Ebonics (" 'sup, BRAH!") and soul handshakes.

Suddenly, a roar erupted from the stands. Rodman was warming up. The trot was distinctly his, the same thing forward as backward somehow, with the touch of a strut. What was new about Rodman at 42 was the rust, the vampire-like cold storage, the effort to shake off the slumber of years. Slowly at first, a jaywalker hurrying only enough to show you he knows how to run.

At the team bench, there came a series of horribly awkward moments, often involving Dixie cups. Tonight I'm just one of you all, Rodman's demeanor seemed to say as the team huddled, all making sure to rap knuckles backhanded on the great man's chest, right down to the last benchwarmer, whose name is not in the program but who wears, in what seems a statement of fabulous belief, silver lame shoes.

Inevitably, his handshake crushes the star's paper cup, drenching Rodman's jersey. Rodman stood there dripping and tossed his cup silently to the floor, as only a famous man can. The young player in the silver shoes laughed desperately all by himself.

As the game began, some details of Rodman's care and feeding came into focus: a personal Lifecycle behind the bench to keep his joints warm, two personal attendants from the medical group he visits in Costa Mesa, and a battery of Long Beach Jam ball kids all but holding Rodman's nose to force feed him water during timeouts. But one time they failed to materialize when Rodman reached behind his ear for a sip. That brought team trainer Toshi Ogisu to red alert, rushing from the bench and screaming above the noise of the crowd: "WaterWaterWater, WHOAWHOAWHOAWHOA!"

The game itself could be broken into two acts, called halves. In the first half, Rodman was a novelty. He played only in short spells, wasted no effort on offense and loitered around for rebounds. He was a nanosecond late swiveling in midair to catch a ball that jumped off the tips of his fingers, and toward the end of the half he was faked loose by the man he was guarding.

In the second half, Rodman seemed transformed and it was the '90s again. He got lots and lots of rebounds, twice in a row flinging the ball the length of the court to a streaking teammate. He dived for a loose ball and squeezed it to his chest with all 10 fingers as if gauging its ripeness.

Rodzilla! The sellout crowd was jumping by this time, not only for Rodman, but for the revelation of ABA basketball: renegade, talented and high-scoring, like in its heyday with the huge afros. Hulk Hogan took off his shirt, waving it overhead. An inspired fan named Kyle Baldwin boogied on court wearing a Rodman mask ("My friend got it on EBay," he explained). "Do you like the partying Rodman, or the cleaned-up Rodman?" he was asked. "This mask wouldn't exist if it weren't for the partying Rodman," he replied.

After the final buzzer sounded a Jam victory over the Fresno HeatWave, though, Rodman looked Gatsby-esque -- a stranger to the very party he'd inspired. He led a mob of fans and reporters in circles around the court, which suddenly seemed absurdly small.

Where on Earth does the Rodman show go now? After his first failed marriage years ago, says his 1996 autobiography ("Bad As I Wanna Be"), Rodman came within a hair's breadth of suicide. Instead, he was reborn to authenticity; he would live up to no one's expectations but his own. But what began as an assertion of character -- Elton John before the big glasses, Pamela Anderson before the breasts -- became a cartoon. Drink, ejections, chronic tardiness and bad-taste Newport Beach parties.

Now Rodman wants his children -- he has two youngsters with Moyer -- to see him play in the NBA. He wants to end his career on a note of greatness. What will replace drinking in Rodman's vision of an NBA return?

"Sex," Rodman says. "Sex, to be perfectly honest with you. I gotta be stayin' home more. Watchin' movies. No babies though," he stipulates. "Just have sex. No more babies." Then he shakes his head and ends the big evening with a drawl to himself: "[Expletive]."

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