It isn't exactly a traditional pregame approach, but it works for the Spurs, who are, well, different. In addition to having a coach who works up more of a sweat in warmups than some of his players, the Spurs have an offense that calls for Robinson to shoot jumpers while 6'4" guard Vinny Del Negro posts up near the basket. One of their key players has a resume that reads like alphabet soup—forward Lloyd Daniels has played in the CBA, the USBL and the GBA—and another, swingman Willie Anderson, is playing with steel rods in both legs. "And then there's Dennis," says Del Negro. "Any team he's on is automatically unusual."
But Lucas has created an atmosphere that leaves room for Rodman's peculiarities, and the team and the town have embraced him in all his odd splendor. The Spurs are the only team in the league whose media-relations department breaks down the team's record according to its power forward's hair color. For the record, San Antonio is nearly unbeatable with Rodman as a blond (22-3 through Sunday), very tough when his hair is "purplish" (9-2) but mediocre when he goes for red or blue (a combined 6-7).
When he arrived in San Antonio, Rodman—who spent most of a recent road trip in worn canvas hightop sneakers and a pair of calf-length pants with an American-flag design—told Lucas he hoped there wasn't a dress code because he wasn't a big believer in suits and ties. "Just keep your shoelaces tied," Lucas told him. Rodman's presence at shootarounds and pregame warmups is also permanently optional.
"I have no desire to make him conform, to try to fit him into a little box," says Lucas. "When we traded for him, I told the guys I was going to allow him to skip some practices and do some things other people wouldn't be allowed to get away with, and no one had a problem with it. I still check in from time to time to see if everyone still feels the same way, and they do. They know that even if they don't always know what Dennis is going to do for 21 hours of the day, they know that for those three hours that we're in battle, he's going to be right there, leading the charge."
The relationship between Robinson and Rodman is central to the team, but the Spurs have taken off because other players have hammered out their complementary roles. Ellis, 33, has been rejuvenated this year, partly because he went to Houston during the summer to work out with Lucas. "When I took over last year, I couldn't believe Dale had lost so much confidence in himself," Lucas says. "But he came back this year in the best shape of his career, and he's given us the outside threat that helps open things up for David."
Ellis, the Spurs' second-leading scorer (16.2 points per game), who is in his 11th year in the league, has quietly shed his self-described "bad boy" image. That image was largely a result of three-plus turbulent years with Seattle during which he had three major car accidents and 17 moving violations; in one of the accidents he suffered a punctured lung and three broken ribs and was convicted of drunken and reckless driving. "I think I've matured, and Dennis has helped me just by coming here," Ellis says. "People can only focus on one bad boy at a time." The focus on Ellis is back on his shooting, which is as deadly as ever. Through Sunday he had 983 career three-pointers, the most in NBA history, and he was sixth in the league in three-point percentage this season (.411).
Along with Ellis in the backcourt the Spurs have either two point guards or none, depending on your point of view. Del Negro is the closest thing they have to a traditional playmaker, but he spends a great deal of his time posting up smaller point guards under the basket. On defense Anderson often switches from small forward to match up against the opposing point guard because he's still a fine defender, even with the rods in his shins to help prevent a recurrence of his chronic stress fractures. It's no coincidence that the Spurs began to take off when Del Negro was inserted into the starting lineup in late December, but the backcourt is still considered the Spurs' great weakness, and there is the lingering feeling that a quick point guard like Kevin Johnson of Phoenix or Gary Payton of Seattle could eventually cause San Antonio's downfall.
Lucas acknowledges the Spurs' shortcomings, but he believes he can obscure them by maximizing their strengths, which begin, of course, with Robinson. Lucas has structured the offense around Robinson's preference for facing the basket rather than posting up, and he has become Robinson's personal MVP campaign manager, promoting him, prodding him, cajoling him at every opportunity. He sent Robinson back into that game against Minnesota late in the fourth quarter even though the Spurs had things well in hand, because he wanted Robinson to reach the 50-point mark. "He looked at me like I was crazy when I told him I wanted him to go back in," says Lucas. "But I want him to be a little greedy, because that can make us better. I want to have to hold the team bus because he can't get through all the people who want his autograph—because the bigger he gets, the better we get."
Robinson is getting bigger, and the Spurs are getting better, but they haven't reached the conference finals since he has arrived, and none of their success will be taken seriously until they go deep into the playoffs. "The Spurs have always been a team that got their 50, 55 wins and didn't do much of anything in May and June," says Rodman. "We're fixin' to change that. I can clear us a little path, but David's the one who's got to lead the way."