One of the reasons the Bulls took the risk of adding Rodman was that they thought Jordan's influence could help keep him from repeating the bizarre behavior that brought the Spurs tumbling down in the playoffs the last two seasons. In the 1994 postseason, during San Antonio's series against the Utah Jazz, the league suspended Rodman for one game and fined him $10,000 for hip-checking All-Star guard John Stockton, taking a swing at All-Star forward Karl Malone and trash-talking. Last spring, during the Spurs' series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rodman was benched by San Antonio coach Bob Hill for taking off his sneakers and refusing to join a huddle during a timeout. Chicago hopes that the teaming of His Airness with His Weirdness will help keep Rodman on the straight and narrow—and in his shoes—but Rodman has declared that he holds no special reverence for Jordan or any other Bull, and Jordan has shown no inclination to be Rodman's babysitter or conscience. "Off the court, he's going to maintain his own privacy, and we understand that," Jordan says. "We've just asked him to be focused on basketball when he steps on the court."
Jordan himself has never been more focused. He seems more amused than annoyed by suggestions that his game is a tad less explosive than it once was, but he was troubled by the way his late-season comeback ended with some uncharacteristic miscues in Chicago's conference semifinal playoff series loss to Orlando. "I second-guessed myself after that, which is something new for me," he says. "There was a little doubt that creeped in. But I'm ready now. I'm very confident in my skills, and I think I'll be able to quiet any critics."
Jordan adapted his training regimen so that he was preparing for basketball again instead of baseball, working on his legs and shoulders instead of his wrists and forearms. And in perhaps the most telling testament to his commitment, he hardly picked up a golf club all summer. Jordan has not won anything in what for him is a long time—more than two years. His baseball experiment ended with a whimper amid the politics of that sport's labor-management relations, and two months later he lost an NBA playoff series for the first time in five years. He is hungry to win again, and his conditioning reflects his hunger. That may be an even more important development for the Bulls than Rodman's arrival.
One of the few things Jordan and Rodman have in common is that neither was with Chicago at this time last year. Their presence has turned the Bulls into rock stars again, the kind of team that draws a crowd wherever it goes. For the time being Rodman is attracting even more attention than Jordan is. After the game against the Cavs, reporters crowded around Rodman's stall while the usually besieged Jordan happily slipped out. "I'm already glad we got him," Jordan said.
Acquiring Rodman went against the philosophy of Bull management, which has long eschewed acquiring players of questionable character. But general manager Jerry Krause, who prides himself on his research, did considerable homework on Rodman before making the deal, interviewing dozens of players and coaches from Rodman's former teams. He and Chicago scout Jim Stack even spoke to some of the same people at different times to make sure they were given the same evaluation. In the end Krause believed that acquiring Rodman was a risk worth taking. "We talked to a lot of people who thought a great deal of Dennis and a lot of people who had a lot of negative things to say, who didn't like him at all," says Krause. "But we came to the belief that the problems he had at other places were things that would not occur with us."
Krause also believes that Rodman's problems in San Antonio were overblown. "Everyone talked about all the practices he missed last year," Krause says. "You know how many he actually missed? One." True, Rodman was late on several occasions, sometimes on purpose. He became disenchanted with Spur general manager Gregg Popovich, who in Rodman's view didn't fulfill promises about discussing a contract extension. Rodman says he often arrived on time for practice but stayed in the parking lot until after the workout began.
What matters to the Bulls, however, is that most of Rodman's misbehavior was not as random as it seemed, that it was a response to injustice, real or imagined. The last bit of persuasion that Chicago needed came when Rodman stayed at Krause's house for two days in early October. Krause and coach Phil Jackson told Rodman about their rules and their system of fines and encouraged Rodman to be honest if he thought there were any restrictions he didn't think he could abide by. But for Rodman, a motorcycle enthusiast, the deal may have been sealed when Jackson arrived at Krause's house on his BMW motorcycle.
If a kick in the pants from Jordan doesn't keep Rodman in line, perhaps the influence of Jackson, the philosopher-coach who describes Chicago's triangle offense as five-man tai chi, will. In his new book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, Jackson sets forth how his approach to coaching has been molded by Zen philosophy and Native American and Eastern religion. "It's about getting a unified effort from a group of people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs," he says. A season with Rodman will no doubt give him enough material for a sequel.
And if spiritual influences don't reach Rodman, perhaps material ones will. He may not look or act like any other athlete, but Rodman does occasionally sound like one, especially when he discusses his salary. He is in the last year of a contract that will pay him $2.5 million this season, and before the trade to the Bulls he threatened to sit out the season if he didn't get a new long-term deal. He has since dropped that demand, and Chicago has promised him nothing beyond this season. Rodman, 34, is savvy enough to realize that what he does this year will determine what offers, if any, he will have as a free agent. He is playing for his future. "If nothing goes right for me in Chicago, I'll just graze in the grass like everybody else," he says. "I could live off $10 a day. It doesn't matter to me." But don't be fooled. It matters.
In fact, Rodman is acutely aware of himself and his situation, and in the end it may not be Jordan or Jackson or money or even the possibility of another championship that keeps him under control throughout this season. It may be the knowledge that behaving himself for an entire year is the only way left for him to shock anyone.