Class is in session in the visitors' locker room of the Miami Arena, and the instructor is a tall, tattooed gentleman with a nose ring, hair dyed a shade of brownish yellow not found in nature and a T-shirt that reads, I DON'T MIND STRAIGHT PEOPLE, AS LONG AS THEY ACT GAY IN PUBLIC. Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman may not look like a teacher, but he is nothing less than a professor of rebounding, and before a game last Friday against the Miami Heat he is holding an impromptu seminar.
Rodman is the only Bull studying the tape of Chicago's game against the Atlanta Hawks the previous night. "Anytime I see Scot-tie or Michael shoot from the top of the key, I know the ball will come off the rim to the right," he says, referring to teammates Scot-tie Pippen and Michael Jordan. "Watch this." He fast-forwards the tape until Pippen appears on the big-screen TV, shooting a three-pointer from the top of the key. While the shot is in the air, other players wrestle for position under the basket as Rodman slides into an open space to the right of the hoop. The shot caroms hard toward the right corner, just as he anticipated, and he is the only one in position to chase the ball down. He fast-forwards again, first to another Pippen miss from the top of the key and then to a Jordan miss from the same spot. Both times the ball bounces off to the right, and both times Rodman—who has spent hours observing the arc of their shots—is in position for an uncontested rebound. He looks away from the television, raises his eyebrows and says, "See?"
It was not by accident that through Sunday Rodman led the NBA in rebounding, with an average of 15.4 per game, and that if he maintains his lead, he will become only the second player (the first was Moses Malone) to win five consecutive rebounding titles. As he showed when he had a game-high 17 rebounds in the Bulls' 111-91 victory over the Orlando Magic on Sunday, he rules the backboards because he is relentless, superbly conditioned, a trifle dirty when he needs to be and, perhaps most important, surprisingly analytical. "He compares himself to a computer sometimes," says teammate Jack Haley. "The hardware is his body, which he keeps in peak physical shape, and the software is his knowledge, what he knows about different shooters' tendencies and how shots from certain spots on the floor tend to come off the rim. And dirty? Well, let's just say I have the bite marks and scratches from going up against him in practice."
At the very least Rodman, who has averaged 18.7, 18.3, 17.3 and 16.8 rebounds the last four seasons, deserves a place next to Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as one of the greatest rebounders of all time. An informal SI poll of NBA players, coaches, executives and broadcasters placed Chamberlain at No. 1, Rodman No. 2 and Russell No. 3—with esteemed board men Malone, Paul Silas, Wes Unseld, Charles Barkley, Nate Thurmond, Bob Pettit and Jerry Lucas rounding out the alltime Top 10. An argument over whether Rodman is a better rebounder than Chamberlain or Russell could go on for ages. Chamberlain's career rebounding average was 22.9 and Russell's was 22.5, compared with Rodman's 12.5 entering this season. But Chamberlain and Russell, both centers, played in an era when more shots were taken per game and shooting percentages were lower, and thus there were more rebounds to be had.
However, Rodman's dominance of the backboards is even more remarkable than that of either Hall of Fame pivotman because at 6'8" and 215 pounds he overcomes a size disadvantage faced in their era by neither Chamberlain, who was 7'1" and 275, nor Russell, 6'10" and 225 (and also blessed, as Rodman is, with disproportionately long arms). Thus it is fair to say that, inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound, Rodman is the best rebounder in NBA history. "Wilt was just bigger and stronger than everyone," says TNT analyst Chuck Daly, who coached Rodman when they both were with the Detroit Pistons. "Russell was built more along the lines of Dennis, but he didn't have to go up against power forwards and centers as big as the ones Dennis has to face night after night. When you factor size into the equation, I don't know how you could say there's ever been a better rebounder."
Rodman simultaneously has reduced rebounding to a science while elevating it to an art. He talks dispassionately about angles and trajectories in the locker room, but on the floor he pursues the basketball with passion. After winning a battle for the ball, he will cradle it like a baby, or look at it quizzically as if seeing it for the first time, or whip it quickly to a teammate as though it were some disgusting object. "I rebound with a little flair, a little something extra," he says. "It's not for the crowd, it's just for me. Rebounding is how I express myself on the floor."
He turns back to the TV, switching from the tape of the Bulls-Hawks game to one showing the Heat against the Magic. He is most interested in tonight's opponent, Miami, but he can't help noticing Orlando center Shaquille O'Neal. "Most shots rebound long, to the opposite side, but Shaq's ball is fiat, so if he shoots the ball from the side, it's usually going to come back to that same side and quickly," Rodman says. "It'll come off the rim hard, so it will be a long rebound. But take somebody like [Chicago guard] Steve Kerr. He has a high arc on his shots, so I know his rebounds are either going to go straight up or off to the opposite side. Either way, they're going to be pretty close to the rim."
Rodman is warming to the subject now, never taking his eyes off the screen as he talks. "I know shooters, but that's not enough," he says. "You have to watch the flight of the ball. Most guys see the shot go up and they turn and look at the rim, waiting for the ball to come off. I watch the ball in the air and make an adjustment if I need to." When Rodman was traded from the San Antonio Spurs to the Bulls in October, he immediately made a habit of rebounding for Pippen and Jordan during practices as they warmed up so he could get a feel for the caroms that came from their shots. "Most of the time Mike's shots tend to come off to the right of the rim, no matter where he shoots it from, but I don't just take that for granted," Rodman says. "I watch his shot in the air, and I can tell if it's off-line to the left or short, and then I go where I think I need to be."
A typical Rodman game would not be instructional-video material. He takes liberties with the fundamentals, sometimes deciding not to box his man out and instead moving to the spot where he anticipates the rebound will come. His relatively slender build works to his advantage here, because he seems to be able to slip through cracks between players. Like a good outfielder, Rodman appears to get a jump on the ball, moving while the ball is still in the air. Because of that ability, Charlotte Hornets vice president of basketball operations Bob Bass, who held the same job with San Antonio when Rodman joined the Spurs, compared him to Willie Mays.
And if Rodman guesses wrong, he has the ability to adjust quickly. "Dennis can jump at an angle, which is not as easy as it might sound," says Bulls television analyst Johnny (Red) Kerr, who averaged double figures in rebounds for eight straight seasons in the 1950s and '60s with the Syracuse Nationals and the Philadelphia 76ers. "Most guys are straight-up jumpers, but Dennis can adjust his body in the air to get to a ball. The only other player I've seen who could do that was Russell."