There would be no sedate sit-down later on Thursday. The birthday jag lasted so long into the Bulls' off day that Rodman showed up late for Friday morning's practice, thus earning him a fine from a ticked-off Jackson, who refused to let him work out with the team. In February, Rodman had lost his starting spot for six games after blowing off back-to-back practices, and before that, after taking no pity on Atlantic City during a January road trip, he missed a morning shootaround, and Jackson simply sent him back to Chicago. "Sometimes I just have to get away, get free a little bit, to keep my mind in the game," Rodman says.
Yet with a single exception—Rodman got thumbed from a game in April for what he calls "barely touching the ball at the free throw line with my foot," and more disinterested observers agree that his nudging of the ball after a foul was skimpy grounds for ejection—his truancy hasn't extended to the court. "Not that he's centered," says his agent, Dwight Manley, "but he's more centered than he has ever been."
A year ago, after missing 14 regular-season games because of suspensions, Rodman drew at least one technical in each of the Bulls' first 13 playoff games, got tossed three times and averaged only 8.4 rebounds during the postseason. Few understood the reason: He had hurried back in four weeks from a knee injury that normally requires eight weeks of recovery, and, unable to pinball around the floor with his usual abandon, he reverted to theatrics, he says, "to just try to get into people's heads, to get them off their game."
This postseason has been markedly different. After a forgettable playoff opener against New Jersey, in which the Nets nearly beat Chicago largely because Williams outrebounded Rodman 21-8 and in Michael Jordan's words "kicked Dennis's butt," Rodman apologized to Jackson and got back on the pogo stick. Since then he hasn't failed to rebound in double figures. The Worm may never act his age, but one of these days he may well rebound it.
Rodman didn't start Sunday's game, not because he had swanned into the United Center about 65 minutes before tip-off, but because Jackson wanted to match him against Davis, who comes off the bench. During a first half in which the Bulls shot a hideous 27.3%, Rodman led Chicago in scoring with nine opportunistic points, adding a charge taken and a shovel pass here, a putback and a stolen entry pass there. The Bulls trailed by only three at the break, largely because Rodman scored the final four points of the half on an athletic follow-dunk and a fast-break feed from Scottie Pippen. Though he neither started nor finished, Rodman wound up with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes and earned a standing ovation upon fouling out. Afterward four people—Jordan, Pippen, Indiana guard Reggie Miller and Pacers coach Larry Bird—used the word energy or energized to describe Rodman's effect on the game. He turns everything else on its head, so why not the proverb? The late Worm catches the Bird.
Rodman's current one-year contract, believed to be the most incentive-driven deal in NBA history, resulted from negotiations that Bulls vice president of basketball operations Jerry Krause calls among the easiest he has ever been involved in. "Dennis said, 'Pay me for what I do,' " says Krause. "I said, 'Fine, no problem.' We structured the contract accordingly. He's got to be in the games. He can't get thrown out. He was comfortable knowing everything was in his hands."
Rodman is reportedly drawing a base salary of only $4.5 million, but he can pick up another $5.95 million in incentives, including a $1 million bonus if he fails to suit up for no more than one game for which he is healthy enough to play. No one thought it possible, but Rodman has found a new way to shock: Of the millions in sweeteners built into the agreement, he's on the verge of collecting all but a few hundred thousand dollars. "It would be a hell of a coincidence if his playing in so many games this season had nothing to do with the clauses in his contract giving him millions," says Chicago guard Steve Kerr. "As often as Dennis says he'd play for free, I've never actually seen him do it."
Hence the sudden Gandhi in his act. During the conference semifinals, when Charlotte center Vlade Divac wrapped him up in the post, even when, on another occasion, Mason wrestled him down by the neck, Rodman walked serenely away. "All the act Dennis puts up distracts you," says Atlanta Hawks guard Steve Smith, who's among those who have watched Rodman with wonder this season. "He gets under your skin, and then you turn around to fight him, and he's laughing at you. He's the one who's under control, and you're not."
His stoic demeanor has allowed onlookers to focus on the rest of his game, including sequences like one in the second quarter of the clincher against the Hornets: After Bulls guard Randy Brown had muffed a lay-up, Rodman got one, two, three taps on the glass, the third of which Pippen obligingly dunked home.
Then there was a moment in the fourth quarter of the same game. With Charlotte still buzzing irritatingly around, Hornets guard-forward Dell Curry had a bead on a loose ball bounding toward the sideline. The Worm ran down Curry, slithered over his shoulder and, even as the two went tumbling into the Hornets' bench, knocked the ball off Curry and out-of-bounds. As much in frustration as grievance, Curry protested to referee Danny Crawford that Rodman should have been whistled for a foul. Crawford hit Curry with a technical, his second of the game. Curry, not Rodman, was gone.