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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum
Richard Hoffer
March 08, 1999
With the arrival of the flamboyant Dennis Rodman, Lakers fans expecting a sideshow were treated to something else: a rousing revival of Showtime
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March 08, 1999

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

With the arrival of the flamboyant Dennis Rodman, Lakers fans expecting a sideshow were treated to something else: a rousing revival of Showtime

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Kleggie Hermsen

'47-48 Baltimore Bullets

'48-49 Washington Capitols

L to Minneapolis Lakers

Dick Schulz

'47-48 Baltimore Bullets

'48-49 Washington Capitols

L to Minneapolis Lakers

Pep Saul

'50-51 Rochester Royals

'51-52 Minneapolis Lakers

W over New York Knicks

Wally Walker

'76-77 Portland Trail Blazers

'77-78 Seattle SuperSonics

L to Washington Bullets


Showtime has given way to burlesque here in Los Angeles, and you know what? The people seem to like it. No more Decorum at the Forum these days. The Lakers are all nose rings and funny hats, sudden coaching changes, tear-stained press conferences and front-office intrigues. They're a total entertainment package, a tabloid team for today's fan, the one who might stand by a freeway to cheer a white Bronco or program his VCR to tape the Jerry Springer Show.

These aren't your father's L.A. Lakers, let's put it that way. But owner Jerry Buss, the aging blue-jeaned satyr who has taken a sharp interest in his team as it lumbers toward the new millennium, may know his changing fan base best. Responding less to a 6-6 start from a supposedly contending team than to the boredom it seemed to be casting over his clientele, Buss grabbed the franchise by the throat last week and gave it a good shaking. Result? By Friday, Forum operators were answering the phones with that near-forgotten mantra: "I'm sorry, tonight's game is sold out."

Nothing, apparently, plays like chaos, scripted or not. What today's customer wants, if a championship team is unavailable, is cartoon confusion, and lots of it. Boy, did Buss and his guys deliver.

They began by romancing a cross-dressing power forward who kept scheduling public appearances to announce that he couldn't decide whether to play for the Lakers. They followed up by firing their ordained minister-coach, a white-haired benchmark of decency in this outfit who had rejected feelers to leave the Lakers last year (even when the team, tellingly, declined to extend his contract). As Del Harris, getting a little choked up, said at his going-away press conference on Feb. 24, he had hoped to dedicate this season to the memory of his recently deceased parents.

Only hours earlier the Lakers had finally signed the cross-dressing power forward, who, at a Planet Hollywood press conference he had set up apparently to prolong the process, broke down in tears after he was hectored by an incredulous and furious press corps into announcing his decision to play basketball again. "No matter what I do," Dennis Rodman said, tears leaking from behind a pair of shades, "I'm never going to win."

Then management bungled the coaching change by announcing a quick decision that turned out to be not so quick, with Buss unexpectedly showing up in the locker room after the Lakers' game last Thursday and entertaining the idea of Phil Jackson as coach. "Everything's possible," said the 66-year-old owner while his young date gently stroked his cheek. This just hours after he and the front office had agreed to promote one of Harris's assistants.

This kind of day-by-day soap opera, some of which actually appeared on daytime television (live and—a big apology to all you parents out there who had to explain masturbation to your children—uncensored), was in sorry contrast to the old Lakers style, which relied more on the development of championship-caliber teams than on the advancement of story lines. But neither basketball nor popular culture is what it was 11 years ago, when this marquee franchise last won an NBA title, and now pandering pays better than contending. Feather boas all around, boys! And man those turnstiles!

And so it was last Friday that Rodman appeared at the Forum for his first game as a Laker (and, on a minor note, for Kurt Rambis's first game as a head coach) and simultaneously lifted ticket sales and lowered standards of propriety. The times being what they are, there wasn't a Lakers player or fan who wasn't a little breathless in anticipation, although not for the usual reasons. Would Rodman wear a full-length gown? Would he slink from the bench for a spontaneous gambling outing to Las Vegas? Would he kick a photographer? Cry?

Or, for about $250,000 after taxes (minus another $100,000 of his salary that he has earmarked for charity), would this 37-year-old veteran of five championship teams save a floundering and underachieving franchise? You wouldn't want to have to decide one way or the other on the basis of Friday's 99-83 win over the Los Angeles Clippers or even Sunday's 106-90 victory over the somewhat more challenging Houston Rockets. As the Lakers themselves must admit, even a short season with a volatile personality like Rodman is going to be one long held breath. "We're rolling the dice here," says Mitch Kupchak, the team's general manager.

But, as even the franchise's critics must admit, Lakers basketball looked kind of fun again. The team that was desultory in losses earlier last week to the Denver Nuggets and the Vancouver Grizzlies—Goodbye, Del!—was, while Rodman was on the floor anyway, positively frenetic. Suddenly the Lakers were playing full-court basketball, running for their lives as Rodman scraped off rebounds with his signature scissors kick and fired off floor-length passes. Shaquille O'Neal, who had been agitating for Rodman's acquisition ("I need a thug in my life," he said of a guy he had once dismissed as a bum), spoke for teammates and fans alike after Friday's game, in which Rodman grabbed 11 rebounds and had six assists: "I've been waiting for this for a long time."

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