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Rodman himself had become a child again. He said money was no factor to him, but when he was offered a trade to the Miami Heat, Salley's new team, at a slight cut in his $2.3 million annual salary, he nixed the deal. He said that all he wanted to do was spend time with his daughter, but he wouldn't visit Sacramento, where Alexis lives with Annie. He made little sense. Then less.
Then almost none at all.
He was late for practices. He was fined and suspended at different times. He missed games due to a lingering, and questionable, calf injury. He would not talk to new coach Ron Rothstein. But when the Worm played, the Pistons were a different team. At one point last season Detroit was 17-12 with him, 0-10 without him. McKinney even stopped fining Rodman for breaking rules. "Why cut off your nose to spite your face?" he said. But this was all so wrong. Where was the joy Rodman had once brought to the arena?
"When he came into the league, he was this wide-eyed, frenetic, incredibly naive guy who just cherished it all," recalls Versace. "Dennis would get the ball two feet from the basket and give it up. He was so thrilled—it was like, Wow, I'm playing with Isiah Thomas!"
"Those first few years he was the model Piston," says Thomas. "On time. Never complained. Followed instructions." The veteran Piston captain sighs. "If any of us had known how to make him happy at the end, believe me, we would have done it."
In mid-February of this year police got a late-night phone call from a friend of Rodman's, warning that the player had left home in his truck depressed and possibly suicidal. That's when police found Rodman in The Palace parking lot at around 5 a.m., unharmed, the rifle under his seat. He had broken no laws, but he scared the Piston brass plenty. As Dobek, the Pistons' p.r. man, was driving Rodman to a psychiatrist an hour after the incident, he got a call on his car phone from his own mother. She had heard the news on the radio. "Are you O.K.?" she screamed to her son. "Did Rodman shoot you?"
In the chair at the hair salon, Rodman says, "Why was the rifle there? It's always there. I was depressed, but I wasn't going to kill myself. I was just hurting, ripped to shreds. You butt heads with reality and it's like having a stroke. I didn't lose touch with reality, but I put it on pause."
Rodman has used other terms to describe how he feels during dark times. He talks of sinking into "black holes," of feeling like a "mummy." His alienation never vanishes completely, never leaves him at peace, except when he is immersed in the game on the hardwood, where, he says, "everything makes sense."
At some point, of course, this no longer generates sympathy from coaches or G.M.'s or anybody else in the league. The NBA is not a charity: Everybody plays hurt, and if you can't play, get the hell out of the way. In Rodman's case the Pistons had finally had enough. He was set to be traded to the Phoenix Suns last summer for forward Richard Dumas, but that deal fell through when Dumas tested positive for illegal drug use, was sent off to rehab and, ultimately, was suspended by the league. So the Spurs snagged Rodman because they had finished last in the league in offensive rebounding last season. General manager Bob Bass, who sent All-Star forward Sean Elliott and fourth-year forward David Wood to Detroit for Rodman and second-year forward Isaiah Morris (Morris has since been waived), figured Rodman could take some of the board pressure off center David Robinson and also help the Spurs to lose the "soft" label they've been tagged with for so long. Bass says, "We needed somebody gambling on steals and diving on the floor."
And what about Rodman's personal baggage? "We'll just have to wait and see how that goes," says the guy whose job is probably riding on that baggage.