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It is a measure of how tiresome Dennis Rodman's behavior has become that his absence is now far more interesting than his presence. His perverse appeal has become a reverse appeal. We have seen him in drag, in tears, in Playboy and in denial. We have seen all the tattoos, body piercings and hair colors we care to imagine. He apparently has nothing else to show us, because all Rodman is doing now is repeating himself. The profane tirades, the naughty sexual innuendos, the mildly violent outbursts: We have seen and heard them all again and again. What was once outrageous or even offensive is now merely predictable. An appearance by Rodman no longer holds the promise of anything new, but his absence—now that's entertainment.
The defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls would disagree, of course. Without Rodman, their power forward and the league's leading rebounder, the Bulls are not as dominant a team, but that merely proves the point. It's easy to take Chicago's excellence for granted, but it's fascinating to watch the Bulls try to maintain that excellence by making the myriad adjustments, great and small, necessary to compensate for the loss of Rodman's defense and rebounding. And just as Chicago is not the same team without Rodman, the rest of the league also takes on a different, newly competitive look. With Rodman absent, the gap between the Bulls and the other contenders is considerably smaller, and that's intriguing.
The Midwest Division-leading Houston Rockets proved Chicago's vulnerability with a 102-86 home victory on Sunday in the Bulls' second game since Rodman was suspended by the NBA for a minimum of 11 games and fined $25,000 for kicking television cameraman Eugene Amos in the thigh—or higher, depending on whom you talk to—during a Jan. 15 game in Minnesota. It was Rodman's eighth suspension, by either a team or the league, in 11 seasons. Commissioner David Stern also ordered Rodman to see a counselor of the NBA's choosing and made it clear that the suspension will not be lifted until Rodman has proved to Stern's satisfaction that he can return to the court without further incident (SCORECARD, page 19). In Rodman's absence Chicago will have several opportunities to find out whether it can still toy with the other elite teams in the league. As of Sunday the early indications were that the Bulls cannot.
That's important because the need for a commissioner and a counselor to be convinced that Rodman has gained control of himself before he can return means he could be gone far longer than 11 games. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall at those counseling sessions," says Chicago guard Steve Kerr. "I don't exactly see Dennis showing up in a coat and tie. But maybe he'll wear a nice wedding dress."
And even if Rodman returns as soon as possible, for a Feb. 11 home game against the Charlotte Hornets, he would probably be just one more blowup away from a seasonlong ban, which means that the Bulls would be wise to prepare themselves to chase another championship without him. "We're operating under the assumption that Dennis will do what he needs to do and come back to be a functioning member of the team," says guard Michael Jordan. "But we need to be ready for any eventuality."
Rodman appears willing to do whatever is necessary to be reinstated—"I'm coming back stronger than ever," he says—but it's worth noting that he sees himself as virtually blameless, the victim of persecution by the league in general and Stern in particular. He has told friends that he believes the referees want to treat him fairly but that Stern has ordered them to target him. When the Bulls were awarded their championship rings at a ceremony in November, he refused to shake Stern's outstretched hand.
Rodman's antics were harmless enough, even amusing, when they were limited to complaining about being persecuted by the officials or ripping his shirt off and throwing it into the stands, but in the last 10 months he has struck two people (Ted Bernhardt, the referee whom he head-butted in March 1996, and Amos), and the Bulls are certainly not treating this latest incident as an occasion for mirth. Though Rodman's teammates have publicly supported him, with several players suggesting the punishment was excessive, this episode may turn out to have been the beginning of the end of his running with the Bulls. Coach Phil Jackson, who usually discusses Rodman's antics with a wink and a smile, was uncharacteristically terse last week. After the league announced Rodman's punishment on Friday, Jackson's only comment was to announce that second-year forward Jason Caffey would start in Rodman's place that night against the Milwaukee Bucks. Following the loss to the Rockets, Jackson made only a brief statement to the press—"They beat us up inside pretty good tonight"—and declined to take any questions.
There are indications that even if Rodman helps Chicago win another championship, he and the Bulls may then part company. Rodman will be a 36-year-old free agent at season's end, and Chicago is not likely to offer anything close to the $9 million they agreed to pay him this season for what would probably be another year of headaches. And Rodman does not seem inclined to accept anything less. With his perhaps misguided expectation of continued endorsement income after his playing days are over and the prospect of a movie career—he appears in a Jean-Claude Van Damme film, Double Team, to be released in April—Rodman has hinted that it will take a knockout offer to persuade him to play another season. He has told friends that he will definitely retire if Chicago does not win the championship this season and that if the Bulls do repeat, it would take something in the neighborhood of $15 million for him to return, a ludicrous thought in light of his current problems. So unless Rodman lowers his price tag, this season could well be his last.
But Chicago, 34-5 after Houston snapped the Bulls' nine-game winning streak, is more concerned with the immediate future—the difficult schedule it will encounter during Rodman's absence. After the loss to the Rockets, the Bulls faced eight games before the Feb. 7 to 10 All-Star break, including a home game on Tuesday against the New York Knicks and rugged road matchups against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers. "Teams may think they're catching us at the right time, and certainly it will be more of a challenge without Dennis," says Jordan, "but the way we're looking at it is, if we can beat those teams without him, it will be an even bigger confidence boost for us."
For that to happen, Chicago will have to improve on its performance against Houston. Rodman's absence wasn't obvious in the statistics: The Bulls had a 50-45 rebounding edge, including a 19-11 advantage on the offensive boards, and scored 16 second-chance points to the Rockets' seven. But that was at least partly because Houston was shorthanded as well, without power forward Charles Barkley, the third-leading rebounder in the league, who had a sprained right ankle. Rodman's absence changed Chicago's rotation and roles. Though the Bulls have high hopes for the rapidly improving Caffey, who through Sunday was averaging a mere 13.7 minutes, he was no factor against the Rockets, finishing with four points and three rebounds in 27 minutes. Jordan concentrated more than usual on rebounds and finished with 14 but said that the effort had hindered his offense. He scored 26 points despite making only eight of his 25 shots. Forward Scot-tie Pippen and swingman Toni Kukoc, who were scoreless in the fourth quarter when Houston pulled away with a 19-0 spurt, had an even more difficult time. Kukoc had six offensive rebounds but shot only 1 for 10 and finished with three points. Pippen, who in the first quarter took an inadvertent elbow to the mouth from Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, shot 2 for 14 and had more turnovers (six) than points (five).