Rodman more dysfunctional than functional

Wednesday, June 10, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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After skipping practice in Chicago Monday, Dennis Rodman attended a World Championship Wrestling event in Detroit, where he spent most of the time in a luxury box.
(AP photo)
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Dennis Rodman is beyond repair. He is the Bull who carries his own china shop around with him, a basketball player with the sensibilities of a cyclone.

He does not regret the damage he does, and he refuses to change his course regardless of the consequences. Rodman is the definitive athlete of the Me Generation, and would be without all of his hideous hairdos, tattoos and pierced body parts. His every action bespeaks self-indulgence and contempt for the common good. It screams of a pathetic need for attention.

But you knew all that. The difficulty with Dennis Rodman is in finding a punishment that both fits his crimes and benefits his team.

Much as the Bulls might wish The Worm would crawl back under a rock, they need him too much to cave in to conscience. Rodman's extraordinary rebounding and his superlative defense have been instrumental in Chicago reclaiming command of the NBA Finals.

The Bulls thus choose to forgive his decision to skip Monday's practice for a more pressing engagement with World Championship Wrestling. They admit to being inconvenienced, but have so far successfully stifled their rage. Rodman will be fined, but he won't be flogged.

"I don't think punishment is necessary," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "Punishment as far as losing status with the team, or embarrassment, or sitting on the bench, or suspension or those kind of things -- that's not the kind of thing that draws attention to the right things Dennis does. He comes and plays ball, and even though there's some dysfunction, he's still a very functional player for us."

Discipline would hurt team

Jackson coddles Rodman in part because he thinks the player suffers from attention deficit disorder, in part because of his own Zen beliefs, but mainly because of his fervent pragmatism. The Bulls still employ Michael Jordan, but their depth has disappeared. Rodman may be incorrigible, but he is also irreplaceable.

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Rodman beats Karl Malone to a rebound
(AP photo)
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Sunday night, Utah's Karl Malone made his first six shots from the field, but Rodman came off the bench and tormented The Mailman so thoroughly that the Jazz finished Game 3 with the fewest points any team had achieved since the NBA's 1954 adoption of the shot clock.

If Jackson were to suspend Rodman now, he would surely reduce his chances to win a sixth NBA title. Much as we might wish our coaches to be wise and principled people, we also want them to be vindicated.

In the fine basketball film Hoosiers, coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) leaves four players on the floor rather than use a player he is determined to punish. His stern methods are eventually rewarded with a state championship.

In real life, principles have a price. Xavier coach Skip Prosser suspended two players during the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 1995, and lost to Georgetown by five points.

"It's apples and oranges," Prosser said, comparing his choices to Phil Jackson's. "To a degree, I don't think you can equate the two realms of coaching. We're still in the education business, whereas they're in the entertainment business."

Sets bad example

That said, Prosser says Rodman's example makes every coach's job more difficult. It undermines the idea that the individual is accountable to the team, to say nothing of the notion that professional athletes have a responsibility to impressionable kids.

Rodman's behavior has a trickle-down effect, and it is pernicious. Phil Jackson says people do not adequately appreciate Rodman as a court jester, which is akin to saying John Wilkes Booth was underrated as an actor. Whatever redeeming qualities the man might have will always be overshadowed by his outrages.

Before Latrell Sprewell sought to strangle his coach, Rodman had received three of the four largest fines in NBA history. Two years ago, he head-butted a referee. Last season, he kicked a courtside photographer in the crotch.

Lightening his wallet has not changed his ways, for Dennis Rodman is too far gone to be fixed. He is beyond repair. So long as the Bulls win, he is pretty much beyond reproach.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

NBA FINALS COVERAGE from Associated Press
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE