REAL-LIFE RODMANS HAVE TO WORK IT OUT

There are no basketballs here, no cheering fans, only the hard, cold smell of factory life. Instead of applause we have the whirring of air tools. Instead of mink coats we have drab cotton overalls. The light is by fluorescent bulb, the color is concrete gray. Wherever you walk, you hear the chug and clang of the assembly line.

They are making trucks here. This is a local Ford assembly plant. Dennis Rodman always calls himself “a regular guy, like everyone else,” so I figured I’d go to where regular guys work for a living and see how they felt about Dennis’ behavior lately.

Meet Louis. He is a spray painter. Like Rodman, he went through a divorce a little while ago. One night, he learned his ex-wife had taken off with some guy for a quick fling in New Orleans — and left his kids with a friend.

The kids phoned Louis. “We want you, daddy!” They were crying. Louis was distraught. Under the court ruling, he couldn’t get them, even though they were staying with a woman he didn’t know.

He took their tears to bed that night.

And at 4 a.m., he got up and went to work.

“You think I felt like working that day?” Louis says. “Hell, no. It was damn hard to concentrate, but I had to. If I didn’t, I couldn’t pay their child support.”

Wouldn’t your employer let you take a few days or weeks off, like Rodman’s did?

“Are you kidding?”

Hmm.

Too little money, too little time

Meet Brian. He’s a UAW comitteeman. Been with Ford more than 20 years. Like Rodman, he suffered through a divorce. Like Rodman, he was unable to see his young daughter. Unlike Rodman, Brian didn’t make $2.35 million a year.

Instead, he would come home some weeks with a paycheck of less than $20, after child support and bills. Never mind that his ex-wife was living in his old house with a new man. Never mind that she slammed the door on Brian when he went to visit the kids, and that he suffered a year and a half without seeing his daughter before a court intervened.

Never mind that Brian had to fix cars at night, just to make enough money to eat. Using his far-too-extended credit cards, he bought Christmas presents for his little girl one year, but her mother made her call and say she didn’t want them.

“That was the lowest moment,” Brian says.

But next day, 6 a.m., he went to work.

“I had no choice. Hey, I love basketball, but Dennis Rodman doesn’t know what problems are until he comes home with a $20 paycheck.”

Wouldn’t your company understand if you put out half an effort, or walked out after a few minutes, as Rodman has done with the Pistons?

“Yeah, right.”

Hmm.

Meet another Louis, 46. He’s in the sealer deck. As we speak, he is applying sealant with a gun, running it along the interior of a truck frame. He can’t stop to talk, so he speaks while he works.

“Not too long ago, I lost my brother. He died of cancer. They only gave me two days off. Two days. I thought I had at least three coming to me. I had to fly to California to get my mother, bring her in. I wound up taking extra days off with no pay because it wasn’t enough time, you know? Two days, man.”

Like Rodman — who misses coach Chuck Daly — Louis misses his brother. He misses the trips they would take, the talks they would have.

For nearly 10 months, Louis would finish his shift at the Ford plant and go directly to a hospital. One day, Louis watched in horror as they hooked his brother to a machine to help him breathe. He knew it was the end. He felt helpless. He felt terrible.

Next day, 4 a.m., he went to work.

“By the way,” Louis adds, “I’m divorced, too. Never missed a day for it. But I’ll tell you what: Every day I had to go to court, they didn’t pay me a dime. I lost all my wages.”

Rodman’s work ‘isn’t fun anymore’

Rodman spent most of the summer thinking about his life. Most of the fall now, too. He missed nearly all of Pistons training camp, without as much as a phone call to explain, yet he was only lightly fined and welcomed back when he returned.

In the two games he has played, he seems to drift in and out of concentration. On Monday, he showed up late for practice, stretched, put some ice on his knees, then abruptly walked out. He says basketball “isn’t fun anymore” and that his mind is on his daughter and ex-wife. Some reports say he is only acting this way to get himself traded.

He still has his job today.

Dave would not be so lucky. He is an inspector at the plant. One day he came home to find his entire home emptied out, his kids gone, his clothes thrown in the middle of the floor. Where was his wife? Where were the kids? His world was upside down.

Next day, 6 a.m. . . .

You get the picture. Everyone has problems. Everyone has distractions. But there’s an expression here on the assembly line: “If you can’t hack it, grab your jacket.” It is harsh. It is cold. And for 99 percent of the world, it is very, very real.

Dennis Rodman — the regular guy — might keep it in mind.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “Live Albom III,” at 7 p.m. Thursday at B. Dalton in Livonia Mall.

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