RODMAN’S LIFE ON THE REBOUND

There was a knock on the door. Dennis Rodman, who was not answering knocks or phones, peeked out the window. He did not recognize the man, or the little boy, or the pickup truck.

He cracked the door open.

“This is from the Pistons,” the man said, holding out an envelope. Rodman took it. Inside was a neatly typed notice saying he had been suspended, without pay, effective immediately. After six years of a storybook NBA career, he was off the team. Rodman stared at the paper.

“Uh, Dennis?” the delivery man said.

“Huh?”

“This is my son. Can he have your autograph?”

What do you do when your world is a contradiction? When your bosses want you, but your bosses suspend you? When people ask for your autograph, then whisper that you’re crazy? When the daughter you love can’t be with you, can’t even see you, and, in grief, you tattoo her face on your forearm and make a Christmas video showing presents you will mail to her?

To understand Dennis Rodman — to even understand a story about him — you must unhook your standard gauges, because he has been living in this very strange place, and is only now surfacing from its cold waters. Hold him up to normal rules, he shrivels. Judge him by the real world, he seems spoiled and pampered.

Sure, most Americans don’t get paid time off to think about their lives. And they can’t use divorce or depression as a reason for skipping work. But such logic will get you no closer to unlocking the enigma of Dennis Rodman.

To do that, you must talk to him, really talk to him, and listen to his riddled responses. Inside that rubber-band body — which houses the greatest rebounder in basketball today — there also lives a little boy, a millionaire, a tractor driver and an American celebrity.

All trying to make peace with one another.

“It wasn’t just my marriage breaking up that killed me,” says Rodman, 31, standing alone after a practice this week. “It was everything happening at once. My daughter. Chuck Daly leaving. John Salley leaving. It was like everything you worked for was gone at once, like somebody said, ‘OK, load it all into this wagon and take it away.’ You come home and say, ‘Where did my life go?’ . . .

“I was all screwed up, twisted, turned around. . . . If the marriage thing had happened when everyone was still here, I could have handled it. But all this stuff happened at once. . . . I was trying to find something to stand up on, to hold against, and I couldn’t.”

What happened to Rodman, at first glance anyhow, seems sad but not unique. His brief marriage to his wife, Annie — which can politely be called turbulent — broke up, and she took their daughter, Alexis, to Sacramento. Then Daly, the only pro coach Rodman had known, went to the New Jersey Nets. Salley, Rodman’s X-Factor partner, was traded to Miami. And the Pistons hired Ron Rothstein as their new skipper, who Rodman resented because he had seemingly hovered over Daly as Pistons TV/radio commentator last season.

Rothstein “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Rodman says. “I don’t have any animosity to him. But what the Pistons did . . . well, you shouldn’t have a coach here and have another guy watching over him like a hawk, knowing that other guy is gonna take over.

“So it’s hard for me to look at Ronnie and not think that, you know? It’s hard to just forget everything.”

Rodman, who often shrugs while speaking and looks off into space as if a voice there is trying to explain it all, skipped most of Rothstein’s training camp. Held out. Made no contact with the Pistons. He came to the exhibition opener — against the Nets, Daly’s new team — and sat in the stands, with sunglasses and a baseball cap. At halftime, he met with Daly — not Rothstein
— in a training room.

“Dennis, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just run away to a desert island somewhere and forget about basketball?” Daly said, kiddingly. Then, seeing the sorrow in Rodman’s face, he said, “Hey, I love you. If you were my son, you would be with me right now.”

Before the meeting ended, Rodman gave his old coach a portrait of himself,

a smiling Dennis with his fists raised.

A portrait?

“I wanted Chuck to have something of me, something he could always look at and . . . know that someone loved him, and appreciated him, and . . . no matter what, he was grateful for all he had done. . . . “

You hear Rodman stammer, and you know the truth: What he was giving Daly were the very things he wanted for himself. Many dark, endless days

The days that followed were dark and endless for Rodman, the NBA’s defensive player of the year in 1990 and 1991. He refused to answer his door. He refused to talk to teammates. He stayed in the house, banged on a drum set, played video games. He called the phone company, asked to have his number changed. When the phone company said, “All right, Mr. Rodman, this is your new
. . . ” he held the receiver down on a table so he wouldn’t hear it. He was building a cocoon. He didn’t want to know his own number.

The only time he ventured out of his house was to go to Gold’s gym, where he worked out feverishly, hour after hour. He took out his anger on weights and bulked to a new muscled mass, which only further pumped his new tattoos, a Harley- Davidson logo on one arm and the detailed portrait of his daughter on the inside of the other. In Rodman’s strange way, he called this “a birthday present for my little girl.”

A birthday present?

“I can’t see her right now” — his wife’s desire — “but there’s not a day goes by I don’t think about her. When I think about her, she, like, takes my body and mind away. When I don’t think about her, I’m sad.”

He taps his painted arm, just above the word “Alexis.”

“Now, when she’s in my mind, I can always look at her.” Different is his code name

If this all strikes you as, well, different, understand that “different” might as well be Rodman’s code name. He did not reach the NBA by the usual transportation. He did not play high school basketball. He worked as an airport janitor and spent a night in jail before the NBA was even a fantasy. His sisters arranged a tryout for him at a junior college in Texas. He was already 20 years old. And when he switched to Southeastern Oklahoma State, in a tiny, often racist, Oklahoma town, he met a 12-year-old white boy on a basketball court, went home with him for dinner and eventually moved in with the kid’s family.

Rodman has been known to give wads of money to homeless strangers, just reach in his pocket and leave it there, and he has been known to blow the same wad on extravagances for himself. He says he told the Pistons “they could keep my money, give it to Mark Aguirre, give it to charity, I don’t care,” and yet he later half-jokes that maybe the Pistons will give him “an $8 million contract extension, like the Lakers gave to Magic, or the Knicks gave to Patrick, you know, for all they’ve done for the organization.”

Rodman, who refuses to use the word “depressed,” says he came back to the Pistons not for the money, but for his daughter, who likes to watch him on TV. He says he deeply resented the Pistons’ disbelief that he was injured during his absence — “I don’t care what any doctor finds, I know my body, I could hardly walk, and I don’t fake injuries. I never would do that.” He says he was jumping off one leg all of last season, yet he played through the pain and is doing it now.

And if all this makes you dizzy, just consider what Rodman — last year’s NBA rebound leader — has done since rejoining the club Nov. 24: Not a game has passed that he hasn’t grabbed at least 20 boards. Six games in a row? And he hardly looks tired? Can any other player do that?

“I feel like a lion out there now,” he says, suddenly. “I’m all wild and free.” He just wants to be himself

This is what Dennis Rodman wants these days: to be himself. To wear floppy clothes. To wear ugly flannel shirts. To come in, do his job and leave if he chooses to, without explanation.

“Before, all these people would talk to me, and a lot of the time I didn’t feel like talking,” he says. “Like, when I go out, I was with my friends, and next thing you know, they’re over there, and I’m over here, talking to strangers who are asking me about the game. I don’t want to give a speech. I just want to be a regular person. When someone asks me how I’m doing or how I’m feeling, I always say ‘fine’ or ‘great.’ But I want to say, ‘I feel like s—.’ “

Rodman was swamped with advice during his absence. He says strange psychiatrists actually came to his house and knocked on his door. He sees a professional “about once a week now,” and he says they talk, but he doesn’t really “want them knowing what’s going on inside of me.”

In his unique fashion, Rodman prefers the Stage Deli in West Bloomfield, where he often sits for hours, over a bowl of chicken soup and dry tuna, listening to the advice of Harriet Goldberg, a woman in her 60s who co-owns the restaurant.

“She tells me, ‘Whatever you think will make you happy, you should do.’ That’s what I need. I don’t need people to tell me, ‘Just take the money and sit at the end of the bench.’ And I don’t need people to say I’m crazy. I just need people to say no matter what you need or do, we’ll still be friends.”

There is no telling what comes next. The Pistons could trade Rodman, if other teams believe he is back for good. Or he could finish his career in Detroit. He is still avoiding the phone and most doorbells, still citing the demons, but in the last two weeks, he has found a way to smile on occasion and even raise the old fist now and then. What this means is anyone’s guess.

“Are you happy?” comes the final question.

“I am . . . getting there,” he says.

One can only pray for a benevolent sense of direction.

Mitch Albom will sign “Live Albom III,” his new book, at noon today at Mickey’s, 161 W. Congress in Detroit, and 6 p.m., Walden Books, Saginaw; also Saturday, 1 p.m. B. Dalton, Macomb Mall, and 3:30 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Rochester Hills.

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