When people hear that Dennis Rodman wants to blow his brains out, sleep with men and play his last game in the nude, they say to themselves, “Wow, that guy is crazy.”

I say, “Must be another magazine article.”

Rodman is a magazine publisher’s dream. For one thing, he’ll pose any way you want. Because magazines sell mostly by their covers, getting Dennis to photograph in hot pants and a dog collar — as he does on this week’s Sports Illustrated cover — is their idea of heaven.

Even better for magazines, Dennis will say anything you want. A few months ago, he told GQ about Madonna’s sexual technique. GQ reacted as if it had unearthed the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Now, this week, here comes Dennis again, telling SI about his fantasies, and saying, “Madonna wanted to have my baby . . . she has ways of making you feel like King Tut.”

Of course, since King Tut is a mummy, I’m not sure this is a feeling you’d be after.

But that’s beside the point. Sports Illustrated did the same thing GQ did, lit the flares for its issue, sending out advance photos and advance quotes as if it had this enormous scoop. Run and read it! We get Dennis to open up! Death wishes! Gay dreams! You won’t believe what he told us!

What SI, GQ and the rest don’t admit is that they are using Rodman. Only slightly less than he is using them.

Media madness

As someone who has known Rodman since the day he was drafted nine years ago, I blink in awe of how far he has traveled, from a shy kid who wheezed and coughed through his first interviews, to a publicity-starved daredevil who isn’t particularly smart, but has learned this much: Neither are the people covering him.

So he runs across the board like a mouse on acid, and he sees that people actually follow in his rearview mirror, trying to figure him out. He dresses a little wilder, spits out a few crazy sentences and the crowd behind him grows even bigger. His bosses say, “You’re trying our patience,” but continue to show him plenty. Meanwhile, the wilder he acts, the more people want to turn him into a “genius.”

This, by the way, was the pattern of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and John Belushi. All of whom, not coincidentally, are dead from excess.

But never mind. America wants its celebrities, and we, the media, are only too happy to create them. Rodman learned this from his dance with Madonna: To steer your image, you steer the image-makers.

So Dennis takes a GQ writer to a tattoo parlor, and he takes an SI writer to a gay bar, and he mouths off and paints his body and markets himself into a perfect symbol of American Celebrity: nine parts noise, one part talent.

The shame is, in Dennis’ case, he once was more than that. He was nine parts talent. But his survival hinged on separating that talent — basketball
— from the technicolor madness of his off-court life. When he played, he played like a demon. He focused on the game. He pursued the ball as if his life were inside it. I still remember him crying at halfcourt when the Celtics beat the Pistons in the playoffs. Crying?

No more. Rodman, 34, now says, “I’m not an athlete, I’m an entertainer.” During Game 3 of the series against the Lakers, for no apparent reason, he made a scene, lying down during a time-out and covering his head in a towel. He wasn’t used again until Game 5.

This week, in Game 1 of the Western Conference final, he zoned out in the closing minutes, blew an assignment, then took his shoes off rather than listen during the final time- out. His team lost.

This is a new low for Rodman — and maybe the one that, finally, his teammates do not forgive. You can monkey around, but not when you get within smelling distance of a championship. The playoffs used to mean everything to Rodman. Now he is hooked on hype, and has brought his addiction into church.

It’s the beginning of the end.

Evolution of an entourage

Rodman always had an entourage, even here in Detroit, but it used to be kids, teenagers. He liked them. He trusted them. In San Antonio, the entourage is adults — models, businessmen, entertainers. This is significant. It means he has graduated to bloodsuckers.

It also means he has something bigger to worry about. Eddie Murphy and Mike Tyson are two of Rodman’s contemporaries who did the Elvis Entourage bit. Both had rude awakenings.

Rodman’s fall, when it comes, could be even worse. His talent — regardless of what his new friends claim — is basketball. That’s it. He is not an actor. He is not a singer. He rebounds and plays defense. When that goes, the money goes.

And when the money goes, so do the “friends.” With Dennis blowing $30,000 a pop at crap tables in Las Vegas, it won’t take very long.

And at that sad point, Rodman will find himself staring at the man he was 12 years ago — an airport janitor with no idea what was about to happen to him. Rock stars won’t find him cool anymore. Shoe companies will have other foils. The magazines that today so happily suck up his Crazy Juice will turn up their noses. Yesterday’s news.

Can I tell you something? At that point, Dennis’ saying “Sometimes I just want to blow my brains out” won’t be amusing. It won’t be hype. It will be a serious warning to the people who care about him.

If there’s any of them left.

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