THE X-FACTOR GROWS UPRODMAN AND SALLEY KEYED PISTONS’ TITLES

I don’t want to sound like someone’s grandmother here, but where does the time go? Wasn’t it yesterday we were saying hello to two rookies, John Salley and Dennis Rodman, one a lanky, flamboyant kid from Georgia Tech, the other a complete unknown from somewhere in Oklahoma? Wasn’t it? Yesterday? I remember when Salley first showed up, because he came on a local radio station, did a typical rookie interview, and then, when asked whether he had any messages to the city of Detroit, he said, “Yeah. Tell all the good-looking ladies that tonight, 8 o’clock, I’ll be at . . . “

Rodman, on the other hand, was mostly ears. That’s all you noticed. His ears — and that tightly muscled, box-spring body. “This kid could be a steal,” Jack McCloskey kept whispering. We shrugged. Who had even heard of him? Dennis Rodman? A 25- year-old rookie? Never played high school basketball? Ah, well, we figured. He’s a second-round pick. If he gets cut in training camp, it won’t be the first time.

It was yesterday, right? Or the day before? They’re just kids, Salley and Rodman. Youngsters? Their whole lives ahead of them? Well, hold onto your hair, folks — those of you who have any left:

Thursday, John Salley turned 27.

Monday, Dennis Rodman turned 30.

This is a story about how they’ve grown up.

Five years ago, I would have been out at a club tonight, even during the playoffs,” Salley says on his birthday, pulling on his sneakers for a practice in anticipation of tonight’s Game 6 against Boston. “I would have only been interested in having fun. I wouldn’t have my mind on my business.

“You know what I’ll do today? I’ll practice. I’ll go to the doctor. I’ll go home. Eat. And go see the new Bill Murray movie. That’s it.

“At 22, I thought I knew it all. At 27, I realize I don’t know s—.”

Now. This might seem like a major revelation from Salley, who usually sounds like he just stepped out of a “Saturday Night Live” skit. But only if you don’t know him. Those who do realize that beneath that funky facade and the self-promoting, laugh-a-minute, friend-to-the-stars glitz beats the heart of a sensitive soul, an insecure kid who used to ask his mother why he was born so ugly. Salley grew up a Jehovah’s Witness in the Brooklyn projects, going door-to-door on Saturday mornings before racing home to change clothes and go play basketball. His family was — and is — tight. They had to be. Mother, father and four brothers lived in a two-bedroom apartment.

“Nobody knows it, but that’s the reason I bought the house I did,’ Salley admits, referring to the 62-room Detroit mansion that once belonged to the late John Cardinal Dearden. “We came from that two-bedroom apartment. I thought we’d never get out.

“The other day, I was lying in my backyard in this hammock I hung between two trees. It was real peaceful. My brother Ron was talking to me through the window, like we used to do in the old neighborhood. He said, ‘Can you believe we made it out of Brooklyn, John? We used to live in a two-bedroom apartment and now look at all this. This place is bigger than that whole building.’ “

And he laughs. A great laugh. God might have shortchanged Salley when it came to hands — if they were bigger, he would be able to dunk the ball the way we all wish he could — but he sure made up for it with a sense of humor. Salley is, for my money, the funniest man in the NBA. He is still the only Piston to do stand-up comedy in a New York City nightclub:

SALLEY: I hear Magic Johnson’s getting married.

WOMAN IN CROWD: Awwww, no!

SALLEY: Yeah, like you had a chance.

He is also the only Piston to market his own Spider pin, flirt with Eddie Murphy’s secretaries and fly Spike Lee in from New York for a TV pilot. Still, Salley is not all scheme-and- dream. He does as much charity work as any other teammate. He also is the only Detroit Piston to actually live in Detroit. And he has adopted a more serious attitude toward basketball these days — even if his expiring contract has something to do with it.

Wednesday night, in that unforgettable Game 5 at Boston, Salley showed me something: With time running down in the first half, he swooped in and blocked Brian Shaw’s jump shot, forcing a 24-second violation. Then, moments later, he raced from the foul line and leaped into the air, blocking another Shaw jumper as the buzzer sounded. He didn’t have to do that. Most players let up as the half ends. But Salley flew and crash-landed on the press table. And his teammates swarmed him like a soccer player who had just scored the winning goal. “YEAH, SAL! ALL RIGHT, SAL!” He tried to keep a stoic face, but you could tell he enjoyed feeling part of the team, feeling valuable, feeling like a real player.

Is this what maturity is all about?
“M aturity?” Dennis Rodman says. “Just because I turned 30? Naw. I didn’t even think about turning 30. I’m still a kid in a lot of ways. I’m making up for a lot of things I didn’t have when I was younger.”

Welcome to Dennisland. This is how he celebrated the dreaded 30: He had a big cake — from his fans in Rodman’s Roost — and he got a new pair of roller skates. (“I can roller-skate my butt off,” he says.) He played pinball and video games in an arcade. He ate with his friends, who are mostly younger. Oh, yeah. He also helped win Game 4 of the playoffs. Almost forgot about that.

But then, that can happen with Rodman — recently labeled “The Greatest Defender Ever” by a noted Boston sports writer. He goes through life, even at 30, with messages shaved into the hair on the back of his head. Ever since arriving here five years ago, he has been a professional athlete, earning big money yet enjoying himself like a kid in a toy store.

“I never nap,” he says. “You know that? I don’t think I’ve ever taken a nap in my life. When other players are napping on game day, I’m in my room, watching cartoons or something. I try to lie there, but I can’t fall asleep. When I go home, like at midnight, I’m outside, in the parking lot, just hanging around my friends. Maybe we go to a doughnut shop. I don’t sleep much. I just never have. I don’t know if something’s wrong with me or what.”

No. He’s just different. Has there ever been an athlete quite like Rodman? He has the physical gifts of a Greek god, the background of a poverty-stricken American and the optimism of an angel. He’ll cry at press conferences. He’ll give a wad of money to a strange beggar. But then Rodman has been in the real world. Less than 10 years ago he was a janitor in a Texas airport.

This is my theory: He was older then. Now he is younger. Unlike Salley, who matures as he ages, Rodman seems to grow more boyish. “I’m free now,” he says. “I wasn’t before.” He celebrates this not only with games and toys but with incredible basketball, doing things with his body that leave TV commentators speechless. He is a tireless rebounder, playing keep-away with the ball even over the tallest opponents. He doesn’t ask to shoot. He doesn’t want to shoot. He just wants to stick to his opponent’s skin, dive for loose balls, pull down every missed shot for 48 minutes . . .

“And find a good video arcade,” he says.

Right. W hen they first joined the Pistons, Salley and Rodman were lumped together, the kids, the rookies, later, the “X-factor.” They invented a new way of shaking hands, crossing their arms and high-fiving over their heads. They were a duo, a pair, but only because they arrived together. Now, like a vine stretching up a building, Salley and Rodman have grown in different directions.

“Who is more mature?” I ask Rodman, the older one.

“Oh, Salley is more mature,” he says. “Salley won’t do the things I do. He thinks they’re too childish. I mean, I play bumper cars. I roller-skate. I bring my Nintendo with me on the road. Salley likes to dress in nice clothes. I have the same clothes, but I don’t want to wear them. I’d rather wear a pair of jeans, my sneakers and a tie-dye shirt.”

I ask Salley to describe the difference between him and Rodman since they have joined the Pistons.

“Well, Dennis likes hot rod cars,” he says, “and I don’t care about cars anymore. Dennis lives in the suburbs; I live in the city. Dennis likes to hang out with his buddies; I like to hang out with women. Stuff like that.”

And yet, together, they foreshadowed the development of this basketball team. It was that draft, in 1986, that set the wheels in motion for the two championships this franchise boasts today. And it seems that Salley and Rodman always remind us of that in a series against the Celtics. Rodman has become the best defender in the game, enabling the Pistons to handle the Larry Birds and Kevin McHales who once were too strong. And Salley, though more sporadic, seems to rise not only in the playoffs, but especially against Boston. His shot-blocking is something the Pistons never had in the Kelly Tripucka-Kent Benson days. He makes a difference.

So it’s birthday week for the “kids,” who in some ways are both older and younger than when they first arrived. It is fun to watch them grow up. They are good guys and terrific athletes. But it is also a bit disturbing; where does the time go? When I see these two make a great play, lead a rally, help keep this remarkable championship drama alive for at least one more night, I feel like that grandmother again, grabbing them and saying, “You know, I remember you when you were this tall. . . . “

Unfortunately, I can’t reach that high.

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