Would it surprise you that Dennis Rodman acted relatively normal on Sunday? That he didn’t throw a tantrum? That his hair was neither strawberry nor pistachio? That he had no new tattoos engraved in his skin? That he played the whole game without an ejection?

Would you be shocked — or disappointed?

Here is how the media works around Rodman. He was surrounded after Chicago’s victory Sunday, and was peppered with questions about his return to the Palace.

Was it a special game?

“Nah. I just tried to win.”

Did it feel weird being back?

“Nah. Not really.”

Heads nodded impatiently. This was not what they were looking for. Finally, someone asked about a quick foul that was called on Rodman during the game.

“It’s my reputation,” he sighed. “I’m the black Bill Laimbeer of the 90s.”

The crowd laughed and scribbled furiously. The cameras butted for position. Zoom in. Here he goes. Rodman noticed. He said it again.

“Yep, I’m the black Bill Laimbeer of the 90s. That’s me.”

And folks, I promise you, across today’s newspapers and airwaves, that’s the quote you will hear from Rodman. And people will say, “There he goes again! What a nut!”

Selective listening around The Worm will work. He’ll sound crazy every eight or nine sentences, so if you wait long enough, you’ll get something hot. But is that really the truth about him? Will that paint an accurate picture?

Does anybody care? Two things affected him

I care. At least with Rodman. Call me nostalgic, but I was writing about this guy long before the rest of the country knew who he was. And I’ve watched

him go from a wheezing, nervous kid to this creature that poses in dog collars and chains.

I attribute the change to two things: 1) The firing of Chuck Daly — Rodman’s professional father — which sent him into a rage against all NBA authority, and 2) His desire to be paid like the superstars in the game. Rodman still makes a meager salary by NBA standards ($2.5 million), and in his head he thinks if he makes himself a spectacle, he’ll command more bucks. His insanity did get him a Pizza Hut commercial.

But as far as a person? Well, I hate to disappoint, but he is not a lunatic. Especially not around people who know better.

“You know, I was looking at a picture of me when I first played here,” he said Sunday, after many of the cameras had departed, “and I couldn’t believe it. Regular hair. Those short shorts. Damn.”

“What do you think when you see that person?” I asked.

“I think I’ve gone from a lost little boy to a man who knows what’s going on behind closed doors in this game. I understand the business now. And if I get angry at it, I have to put my anger someplace else. Use it to play better.”

Hmm. Call me crazy, but that sounds like a pretty intelligent analysis. Of course, not too many people were writing this down. They were waiting for juicier stuff. And eventually, they got it. Including:

“When I play my final game, I’m gonna end it by taking my clothes off and just walking out . . . “

“I miss the Pistons, but not the deceitfulness of the organization, they told people one thing and did something else . . . “

“Phil Jackson? If I could wear a dress out there, he’d let me . . . “

Classic Dennis, they call that.

But they have it backwards. Most don’t know Classic Dennis

Classic Dennis is old Dennis, a guy who wanted to win so badly he cried in the middle of games. Classic Dennis is a guy who saw a man sleeping on the street, took out a wad of bills and shoved it in the man’s hand. The new stuff, the tattoos, the noise, it’s part of this grand experiment that Rodman feels will land him a jackpot. Give him this much: he had two points Sunday, and only nine rebounds, yet he had a bigger crowd around him than Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen.

“This is a three-ring circus,” he said of the Bulls, “and I’m just one of the rings. Did you hear the crowd here today? They were cheering us as much as booing us. It’s like this wherever we go. We’re like a rock band.”

So maybe it’s perfect for Dennis. In San Antonio, he was just too strange. And the coach, Bob Hill, wanted his players in a straight line.

Jackson — a man who enjoys the Grateful Dead — is far looser. I asked Jackson why his approach was working with Rodman, and he smiled. “I like individuality,” he said, “and Dennis brings a few laughs with his.”

You know what? I bet Jackson knows what many of Rodman’s old friends know. That you can watch an actor and still know he’s in a play. The Rodman I saw Sunday at the Palace still chases rebounds like a demon, still pumps his fist after a good play, and still lets his emotions bubble near the top of the pot.

He also knows that shocking people is the only way to become a star when you don’t score points.

So if you want to believe that Dennis has gone completely wacko, keep reading GQ and Sports Illustrated articles, when he takes willing reporters to gay bars and tattoo parlors. But I’m telling you, as someone who has known Dennis when he had to ask for directions to the Silverdome, that he is not
“the black Bill Laimbeer of the 90s” — just a guy who gets almost as much kick out of saying things like that as the people who write it down.

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