By William Plummer
May 15, 1995 12:00 PM

DENNIS RODMAN OF THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS IS IN BIG EARLS Texas Style Bar B-Q, tearing into a plate of pork even as Jack Haley, his teammate and designated mouthpiece, is telling how Dennis once missed a pregame shoot-around against the Miami Heat and got himself suspended. “So Dennis met with [coach Bob] Hill and [general manager Gregg] Popovich,” says Haley, “and I was there to interpret. They were yelling at Dennis for 30 minutes straight. And he sits there, mute, with his shades on and his eyes closed. Finally, the coach says, ‘Dennis, I tell you what: I’m not going to suspend you, I’m not going to fine you $40,000 for missing the one game—if you do me one favor. You open your eyes and say, ‘Okay, I understand.’ Long pause. Then Dennis says, ‘Keep the f—kin’ money,’ and walks out.”

Dennis Rodman is the power forward the Spurs, who are in the second round of the playoffs, can’t seem to live with and clearly can’t win the National Basketball Association title without. At 34, Rodman has led the league in rebounds for four straight years, an amazing feat considering that he is just 6’6″ and 210 lbs. and regularly bangs bodies with bulky 7-footers. “He may be the most unique player ever, because he doesn’t need to score to help you win,” says Chuck Daly, Rodman’s coach on the Detroit Pistons from 1986 to 1992. “You know the term ‘bionic’? [Michael] Jordan is bionic, so is Dennis. They have cardiovascular systems and physical abilities that are beyond human.”

A rebel without a pause, Rodman is notorious for his myriad tattoos, his belly ring and his hue-of-the-month hair. He has also briefly dallied with another bottle blonde, Madonna. Rodman merely smiles when her name is mentioned. But Haley says, “It was pretty heavy. I heard her say several times she wanted to have babies with Dennis. She called him a ‘perfect specimen.’ ”

Rodman’s antics, however, have not played well with Spurs management, who have been galled by his surliness, his refusal to show up at practice on time and his unwillingness even to talk to them, except via Haley. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot—the Spurs brass suspended him 17 games at the start of the season and saw the team go 8-9; with Rodman back, the Spurs finished 62-20, which was the best record in the NBA.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” says Haley, 31. “He’s late every day. Here’s an example: I pull up one day, and I’m running late. I jump out of my car. And he’s sitting in his truck. ‘Bro, come on. What are you doing?’ I say. ‘I’m listening to some Pearl Jam,’ he says. He strolls in 15 minutes late. It’s a concentrated effort to make a statement.”

Turns out the statement is—what else?—that he is underpaid. Rodman is quietly furious that he is getting a mere $2.4 million a year while lesser players make millions more. It isn’t the money itself that rankles, but what the money signifies. “How many years do I have to play to be really appreciated?” he says. “Respect—that’s all I want.”

Rodman has been looking for respect for much of his life. According to his mother, Shirley, in Rebound: The Dennis Rodman Story, “Dennis was a soft, painfully shy, passive child”—the kind who was beaten up by older kids who stole his lunch money. Growing up in Dallas, Dennis was overshadowed by his younger sisters, Debra and Kim, who became All-American college basketball players. Only 5’9” in high school, Dennis rode the bench and soon quit the team to cruise the streets in his mother’s Monte Carlo. “I was just doing nothing, being a lowlife,” he says. At 19 he was arrested for stealing watches from a gift shop at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He spent an instructive night in jail, where, he has said, he was “totally scared” and made up his mind to turn his life around.

Fortunately, his hormones decided to cooperate, and the next year he shot up to 6’6″. His new physical prowess got him a scholarship in 1983 to Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, and at a summer basketball camp there, the lonely Rodman struck up a relationship with a 13-year-old white boy, Bryne Rich, who had recently killed his best friend in a hunting accident and had such terrifying nightmares he couldn’t sleep in his own bed. The two lost young men became inseparable, and Rodman—en route to becoming a three-time small college All-American—ended up adopting Bryne’s entire family, virtually moving onto their farm in nearby Bokchito. “It was weird,” says Bryne’s mother, Pat, 52. “Dennis just started bonding with us. We forgot that he was black. We looked at his inner being.”

A second-round NBA draft pick in 1986, Rodman played seven years for the Detroit Pistons, where he established himself as the top rebounder in the game—and, says Chuck Daly, colorfully, “as a mustang on the prairie.” In 1992, when Daly was fired, Rodman was so depressed that friends worried that he was suicidal. He was also, at the time, experiencing the breakup of his 82-day marriage to Annie Bakes, who bore him a daughter, Alexis, now 6 and living in Sacramento. In 1993, he was traded to the Spurs, two months before the arrival of Jack Haley.

Given the locker next to Rodman, Haley tried for months to get Dennis to acknowledge him—to no avail. The breakthrough came on the night of the Spurs Gala, a black-tie event, to which Rodman wore thongs and a tie-dyed shirt. Afterward, Rodman, who was with his girlfriend, Stacy Yarbrough, invited Haley and his wife, also named Stacy, to what turned out to be a gay nightclub with male dancers. “I’m a manly man,” says Haley, “and I admit I was a bit intimidated. But just to let him know I could handle it, I slipped the dancer a buck in his G-string. From there [Dennis and I] built a friendship.”

At the moment, the other Spurs have no such bond to Rodman. Asked why he won’t even recognize his teammates off the court, Rodman says only, “I talk to them during the game. But once the whistle sounds, I’m not a basketball player anymore.”

His teammates have come to appreciate him nonetheless. “Dennis is a warrior,” says David Robinson, the superstar center, of the man they call Robocop. “Dennis is misunderstood,” says coach Bob Hill, who is just beginning to understand Rodman himself. “There is a lot of substance to him.”

The fans have known that all along. In fact, next to Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, Rodman maybe the NBA’s most marketable commodity—he currently stars in a Pizza Hut commercial. “Any arena we go to in the country,” says Haley, “there are at least 10 people that will have dyed their hair green or pink or purple that night. They wear the Rodman jerseys and the stick-on tattoos.”

They want to be like…Dennis. “It’s like I’m a Michael Jordan,” says Rodman. “But I’m a Michael Jordan on the flip side.” He thinks about this for a moment, then adds proudly, “That’s the way it is. The NBA don’t want it, but they don’t have any choice.”


DON SIDER in San Antonio