Too Hollywood for L.A.?

  • Babe Ruth in New York. Joe Montana in San Francisco. Michael Jordan in Chicago. Sometimes the sports gods manage to find the most natural habitat for a player. And now they've gone and aced another assignment: Dennis Rodman in Los Angeles.

    "Every time he steps onto the court, it'll be like an audition," said one of his handlers last week after Rodman--who will star as a sort of black James Bond in a movie scheduled for release this summer--signed on to rescue the struggling Lakers.

    Oh, what a week in L.A., where basketball's prodigal problem child took El Nino's spot on the roster of California calamities. Rodman rained tears at a press conference held at--where else?--Planet Hollywood in Beverly Hills, where he complained about being unappreciated and underpaid but was profanely perky while discussing his sex life with current wife and former Baywatch babe Carmen Electra.

    Two days later, after the former Chicago Bull had officially signed, it was Laker coach Del Harris who broke down. Not because he'd have to baby-sit Rodman (whose last coach would be wearing a straitjacket today were he not a Zen master) but because Harris had just been fired after a 6-6 start with a team that had had ring-ceremony potential.

    But the most pained character in the whole drama was basketball legend and Laker vice president Jerry West, who had complained about stress on the job pre-Rodman. West too appeared near tears, but it wasn't clear whether it was from firing his friend Harris or from sheer relief that Rodman, who uses his head as an evolving art project and wears enough facial rings to hang curtains, hadn't shown up wearing a dress. Yes, Rodman is right for L.A. But for the Lakers?

    "I have mixed emotions," admitted West, who lost his argument against Rodman with owner Jerry Buss. The Laker organization, one of the most successful sports franchises in the history of overpriced beer, is in lock-the-doors identity crisis. They fire a gentleman who represented the class of the past, and they bring in Rodman's history of tormenting coaches and alienating teammates with tardiness and demon-seed weirdness. Before he'd even put on a uniform, Rodman said the Lakers "don't know the game of basketball." And since they'd fired Harris, Rodman volunteered to coach, saying that'd be something, him coming out in "a pimp-daddy hat."

    But the Lakers gambled because Rodman was, and might still be at age 37, a great player whose specialties--rebounding and defense--are their weaknesses. And he has won five championship rings, a trick the Lakers hope he can teach young stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Plus there's always a chance Rodman's ex-squeeze Madonna will become a Laker girl.

    New Laker coach Kurt Rambis also owns a championship resume. And as a Laker starter in the '80s, he was a sort of geek god, selflessly supplying rebounds and passing options for Magic Johnson's Showtime offense. So very...Dennis.

    The two debuted Friday night. Rodman's hair was Laker purple and yellow, and his rebounding and hustle helped his new team to an easy win over the hapless Clippers. "As a player, we can use him, plain and simple," says veteran guard Derek Harper, who won't be afraid to take Rodman by the hand if he goes goofy on them.

    Those who know the black James Bond say his three-hanky breakdown and bizarre, three-week holdout are just Dennis being Dennis--the attention-hungry Dallas child whose father abandoned him, who rode the bench before quitting his high school basketball team and next worked as an airport janitor until he was arrested and fired for stealing watches. Then he grew nearly a foot in the span of a year, briefly attended a junior college and ended up at little Southeastern Oklahoma State on a scholarship. That's where he befriended the son of a white man, a farmer and postman, who took him in and taught him to punch dogies the size of Charles Barkley.

    Has this story been optioned yet?

    Being strange "is a way Dennis makes money," says James Rich, the farmer. It's also part of Rodman's sly social commentary on what's acceptable in America, if you believe former teammate John Salley. "We don't know what normal is," says Salley. "Is Howard Stern normal? Is Donald Trump normal?"

    No. And Dennis makes three.