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Original Issue


Of all the lasting images from these NBA Finals--Michael
Jordan's eyes as he sensed the kill, somehow passionately hot
and cruelly cold at the same time; talkative Gary Payton's jaw
tightly clenched, which for him is tantamount to a concession
speech--the one that will linger longest is Chicago Bulls
forward Dennis Rodman's smile. Did it ever leave his face? He
smiled sarcastically when the referees whistled him for fouls,
shaking his head at their folly. He smiled warmly at a LuvaBull,
one of the Chicago cheerleaders, when he landed in her lap while
diving for a loose ball. He smiled mockingly at poor Frank
Brickowski, the Seattle SuperSonics forward who got himself
ejected twice in the first three games because he didn't realize
that the real mission impossible is beating Rodman at his own
mind game. Seattle coach George Karl was correct when he said
that Rodman was laughing at the world. Like it or not, he has
earned that right. Champions get the last laugh.

But unless you are a die-hard Bulls fan or a 13-year-old who
thinks a rebel and a hero are necessarily the same thing,
perhaps you ask yourself: Is this what you want your champion to
be? An instigating, irritating performance artist? Maybe you
like your winners more stylish and dignified, like the Bulls'
magnificent Jordan, but admit it: During the Finals, no matter
how hard you tried, you could not keep your eyes from returning
to Jordan's tattooed teammate. Love him or hate him, it seems
the public cannot ignore him, which may be the real reason
behind Rodman's smile--that and his proximity to his third NBA
championship ring. After their 108-86 thrashing of the Sonics in
Game 3 on Sunday in Seattle, he and the rest of the Bulls were
not quite champs yet. But with Chicago ahead 3-0 in the
best-of-seven series (Game 4 was scheduled for Wednesday at
Seattle's Key Arena), the demoralized Sonics had about as much
chance of coming back to win as they did of deciphering the
hieroglyphics in Rodman's hair.

The inevitable championship would be the Bulls' fourth in six
years. In any other season the focus would be on the fact that
Jordan, who broke the Sonics' backs with 36 points in Game 3 (27
coming in the first half) and who was averaging a series-
leading 31.0 points, was on the brink of taking the Bulls to the
title for the fourth consecutive year that he has played a full
season. Exclude last year's Eastern Conference semifinal loss to
the Orlando Magic, when he was still scraping off the rust from
his 17-month hiatus from the game, and the Bulls with Jordan
haven't lost a playoff series in six years. What he was about to
accomplish--regaining the throne he had abdicated in October '93
when he retired to pursue a baseball career--would be one of the
most remarkable feats in NBA history. And as soon as everyone
stopped craning his neck to see if that really was supermodel
Cindy Crawford scurrying to keep up with Rodman after Game 3 (it
was), maybe they would notice. Jordan was the Bulls' leading man
in the Finals, but Rodman was the scene-stealer. "Dennis tends
to capture the limelight sometimes because of the way he does
what he does," Jordan said after Game 3. "But no one on this
team cares who gets the most attention. The focus is on winning
a championship, and Dennis is helping us get there."

Rodman was at his most helpful in Game 2 at Chicago's United
Center, when he grabbed 20 rebounds, including 11 offensive
boards to tie the Finals record, in the Bulls' 92-88 victory. He
was less of a factor on the backboards in Game 3, pulling down
10 rebounds, but he did even more damage to the Sonics' psyche.
Brickowski, his main foil throughout the series, was ejected
with 5:46 left in the fourth quarter after committing a flagrant
foul against Rodman in what was almost a replay of his ejection
in Game 1, a 107-90 Bulls win. Rodman spent much of Game 3 doing
what he had done during most of the series: teasing the Sonics.
At one point, he had stood near the foul lane facing Brickowski,
smiling at him while the Seattle fans showered him with boos.
Afterward he delighted in giving the Sonics a little free
advice. "They need to quit worrying about how to knock Dennis
Rodman out of the game," he said, "and learn how to play
basketball again. My job is to go out there, do the dirty work
and get in people's heads. That's my job. I don't get paid
enough to do it, but I do it."

Rodman, who came from the San Antonio Spurs in an October trade
and made $2.5 million this season in the last year of the
six-year contract he brought with him, might be winning himself
a new deal with the Bulls. "I remember playing against him the
last couple of years when he was with the Spurs," says Chicago
guard Steve Kerr. "I hated him. Absolutely couldn't stand him.
Now I love him. Anybody in the league would want to have him as
a teammate. Except maybe [San Antonio center] David Robinson."

The Sonics wouldn't be likely to welcome the Worm into their
locker room right about now, either. Before Rodman became a pain
in their posteriors, they were as relaxed and self-assured as
they had been in three years, having at last shed the label of
underachievers by reaching the Finals after two consecutive
playoff flops. The loose, confident attitude apparently extended
throughout the Karl family. Karl's 13-year-old son, Coby, saw
Sonics guard Nate McMillan wearing a T-shirt with an X printed
over the logos of the teams that had been eliminated from the
playoffs, leaving only the Seattle and the Chicago logos
unmarked. Coby took two pieces of masking tape and stealthily
placed an X over the Bulls' logo.

But that proved to be wishful thinking. Seattle found itself in
a 3-0 hole despite outstanding performances in the first two
contests in Chicago from forward Shawn Kemp, who scored 32
points in Game 1 and 29 in Game 2. The Reign Man was the Sonics'
only consistent offensive threat as the Bulls held Payton to 26
points on 12-of-32 shooting in the first two games. Chicago
made the Sonics guard's life difficult in much the same way that
Seattle tried to contain Jordan--by sending a series of defenders
at him. "They send two guys to come in and beat me up and two
guys to be athletic," Payton said the day after Game 2. "They
put Scottie [Pippen] on me for size. [Ron] Harper, [Randy] Brown
and Jordan--when those guys guard me, they try to muscle me. And
every time I go to the basket, they get a lot of help."

One of the 6'4" Payton's favorite tactics in the Sonics' earlier
playoff series had been to post up and shoot over smaller point
guards like the Sacramento Kings' 5'10" Tyus Edney and the Utah
Jazz's 6'1" John Stockton. But the size of Chicago's
guards--Jordan and Harper are both 6'6"--took that option away.
"He's a great player," Harper said of Payton, "but if he thinks
he can post me up, well, good luck." (Payton also missed
McMillan, who played only six minutes in Game 1 and spent the
next two games in street clothes because of pain caused by a
bulging disk in his back.)

But the difference in Payton wasn't purely due to strategy. In
the Finals he was strangely subdued, which concerned the Sonics
enough that scout Brendan Malone, who had been an assistant on
the Detroit Pistons' championship teams of 1989 and 1990, took
him aside on the off-day between Games 1 and 2. Malone told
Payton about the fiery attitude Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas
always took into the Finals, about how Thomas would pace the
locker room like a caged animal before every game. He urged
Payton to play with more of the cocky swagger the Sonics have
come to know and love. Payton seemed to take the advice to heart
in Game 2, going so far as to engage Jordan in several verbal
confrontations, but the rest of his game didn't keep up with his
mouth. With 13 points and three assists, he wasn't nearly the
factor that Seattle needed him to be. Two of Seattle's best
three-point shooters, guard Hersey Hawkins and forward Detlef
Schrempf, weren't much help either (combined, they made only
five of 21 three-point attempts in the first three games).
Payton had 19 points and nine assists in Game 3, but they hardly
mattered after the Bulls raced out to a 34-16 first-quarter lead
and were never seriously threatened.

Payton joined a long and distinguished list of players who have
been stifled by the Bulls in this postseason, including center
Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat, guard John Starks of the New
York Knicks and the Magic's guard Nick Anderson and forward
Dennis Scott. In fact, the case can be made that Chicago, 14-1
in the playoffs through Sunday, has had the best defensive
postseason in NBA history. After Game 3, the Bulls had held
their opponents under 20 points in 27 of their 60 quarters
(excluding the overtime period in their only loss, 102-99 in
Game 3 against the Knicks)--or 45% of the time. No NBA champion
has come close to that percentage since the league went to its
current four-round playoff format in 1983-84. The '90 Pistons
were the closest, with 26.3% (21 times in 80 quarters).

Those Pistons, not coincidentally, featured Rodman, albeit in a
far less flamboyant incarnation. Some athletes put on their game
faces; Rodman does his game hair. The new 'do he unveiled before
Game 1 was a multicolored jumble of symbols and designs that
made him look as though graffiti artists had mistaken his head
for an abandoned building. (His critics would call that a
perfectly understandable error, but we digress.) "I think it
speaks for itself, doesn't it?" Rodman said of his hairstyle. It
did, but exactly what it was saying was anyone's guess. A peace
sign, an AIDS ribbon and what Rodman referred to as tribal art
were part of the collage, painted in a tie-dyed pattern as a
tribute to Chicago coach and Grateful Dead lover Phil Jackson.

Rodman and Brickowski, who sports a crew cut, weren't exchanging
the phone numbers of their stylists when they tangled late in
the first half of the series opener. Rodman had picked up a
technical in the first quarter, and it didn't take a genius to
see that one of the burly Brickowski's goals was to lure Rodman
into a second T and the automatic ejection that would accompany
it. Trying to bait the Worm, however, is to engage the master at
his own game, as Brickowski found out. He was called for a
flagrant foul after clubbing Rodman while battling for a
rebound, then was ejected moments later by referee Joey Crawford
after exchanging words with the Bulls' Jack Haley.

None of this pleased Karl, who thought Rodman had flopped to
draw the flagrant-foul call on Brickowski and who complained at
length about it to the media the next day. This was more than
just a coach's typical lobbying of the referees through the
media. To Karl, Rodman is like an infidel in the temple. "Dennis
Rodman is the guy laughing at the NBA," Karl said the day after
Game 1. "He laughs at his teammates. He laughs on TV. He laughs
at the referees, and they still kiss his butt. It's crazy."

Maybe it is, but there is a method to Rodman's madness. It took
him exactly one half to help goad a key Seattle reserve into an
ejection and to become a distraction to the Sonics. But that was
nothing compared with the damage he would do to Seattle in Game
2, especially at crunch time, when he turned the game into his
own personal stage. In the final minute he grabbed a clutch
offensive rebound of a miss by Kerr, won a key jump ball to
preserve a three-point Chicago lead and hit the clinching free
throw. Earlier, Rodman had found time to chat up Karl. "Are we
still friends?" he asked the Sonics coach. "We're still
friends," Karl replied. Without Rodman's performance, the Bulls
would have gone to Seattle with the series even. "There's more
to Dennis Rodman than meets the eye," Rodman said afterward,
leaving others to ponder that frightening thought while he
headed off for an evening with the artist formerly known as
Prince, both of them perhaps hoping to find a Chicago nightspot
where it was Androgynous Celebrity Night.

In fact, since November, it has been one long party for the
Bulls, whose combined regular-season and playoff record through
Sunday was an astonishing 86-11. Everything seems to have gone
right for Chicago in '95-96, and the Finals were no exception.
When Harper suddenly came up with a sore left knee during
warmups before Game 3, Jackson inserted sixth man Toni Kukoc
into the starting lineup, and he proceeded to hit three quick
jump shots, including a three-pointer, to help stake the Bulls
to their big first-quarter lead. Center Luc Longley provided
surprising scoring punch with a playoff career-high 19 points,
including seven in the fourth quarter. Pippen, who had 21 points
in both of the first two games, added balance in Game 3 with a
near triple-double (12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds).

"That's the kind of team we have," Rodman said after Game 3.
"Nothing gets to us, nothing makes us lose our cool. Not even
me. Everybody wants to say Dennis Rodman's crazy, but I'm not.
Dennis Rodman knows exactly what he's doing." Then Rodman began
to make his way through the crowd toward an elevator in Key
Arena. Fans were calling his name, reporters were begging to ask
just one more question, and Cindy Crawford was on her way to
join him for a television appearance. As the elevator doors
closed, the last thing the crowd saw was Rodman shaking his
head. And smiling.

COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS COVER PHOTO BullWhipped [Seattle SuperSonics player and Michael Jordan]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Aggressive at both ends of the floor, a determined Harper helped set the tone in Game 1 by jamming in a rebound over Kemp. [Shawn Kemp, Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER The Sonics swarmed and swatted the charging Bulls, but Pippen (left) and Jordan had answers for whatever Seattle threw at them. [Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, Shawn Kemp and Scottie Pippen]

COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS [See caption above--Michael Jordan, Shawn Kemp and Sam Perkins]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER The theatrical Rodman strutted his most spectacular stuff in Game 2, grabbing 20 rebounds. [Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and others]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Karl and Rodman jawed before deciding they were still friends. [George Karl and Dennis Rodman]