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Original Issue


It is a measure of how tiresome Dennis Rodman's behavior has
become that his absence is now far more interesting than his
presence. His perverse appeal has become a reverse appeal. We
have seen him in drag, in tears, in Playboy and in denial. We
have seen all the tattoos, body piercings and hair colors we
care to imagine. He apparently has nothing else to show us,
because all Rodman is doing now is repeating himself. The
profane tirades, the naughty sexual innuendos, the mildly
violent outbursts: We have seen and heard them all again and
again. What was once outrageous or even offensive is now merely
predictable. An appearance by Rodman no longer holds the promise
of anything new, but his absence--now that's entertainment.

The defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls would disagree, of
course. Without Rodman, their power forward and the league's
leading rebounder, the Bulls are not as dominant a team, but
that merely proves the point. It's easy to take Chicago's
excellence for granted, but it's fascinating to watch the Bulls
try to maintain that excellence by making the myriad
adjustments, great and small, necessary to compensate for the
loss of Rodman's defense and rebounding. And just as Chicago is
not the same team without Rodman, the rest of the league also
takes on a different, newly competitive look. With Rodman
absent, the gap between the Bulls and the other contenders is
considerably smaller, and that's intriguing.

The Midwest Division-leading Houston Rockets proved Chicago's
vulnerability with a 102-86 home victory on Sunday in the Bulls'
second game since Rodman was suspended by the NBA for a minimum
of 11 games and fined $25,000 for kicking television cameraman
Eugene Amos in the thigh--or higher, depending on whom you talk
to--during a Jan. 15 game in Minnesota. It was Rodman's eighth
suspension, by either a team or the league, in 11 seasons.
Commissioner David Stern also ordered Rodman to see a counselor
of the NBA's choosing and made it clear that the suspension will
not be lifted until Rodman has proved to Stern's satisfaction
that he can return to the court without further incident
(SCORECARD, page 19). In Rodman's absence Chicago will have
several opportunities to find out whether it can still toy with
the other elite teams in the league. As of Sunday the early
indications were that the Bulls cannot.

That's important because the need for a commissioner and a
counselor to be convinced that Rodman has gained control of
himself before he can return means he could be gone far longer
than 11 games. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall at those
counseling sessions," says Chicago guard Steve Kerr. "I don't
exactly see Dennis showing up in a coat and tie. But maybe he'll
wear a nice wedding dress."

And even if Rodman returns as soon as possible, for a Feb. 11
home game against the Charlotte Hornets, he would probably be
just one more blowup away from a seasonlong ban, which means
that the Bulls would be wise to prepare themselves to chase
another championship without him. "We're operating under the
assumption that Dennis will do what he needs to do and come back
to be a functioning member of the team," says guard Michael
Jordan. "But we need to be ready for any eventuality."

Rodman appears willing to do whatever is necessary to be
reinstated--"I'm coming back stronger than ever," he says--but
it's worth noting that he sees himself as virtually blameless,
the victim of persecution by the league in general and Stern in
particular. He has told friends that he believes the referees
want to treat him fairly but that Stern has ordered them to
target him. When the Bulls were awarded their championship rings
at a ceremony in November, he refused to shake Stern's
outstretched hand.

Rodman's antics were harmless enough, even amusing, when they
were limited to complaining about being persecuted by the
officials or ripping his shirt off and throwing it into the
stands, but in the last 10 months he has struck two people (Ted
Bernhardt, the referee whom he head-butted in March 1996, and
Amos), and the Bulls are certainly not treating this latest
incident as an occasion for mirth. Though Rodman's teammates
have publicly supported him, with several players suggesting the
punishment was excessive, this episode may turn out to have been
the beginning of the end of his running with the Bulls. Coach
Phil Jackson, who usually discusses Rodman's antics with a wink
and a smile, was uncharacteristically terse last week. After the
league announced Rodman's punishment on Friday, Jackson's only
comment was to announce that second-year forward Jason Caffey
would start in Rodman's place that night against the Milwaukee
Bucks. Following the loss to the Rockets, Jackson made only a
brief statement to the press--"They beat us up inside pretty
good tonight"--and declined to take any questions.

There are indications that even if Rodman helps Chicago win
another championship, he and the Bulls may then part company.
Rodman will be a 36-year-old free agent at season's end, and
Chicago is not likely to offer anything close to the $9 million
they agreed to pay him this season for what would probably be
another year of headaches. And Rodman does not seem inclined to
accept anything less. With his perhaps misguided expectation of
continued endorsement income after his playing days are over and
the prospect of a movie career--he appears in a Jean-Claude Van
Damme film, Double Team, to be released in April--Rodman has
hinted that it will take a knockout offer to persuade him to
play another season. He has told friends that he will definitely
retire if Chicago does not win the championship this season and
that if the Bulls do repeat, it would take something in the
neighborhood of $15 million for him to return, a ludicrous
thought in light of his current problems. So unless Rodman
lowers his price tag, this season could well be his last.

But Chicago, 34-5 after Houston snapped the Bulls' nine-game
winning streak, is more concerned with the immediate future--the
difficult schedule it will encounter during Rodman's absence.
After the loss to the Rockets, the Bulls faced eight games
before the Feb. 7 to 10 All-Star break, including a home game on
Tuesday against the New York Knicks and rugged road matchups
against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Seattle SuperSonics, Portland
Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers. "Teams may think they're
catching us at the right time, and certainly it will be more of
a challenge without Dennis," says Jordan, "but the way we're
looking at it is, if we can beat those teams without him, it
will be an even bigger confidence boost for us."

For that to happen, Chicago will have to improve on its
performance against Houston. Rodman's absence wasn't obvious in
the statistics: The Bulls had a 50-45 rebounding edge, including
a 19-11 advantage on the offensive boards, and scored 16
second-chance points to the Rockets' seven. But that was at
least partly because Houston was shorthanded as well, without
power forward Charles Barkley, the third-leading rebounder in
the league, who had a sprained right ankle. Rodman's absence
changed Chicago's rotation and roles. Though the Bulls have high
hopes for the rapidly improving Caffey, who through Sunday was
averaging a mere 13.7 minutes, he was no factor against the
Rockets, finishing with four points and three rebounds in 27
minutes. Jordan concentrated more than usual on rebounds and
finished with 14 but said that the effort had hindered his
offense. He scored 26 points despite making only eight of his 25
shots. Forward Scottie Pippen and swingman Toni Kukoc, who were
scoreless in the fourth quarter when Houston pulled away with a
19-0 spurt, had an even more difficult time. Kukoc had six
offensive rebounds but shot only 1 for 10 and finished with
three points. Pippen, who in the first quarter took an
inadvertent elbow to the mouth from Rockets center Hakeem
Olajuwon, shot 2 for 14 and had more turnovers (six) than points

It also became painfully apparent to the Bulls that without
Rodman their interior defense was paper thin. Houston's Kevin
Willis, who before Sunday was averaging 8.7 points, started at
power forward in Barkley's place and hurt Chicago badly by
scoring 20, mostly on jump hooks from the low post. Olajuwon
finished with 32 points and 16 rebounds. "They're not the same
team inside without Rodman," Willis said afterward. "They'll
have to figure out an answer for that--but the Bulls are still
the Bulls."

Well, no, actually they're not. Not when they have to rely on
the inexperienced Caffey in the starting lineup; not when Jordan
and Pippen, whose energy Jackson was hoping to conserve for the
postseason, have to crash the boards and play heavier minutes
than usual (Jordan, who at week's end was averaging 37.8
minutes, played 43 on Sunday, and Pippen, averaging 38.5, was on
the court for 41); and not when they have to double-team in the
low post more often because they don't have Rodman to play the
opponent's best inside scorer without help.

No team can sympathize more with Chicago's efforts to save
itself for the postseason than Houston. The Rockets' three
venerable stars, Barkley (age 33), Olajuwon (34) and guard Clyde
Drexler (34), have kept each other fresh by taking turns in the
offensive spotlight. After Barkley almost single-handedly
destroyed the Knicks with 29 points and 12 rebounds in a 106-86
victory on Jan. 14, Olajuwon felt as if he'd had the night off.
"I could play another game," he said afterward. "I had no work
to do tonight." Drexler responded, "That's all right, Dream.
Next game we climb on your back." Three nights later Olajuwon
was ready, leading Houston with 26 points and 12 rebounds in a
win over the Dallas Mavericks.

One of Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich's regular-season
objectives is keeping his triumvirate healthy and rested, which
is why he has scaled back his practices. "We walk through
things, address whatever points we need to address and get out
of there," Rudy T says. "If I wear these guys out in practice,
it's going to cost me a game." The Houston players get cranky
when they don't get their rest. Anyone who suggested last week
that their first game against Chicago, a 110-86 Rockets loss at
the United Center on Jan. 11, was a good indicator of the
relative merits of the two teams was quickly reminded by any
Houston player within earshot that the Rockets had been playing
their fourth game in five nights. The Bulls, the Rockets pointed
out, had been playing merely the second of back-to-back outings.
"We're not a young team," says Barkley. "Me, Dream, Clyde, none
of us is the player he was a few years ago. Anytime we play our
fourth game in five nights, we're going to struggle. Just
remember, in the playoffs, you pretty much play only every other
day. So don't read too much into that game."

In fact, the only incident worth remembering from it may have
been the one that occurred long after the game was over, when
Jordan headed for the visitors' locker room in search of his pal
Barkley to finalize their dinner plans. "Y'all have a hard week?
You only played two games," Barkley said with a laugh when
Jordan entered. "You're getting that preferential treatment from
the NBA. They've got to guarantee y'all a spot in the Finals
because you're the only good team in the East."

"Only good team in the East?" Jordan said with a laugh. "You've
got only five teams over .500 in the West. We've got 10."

"Yeah," Barkley replied, "but how many of 'em are any good?"

They both had a good chuckle over that one, but the laughter now
has stopped for the Bulls, at least temporarily. The rest of the
league doesn't seem as amusing anymore. And neither does Dennis

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Caffey (35) clearly was no substitute for Rodman, while Jordan (23) felt effort spent rebounding hurt his overall game. [Jason Caffey,Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen in game]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER Willis (left), playing in place of Barkley, soared for 20 points, and Olajuwon left His Airness feeling rejected. [Scottie Pippen and Kevin Willis in game; Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan in game]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO Jordan's play knew no bounds, but after he was fouled (right) by Sam Mack, a technical on an incensed Rudy T ignited Houston's late run. [Michael Jordan in game; Sam Mack and Michael Jordan in game]