Bull Market For Self-promoters

Fame: Teammates Follow Different Drummers, But Their $imilarities Number In The Millions. Sorry, Bullets, Both Are Winners.

April 25, 1997|By Steve Rhodes | Steve Rhodes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO -- They are the perfect post-modern teammates.

On the court, they comprise the greatest scoring-rebounding combination since Wilt Chamberlain in his prime. Yet their differences could hardly be more pronounced. One won't do locker room interviews until he is completely dressed; the other prefers to do almost anything half-naked. One co-starred with Bugs Bunny in a warm-and-fuzzy Disney movie; the other with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a mindlessly brutal action pic. One is Corporate America's favorite endorser; the other has his own show on MTV. One wears an earring; the other wears them in his nose and who knows where else.

They play in the incongruously named United Center, the glitzy, yuppie-friendly, never-lose-a-home-game palace where the Washington Bullets meet the world champion Chicago Bulls tonight. The UC used to be called "The House That Michael Built." Michael, of course, being Michael Jordan, reigning god of roundball.

But for the past two years, Michael has had to share his house with an unruly guest named Dennis, a dress-wearing, photographer-abusing, Madonna-dating madman who operates a traveling circus known as the Rodman World Tour. Yin to Michael's yang, anti-hero to his Mr. Clean, Dennis Rodman has done something almost unimaginable: upstaged Jordan on his own turf.

But Rodman has had an even wider, more profound impact. Partly through calculation, partly through great timing, he has helped cause a shift in America's sports universe: the merging of rock and jock cultures. Dennis Rodman has made room in the macho world of sports for cross-dressers (at least those who can rebound) and geeks.

Pity the Bullets. They come to town tonight to take on not just a team, but a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

Michael Jordan is certainly aware that things have changed. Make no mistake, he is still The Man. The Bulls are still his team. But Rodman's large, multi-tattooed shadow looms at every turn.

Take a recent night when the two stars both held publicity events on the same off-night from basketball. Jordan, in an expensive business suit before a roomful of company executives, introduced a new underwear line for Hanes.

Jordan, as usual, was in his element, a corporate flack feeding the assembled press both smooth phraseology like "feel the market" and more tangible niceties like shrimp cakes and mocha swirl cheesecake. Everything was swell until one reporter called out: "Is Dennis gonna wear these?"

The inevitable Rodman question. Jordan got a crooked look on his face, but replied diplomatically. If he'd answered in even a slightly provocative way, it would no doubt be the news soundbite of choice. So instead he grinned and just kept hawking underwear.

Just a few blocks away, Rodman was descending from his World Tour bus, resplendent in gold lame and sparkling mascara into a street crowd filled with punks and cross-dressers gathered for the world premiere of his new movie "Double Team." What underwear he was wearing, if any, went unrecorded.

Rodman, though, sometimes doesn't even have to try to beat Jordan at the publicity game.

Take last summer. Rodman's visage went up on the side of a building facing the Kennedy Expressway, one that has long featured huge murals of Chicago athletes, including Jordan. Just a neat little piece of low-brow Chicago sports-fan culture. But when the Rodman likeness went up, traffic went haywire. Gawkers couldn't get over his green hair. The expressway was so tied up the highway patrol begged for mercy. So the mural was removed -- after making the national news.

Rodman gets blamed for a lot. It's true that Rodman is a dirty player. But then, the sainted Jordan happily accepts the phantom foul calls and extra step from NBA officials. The difference is that Rodman will never get any calls his way, and as a result looks to deceive, draping players' arms over him and taking dives. Jordan will always get the call, and takes mighty advantage of it.

But most of Rodman's critics are more offended by his surly attitude and gender-bending fashion sense than his play. It's reminiscent of the unwillingness to accept Elvis' gyrating hips, or the ponytails many male Baby Boomers now favor, or other counterculture tastes that ultimately determine what the rest of America wears, eats, listens to and watches.

And so it goes. Jordan gets credit. Rodman gets blame -- and revels in it. In "Double Team," Rodman's character walks away with the ancient Roman Colosseum being blown to bits behind him. "They'll probably blame me for this too," he cracks.

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