US falls for Rodman the rude

America's newest basketball hero delights in controversy, causing offence - and cross-dressing, writes David Usborne

If a sport is going to make it big in America, it must achieve several things. It must attract giant television audiences, it must generate billions of dollars, so that its best players can be paid millions. And these days, apparently, it must also supply the nation - and most usually its black population - with its most compelling role models.

Basketball does all of this. And how. Barely a household here, it seems, has not been riveted over recent days to the climactic denouement of this season's National Basketball Association league championships, with the astonishing Chicago Bulls defending their title against the Utah Jazz.

And this ball game supplies the role models also. Count among them Magic Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers great who contracted HIV and gripped the hearts of the whole land. Bow or curtsy to His Airness, Chicago's own Michael Jordan, who last Wednesday played Game Five of the championships, despite running a high fever. And laugh, cheer or wince before that other phenomenon on the Bulls team: Dennis Rodman.

That Rodman is a mega-star is beyond question. Like Johnson and Jordan, he has developed a career that has taken him far beyond the basketball court. Through a company called the Rodman Group, he has peddled himself to every conceivable talk show, made it into films and written books. The trouble is that Rodman, with his pierced nose, navel and scrotum is a bad-ass guy. He gives role models a bad name.

It was in Utah last week, playing in the home of the Jazz, that Rodman committed the latest sin that will serve to guarantee his continued notoriety. Groping for excuses for some lame play, he first blamed a lack of sex - three times he fled strait-laced Salt Lake City for the carnalities of Las Vegas - and then he said he couldn't get his game flowing because "you've got a bunch of asshole Mormans out here". That in a state where more than two-thirds of the population are Mormon.

At first, the reaction was almost muted, save for the Anti-Defamation League, which instantly complained. So relentless have been the ruderies of Rodman that many yawned. After all, he had been suspended from playing crucial games for the Bulls twice this year, once for swearing before millions on TV and a second time for kicking a photographer. Last season he was suspended for head-butting a referee.

It is off court that Rodman has excelled in his wilful buffoonery. Thirty- six years old, he has a wardrobe that is, shall we say, sexually confused. (Rodman loves to shock by strutting in dresses. Will he be in the crowd for the auction of Princess Diana's old frocks here later this month?) Crowned with hair that changes hue with every appearance and the bearer of multiple tattoos, he was once the boyfriend of Madonna. His relations with the singer provided the chapter that sent his first book, Bad As I Wannabe, to the top of the charts. He wrote: "She wasn't an acrobat, but she wasn't a dead fish either."

In his latest book, Walk on the Wild Side, published here last month, Rodman confides his desire to change his name to Orgasm. Not Dennis Orgasm or Orgasm Rodman: just Orgasm. On his death, the author would like to be "stripped naked, frozen and placed in a see-through freezer".

Of his feelings for the NBA Commissioner, David Stern, Rodman wrote that he would like to kidnap him, "strip off all his clothes, rub lipstick and makeup all over him, dress up like Frank [Sinatra] and sing to him". For now, Stern has the last word. On Thursday, he took action against Rodman for the Mormon remark, slapping him with a $50,000 (pounds 30,700) fine - the largest in NBA history.

But what is $50,000 to a man who has made $19m this season alone? And on Friday night Rodman, with a hair-do worthy of a new British Airways tail fin, played with Jordan and the rest of the Bulls in their latest fantastical triumph: a stomach-gulping 90-86 point win that secured the team its fifth NBA championship title in seven years. As Rodman would no doubt say, the Mormons can go and do an anatomical impossibility to themselves.

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