Dennis Rodman and a tale of two Los Angeleses

While headlines decry the arrival of basketball's most controversialplayer, many fans just shrug and hope for an NBA championship.

For weeks, this patchwork metropolis of fragile neighborhoods has been in a fresh and very public dither over its future and its image.

The clash of rich and poor, black and white, Beverly Hills versus Boyz in the Hood has been a recurring theme since the Rodney King riots of 1992 and then again with the O.J. Simpson trial four years later.

Now the same underlying polarities are being forced out in the open and into the world of sports.

Dennis Rodman, the reigning bad boy of pro basketball (if not all of sport) signed last week with the Los Angeles Lakers. While most of America might think that this most outrageous of sports personalities was made for Tinseltown, the view from here is much different.

To many, it's a disaster. The Lakers boast some of basketball's classiest all-time greats: Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And now Rodman - a man who colors his hair differently every week and wears nose rings, foppish hats, and tattoos - has joined that elite fraternity.

"THE FLAKERS?" asked the The Daily News, in a giant, page 1 headline, picturing Rodman in multicolored beads, velour Rasta-hat, and lip studs. Four inside stories - news section, not sports - included columnist Dennis McCarthy declaring, "Rodman betrays values of past heroes," and an editorial: "Basketball loses last shred of innocence in L.A." The more influential Los Angeles Times also lamented on its front page: "High Price for a Championship" - "The man is truly from a different planet."

Beside Rodman's image (he was also recently married in a white wedding dress with lace veil), there have also been behavior problems with his previous teams. Those include foul language, missed practices, tardiness, and a host of others.

Still, he is a player of undoubted talent, as his status as seven-time NBA rebounding champ and top-rank defender will attest.

So with all this as backdrop, Rodman's first game as a Laker Friday became the biggest show in town. Somewhat surprisingly, though, at the packed Great Western Forum arena, there seemed to be the same kind of disconnect between press and public attitude that accompanied the recent impeachment scandal. To wit: If the man performs on the court, forget about his overall character, personal shortcomings, or "unofficial" behaviors.

"The man be doin' what he do," said Kurwin Johnson, a Los Angeles native, sitting high in the cheap seats. "Off the court he's a freak, but on the court he's a ballplayer. What you do on the outside has nothing to do with that."

Courtside, many fans gave the same answers, with one minor exception. "I worry about fans showing up in drag," admitted one concessionaire.

But the debate here is just getting started. One side says such entrenched attitudes represent a maturing of Los Angeles's celebrity culture - it can increasingly separate a famous person's strengths and failings. Another says they reflect a society-eroding growth of anything-goes cynicism.

Either way, Michael Leeds, who teaches about the economics of sports at Temple University in Philadelphia, says the increased focus on personality is a conscious, top-down marketing decision by the NBA.

There is also a growing focus on sports as sheer entertainment (as opposed to achievement-oriented athleticism), with such amusement entities as Disney owning the California Angels baseball team and the Mighty Ducks hockey club, media giant Time Warner owning baseball's Atlanta Braves, Chicago Tribune owning the Chicago Cubs, and now Fox's Rupert Murdoch owning the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Following this theory, the rise of anti-heroes - which includes other "bad boy" rebels such as Latrell Sprewell and Allen Iverson - is the shadow side of these trends.

"Rodman is perhaps the extreme example of the blurring line between sport and entertainment," says Mr. Leeds. "In response to a changing emphasis in his profession, he has manufactured a persona that has rivaled or surpassed all but a few players."

Whether or not adults can compartmentalize public acts from private ones, at least one young fan - decked out in a No. 8 Lakers uniform - knew where he would draw the line.

When asked if he wanted to grow up to be a basketball player, Chris DeVille, who attends Kelso Elementary across the street from the arena, exclaimed, "Yes!"

"Do you want to grow up to be like Dennis Rodman?"

"No way!"

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