Laker Maker or Laker Breaker? Dennis Rodman Could Lead His Talented but Troubled Young Team to an NBA Title. or, on the Other Hand

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No one can cram more tumult into 48 hours than Dennis Rodman. Take, for example, one recent weekend that began Friday night with the Lakers power forward being benched after a sideline spat with new coach Kurt Rambis. Neither that nor the L.A. loss kept Rodman from donning cowboy boots and hat later to party the night away at a Whitney Houston bash in Beverly Hills. By Saturday afternoon, he wasn't in much of a mood for practice, showing up--without apology and with a new peroxide 'do-- 75 minutes late. "Dennis is doing what Dennis needs to do," said Rambis, who kept Rodman in the starting lineup Sunday for a key tussle with New York. Rodman responded by wreaking basketball havoc as only he can. It wasn't just his team-leading 12 rebounds, but rather how the Lakers seemed to embrace his roughhouse style. And Rodman's "conniving, cunning" tactics, as he calls them, goaded two Knicks into stupid retaliations, which got them tossed out of the game. After the Laker win, Rodman ho-hummed all his weekend adventures. "It comes as it comes, it goes as it goes," he said. Slipping out a Forum side door and into his new blue Bentley convertible, he added, "I'm just taking it one day at a time."

But it's not clear that Rodman's chaotic version of "one day at a time" is the right mantra for recovery of L.A.'s title hopes. The team is probably the league's most talented--and underachieving. With five championship rings from stints with the Bulls and Pistons, Rodman was supposed to provide veteran leadership for a young club with rival superstars in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Lakers, playing in America's most celebrity-conscious town, too often seem to be competing with each other--on and off the court--for the fans' adulation. O'Neal's play has been formidable, but he hasn't been able to get the team to follow his lead. And Bryant, particularly, has a penchant for playground moves and showtime shots. After Rodman's arrival, the team did win 10 games in a row, thanks in large part to his rebounding and gritty defense. But it's hard to lead L.A. from Las Vegas, where Rodman fled last month on a weeklong sabbatical "to get rid of my demons." And even when Dennis deigns to show up at the Forum, he dresses in a separate room and seldom converses with teammates. "I'm not a talker," he says. "I lead by example." Some teammates fear that Rodman's example could lead the team astray. "We can't afford another distraction from him," says point guard Derek Harper. "I'm not management, but if it happened again, that would be it."

Turns out Rodman is at least as fed up with his teammates as any of them are with him. He says he quickly saw that the team was "immature" and dominated by "ego trips"; players worried only about shooting, not sharing, the ball. "Everybody wants to be 'the man' and put their fame ahead of what we're really there for," Rodman told NEWSWEEK. "I'm the most unselfish player on that team. It's hard for me 'cause I'm used to being on teams where people worked together to win no matter whatever the hell else was going on."

Of course, Rodman seems to have more "whatever the hell" going on than anyone else on the team. "I thought I could bring some excitement back to L.A.," he said last week, while cuddling with his actress wife, Carmen Electra, over lunch at the Cheesecake Factory in Marina Del Rey. …