Laker Maker Or Laker Breaker?

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. Rodman (in low-key black with two silver nose rings) and his wife (in jeans) have at least provided steady fodder for the tabloids. "All lies," says Electra of reports that have linked her with rocker Tommy Lee and have suggested that she caught Dennis in bed with two women. "Every day it's something about her or me, and it's hard on the marriage," says Rodman, who lives separately from his wife. "But I told her before the marriage that it was going to be crazy, and she just had to deal with it."

The Lakers, too, were forewarned, he says, and will have to deal with him. That's because, Dennis says, even with a new coach and the recent acquisition of shooting star Glen Rice from the Charlotte Hornets, he is the only one who can lead L.A. to the title. "They depend on me to keep this ship afloat," he said. "It's amazing to me that a person who doesn't score, doesn't make Michael Jordan-type moves, is expected to come in and win a championship for a team in total disarray. Am I a genius? Am I a miracle worker? Am I God? No--but I have a gift. When I'm out on the court, [my teammates] see me working, working, working, and that gets them going."

When it doesn't, Rodman says, he has had to hold himself back, at times, from grabbing a teammate and giving him a lesson right then and there. "I've been so close to just saying, 'Mother----er, that ain't the way to do it'," he said. "I don't want to embarrass anybody, but if things aren't clicking come playoff time, I'm going to be in somebody's face."

Rambis, who was the hard-nosed player on the glitzy L.A. title teams of the '80s, isn't quite ready to embrace Rodman as a soulmate. But, he says, "Dennis does his job on the court, and that's what we ask." It's true: practice or no practice, sleep or no sleep, Rodman continues to play well. Other Lakers, though, seem exhausted by the criticism from all quarters. "We get called the party team all the time, and that's not what all of us do," says Bryant. "Some of us take this seriously." O'Neal, too, is seriously fed up: "People [teammates] always have a lot to say, but what are they doing to make it better? I come to play. That's all I need to say, and that's all anybody needs to say."

But silence went out in Hollywood 70 years ago. And Rodman's antics, even when he isn't talking, can be deafening. So the race is on: will Dennis the player put the team over the top before Dennis the man puts it over the edge?