“It’s all a mind game. If you want to get caught up in what I’m doing, you’re screwed,” said Dennis Rodman after Chicago’s game 3 defeat of the Seattle Supersonics on June 9, 1996. At that point the Bulls were up 3-0 and appeared poised to return to Chicago with their 4th NBA Championship. Prior to the 1996 Finals, the storyline was the Bulls place in history and though the Sonics won 64 games that year people viewed the series as more of an inevitable Bulls coronation than a clash between the two best teams in the NBA. As far as the matchup goes, 1996 can probably go down as the least memorable for Chicago. However, unlike previous Bulls appearances in the finals, 1996 had Dennis Rodman, an expert at turning the mundane into the entertaining and a player who viewed his job as rebounding and playing mind games with opponents. As a counter, the Seattle Supersonics had their hired goon Frank Brickowski and the mental tug of war between the two players gave the 1996 Finals one of its more memorable stories.
Dennis Rodman’s reputation followed him to Chicago and through the course of the 1995-96 season the Bulls became use to teams that tried to rile up the sometimes unstable power forward. The Bulls had previously faced Miami and New York in the playoffs and both sent out their hitmen to provoke Rodman, so it was no surprise when the Supersonics brought out Frank Brickowski, a guy that had once provoked Spurs Center David Robinson into throwing a punch, to play mind games with Dennis Rodman.
“Imagine if a master at gamesmanship, say Frank Brickowski, starts irritating Rodman. Maybe he throws a well-disguised elbow. Maybe he whispers a comment about an old girlfriend. What if Rodman, Albert Belle-like, responds? What if he gets tossed from a home game and the Bulls lose and suddenly the home-court advantage belongs to Seattle?” -Steve Kelley, Seattle Times June 5, 1996
The Bulls won Game 1 107-90 but the story soon became how Seattle’s attempts to bait Dennis Rodman had failed with Brickowski’s ejection less than two minutes after entering the game. Rodman, anticipating why Brickowski was in the game, went right at him and created a situation that ended with Brickowski getting called for a flagrant elbow. Then, as Rodman employed the familiar tactic of clapping, and marching around as the “good guy” a frustrated Brickowski exchanged words with both Rodman and Jack Haley on the bench which earned him two technicals and an ejection. The plan to frustrate Rodman and lure him into foul trouble or an ejection lay in ruins in just under two minutes, and instead of self destructing, Rodman played 36 minutes and grabbed 13 rebounds, and played a key role in Sean Kemp’s foul trouble throughout the game.
The back and forth continued off the court. Seattle accused Rodman of being a flopper and Brickowski denied he deserved an ejection. George Karl railed against Rodman and his antics as bad for the NBA, acting as though Rodman flopping was a new tactic that only a deranged player like Rodman could bring to the game. The Seattle Times went on an unofficial “flop watch” and changed the Bulls name from the “Un-stop-a-bulls” to the “Flop-A-Bulls.”
“A flopper…He’s a flopper. It’s a joke. Rodman breaks the rules. He laughs at the NBA. He taunted our bench. Brickowski gets thrown out of the game without one cuss word being said….They get four free throws. Rodman flops all over the place. He laughs at everybody. I think it is silly that he gets any credibility at all.” –George Karl, June 7, 1996
Game 2 proceeded without incident and ended with the Bulls up 2-0 in the series. In Seattle for Game 3 the Bulls jumped on the Supersonics early and never looked back. As always there was Dennis Rodman who added drama to the blowout with his usual antics. In the first of two confrontations Rodman committed what Teddy Greenstein called one of his most “devilish acts of the NBA playoffs,” where he taunted Brickowski by standing, staring, and laughing while the Sonics shot free throws. Then late in the 4th quarter Rodman initiated a wrestling match with Brickowski, who pushed Rodman, earning a flagrant foul and an ejection. Once again, Rodman had kept his composure while the Sonics had lost theirs, and after Game 3 in an interview with Jim Grey, Rodman reminded everyone that when it came to mind games “you can’t mess with the master.”
After Game 3 Gary Payton insisted that they weren’t worried about Rodman or his antics but the Sonics were obviously frustrated and it was not simply because of the 0-3 deficit. The Sonics complained that Rodman was baiting them, and according to Tom Friend in the New York Times, they were “passing blame better than the basketball.” Once again, the talk continued off the court. George Karl and Brickowski accused Rodman of flopping and expressed amazement that Dennis Rodman continued getting the calls.
“The thing you’d do to Dennis Rodman if you were on the playground is fight him. The thing that bothers me is here’s a man who’s taken the no-punching law and is using it to his advantage. Because he never throws a punch. But he’ll throw a lot of elbows and do a lot of dirty stuff out there that’ll make you punch him.” –George Karl, June 11, 1996
While Dennis Rodman continued playing the innocent victim:
“They try to get in my head, but no one can do that. Frank Brickowski tried to distract me, basically. But the last two days, I’ve been telling myself to be ready to play. Let’s get two here and go home. Everyone wants to get in my face. The Seattle Sonics got off their game. They were worried about what I was doing. It’s just a mind game. They were caught up in all that and it messed them up.” –Dennis Rodman, June 10, 1996
The Bulls would go on to lose Game 4 and Game 5 before winning the title in Game 6 and with the referees watching closely the Rodman/Brickowski contest was uneventful. Despite predictions that when Dennis came to Chicago he would keep the team from winning a fourth ring, his play proved to be a key factor in that record-breaking season. Looking back, the interesting thing about the 1996 Finals is how Rodman played mind games with Seattle while not losing composure or falling victim to Seattle’s attempts to distract him. As Bulls guard Ron Harper said, “You can’t get inside Dennis’ head. He gets inside your head, and you don’t want that.” Every one of Chicago’s finals appearances stand out for a different reason, but for me, the mental tug of war between Dennis Rodman and the Seattle Supersonics is a unique story of the 1996 Finals that is worth remembering.
This is part of a series of Bulls stories from their six finals appearances in the 1990s. If any readers would like to make suggestions for a story to be a part of this series leave it in the comments.
Follow Lee Winningham on Twitter @jlw771