Whaddya mean the Lakers are willing to wait for Dennis Rodman while he takes care of "personal problems?"

They're going to wait until Rodman is trouble free?! Are they going to hold their breath?Rodman returned to the Lakers on Sunday after an eight-day, four-game absence. Teammates and coaches were surprised and irritated it took him so long to rejoin the team, but what did they think a guy like Rodman meant when he said "personal problems." A hangnail? Rodman is in the Guinness Book of World Records for personal problems. Personal problems so deep, we don't even want to go there. If he says he's going out to take care of "personal problems," don't wait up.

"If players are happy, they are going to play better," explained coach/psychologist Kurt Rambis last week. "We all want him, as a person, to feel good about himself."

Wait a minute. Rodman, as a person, has got more lingerie than Tyra Banks. He has so many body piercings that he looks like a Christmas tree if you hold him up to the light. He's got more graffiti on his back than downtown Watts.

You mean he doesn't feel good about himself?

"Whether they've got business problems or personal problems, if you can allow them time to get rid of those problems, they're going to be a lot better on the court," said Rambis.

Gee, if Rodman starts trying to solve personal problems, won't that be a full-time job? When will he have time to play basketball? How can he be better off on the court if he's not on the court?

The Lakers reportedly have been urging Rodman to seek help from the therapist who counseled him while he was with the Bulls (but Phil Jackson couldn't be reached). Rodman, who declined, said, "I saw a psychiatrist the last two or three years. . . . I think that I know what I'm doing." There goes the insanity plea. The therapist community probably hasn't been this excited about a prospect since Mike Tyson's visit to the couch. Put Rodman and Tyson together in a room, and you've got the Holy Grail for shrinks.

Shortly after leaving the Lakers, Rodman, as a person, was reportedly spotted in Las Vegas in the midst of a drinking and gambling binge (which is just one way of dealing with personal problems). Then again, maybe it was a case of mistaken identity. The description of the man in Vegas: Leopard hair. Six-foot-8. Enough tattoos to cover the Sistine Chapel. Rings in both nostrils and one ear.

Could have been anyone.

If the Lakers ever have to go looking for Rodman, he won't be easy to find. There are 20 guys just like him at Venice Beach alone. Rodman could hang out down there and no one would notice him.

The Lakers must be wondering what they've gotten themselves into with Rodman, but they can't say they didn't go into this thing with their eyes wide shut. Make a deal with the devil, and it's bound to catch up with you. When they signed Rodman, they had to know they weren't exactly getting Adam Keefe. But they couldn't get along with Nick Van Exel. Why did they think they could handle Dennis Rodman?!

The problem now is that it appears the Lakers really do need him for reasons nobody can quite explain. With Rodman they are 10-0; without him they are 8-9. After winning nine in a row with Rodman, they lost three of four during his absence. He returned for Sunday's game against Orlando, and they won again, although Rodman didn't do much except throw a few elbows.

"He's an obvious factor," O'Neal said. "But he had personal problems, whatever that means."

It must be reassuring to know that the hopes of your team rely on a guy who wears feather boas.

The Lakers reportedly fined Rodman $300 for his absence (bet that hurt). So much for allowing Rodman, as a person, to feel good about himself. "It's just a general practice of the team, you're allowed certain leniencies with some things," says Rambis, "but you're still responsible for being with the team."

Yes, you've got to draw the line somewhere. The Lakers are playing hardball. It is the general practice of the team that you actually practice with the team to get a paycheck. Unless you don't "feel good about yourself."

How California.

The question now is will other coaches adopt this new touchy-feely attitude? Can we expect to see Jerry Sloan, for instance, excuse Greg Ostertag for a week so he can "feel good about himself?" Can we expect to see him tell his players, "Of course, take all the time you need. I just want you, as a person, to feel good about yourself."

No.

What is this, the NBA, or Mister Rogers' Neighborhood? Neither. It's Mr. Rodman's Neigborhood, and it's a strange place.

"I just figure that people have to accept what I do," said Rodman on Sunday. "If they don't accept it, I don't need to be here or anywhere else . . . They can tear up the contract and say good-bye."

When asked if Rodman assured him he will not leave the team again, Rambis said: "I don't think anybody can make those assurances."

After all, there's a slight chance Rodman didn't take care of all of his personal problems in eight days.