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Fran Blinebury

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Dennis Rodman's colorful personality overshadowed the tremendous difference he made on the court during his NBA career.
Andy Lyons/NBAE/Getty Images

Flamboyant Rodman's play well worthy of Hall call


Posted Aug 9 2011 9:14AM

If there has ever been a more unlikely person enshrined within its walls, then the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame must have a top secret "oddities" wing hidden somewhere deep in the basement.

Not because Dennis Rodman once turned up the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a tank top, shiny, extra tight short-shorts, a dog collar around his neck and a blue macaw perched on his right wrist.

Not because Rodman married equally-flamboyant Carmen Electra and then petitioned for an annulment seven days later. Or because he showed up for a New York book-signing in a long, white wedding gown.

Or even because Rodman recently celebrated his 50th birthday at a Las Vegas nightclub wearing sexy, black lacy women's lingerie. Let's face it, sometimes a guy just feels like slipping into something a little more comfortable.

What makes Rodman slipping into the Hall of Fame such an anomaly is that in a game where the brightest stars have always been celebrated for putting the ball into the basket, he barely concerned himself with scoring, averaging just 7.3 points per game in 14 NBA seasons. He just cared much less about taking shots than running them down.

Rodman, quite simply, was the greatest rebounding forward ever to play the game and a defender who clung to his opponents like Spandex at a hippopotamus convention.

"All that other stuff was just Dennis trying to get noticed," said the late Chuck Daly, Rodman's first NBA coach. "But the funny thing was if you just focused on him as a basketball player, there was no way you were ever going to not notice him."

The truth is, beyond the red hair and the blonde hair and the nose rings and the outrageous wardrobes, Rodman was so much farther out there as a player than he ever was an eccentric. He was five-time champion (two Detroit, three Chicago), a seven-time rebounding champ, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, seven-time All-Defensive First Team choice.

"If it were anybody else, without the magazine covers and the crazy stunts, why would there even be a doubt about the guy belonging in the Hall of Fame?" asks fellow Class of 2011 enshrinee Chris Mullin.

"In a way, that was always a shame, because there were a lot of times when a lot of people either didn't or couldn't appreciate Dennis the player because of Dennis the personality.

"He was as tough to play against as anyone. He always made his teams better. Not just made them better, but took them to championships and a lot of that got lost at times."

"I've always evaluated him as a basketball player and his accomplishments in that area," said Artis Gilmore, another member of the Class of 2011. "Whatever other activities he was involved in, that was not something that I focused on or even had an interest in. When I observed Dennis, he was out there giving 100 plus percent and that's what I acknowledge him for."

The irony is that Rodman spent so much of his career trying to drum up attention with a comic book persona when his own true story was almost larger than life. His father left home when he was three and he was raised in a rugged environment in the South Oak Cliff section of Dallas by his mother and two sisters.

When Rodman graduated from high school in 1979, he was 5-foot-11. His sister Debra, a year younger, was 6-foot-2 and a star basketball player. He was quiet and naturally withdrawn. Then his body practically erupted. In a year, he grew to 6-foot-8. He became more withdrawn. Sometimes, he refused to leave the house because he felt strange that he had grown so quickly.

One of his sister's friends arranged for Rodman to try out for the basketball team at Cooke County Junior College in Gainesville, Tex. Rodman made the team but said he played only 10 games in the 1982-83 season and left because of academic problems.

Rodman returned home and worked odd jobs, but said he was fearful to remain in his old Dallas neighborhood, because of the temptations of drugs and crime.

"I can say this in very few words," Rodman said. "I could have been dead or in jail.

"When you live in that environment, when you have less than nothing to live for or nothing to gain, when you're living off food stamps, when you walk through the living room and before you get to the front door there's people doing cocaine, selling cocaine, doing this and doing that, that's your decision right there.

"For some unknown reason, I never did partake in that. All I did was looked at it, got out the door and ran to the gym every day. I started playing basketball and that was my outlet that kept me from going in another direction."

It was the outlet that let him become the flamboyant, larger-than-life character who practically screamed out with his wardrobe and his actions, perhaps in relief at escaping the horrible life he could have lived.

He was recruited to play at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, then an NAIA school, blossomed on the court and excelled for three seasons. That's when the Pistons made him a second-round pick (No. 27 overall) in the 1986 draft and the unlikely story only blew up bigger.

Rodman became a key piece of back-to-back titles in Detroit and, truth be told, just as vital as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago's second "three-peat."

All the while, he fostered the image as rebel, an outsider, stirring up fans and referees and opponents and teammates with his antics. But in reality he was always serious about what he was doing on the court, cared about how the game was played and was actually upset at what he perceived as a circus atmosphere being fostered by promotional arm of the NBA.

Consider this passage from his 1998 book Bad As I Wanna Be: "The NBA right now is like a whole season of All-Star Games. Guys want to dunk and be flashy and see themselves on ESPN's Sports Center every night ... Walk into any arena in the league and look at what goes on outside the court. It seems that basketball is secondary. You get hit with a barrage of music and dance teams and stunts. You've got dancing gorillas and highlight shows during timeouts. These things distract from the game ... Public address announcers are screaming and music is blasting while we're out there to play the game.

"The NBA believes that if you send the fans home happy, that's all that matters. The league thinks a few dunks are enough. It isn't, though. The game matters. You can entertain people and show them a good time by playing the game the way it should be played. The game is enough. This is a great game."

Go figure, Rodman the basketball fundamentalist, talking the language of Auerbach while dressed as Cher.

But if you ever watched him play, you wouldn't ever have been the least bit surprised. On the court, Rodman was as much a basketball savant as Magic Johnson, able to anticipate and see two or three plays ahead to what was going to happen.

His game, like his naked pose in Rolling Stone magazine, was stripped down to the essentials. He rebounded as if a linear descendant of the giants named Chamberlain and Russell. He defended everyone on the floor from small forwards to a behemoth named Shaquille O'Neal. He set picks. He passed the ball.

Dennis Rodman is not so different then, really, than all of the other stars in the Hall of Fame. Once you get past the lingerie, of course.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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