A Piston, At Last and Forever
Rodman’s No. 10 joins fellow Pistons greats in Palace rafters
Rodman parallel to the court, a heat-seeking missile in pursuit of the basketball, crashing into the expensive seats, oblivious to the likelihood he would arise short a tooth or with a finger pointed in the wrong direction.
Rodman springing from out of the frame to engulf a rebound, toss an outlet pass to mid-court, sprint by everyone to fill a wing, take a return pass, cradle the basketball like an orange in his oversized mitt, toss it from one hand to the other, suspended in mid-air while the mortals around him alit, and finish what he began at the other end with a basket.
Rodman with that right index finger in the air, Rodman running with those arms and legs pumping, Rodman picking up Isiah in a bear hug, Rodman taking a charge, Rodman putting the essence of Dennis Rodman into everything he ever did while wearing the Pistons No. 10 that Friday night took its rightful place in The Palace rafters next to Isiah’s 11 and Joe D’s 4 and Chuck Daly’s 2.
And Rodman, after choking back a few tears, telling the sellout crowd that was there mostly to see and serenade him that, “I didn’t think I deserved this. I should have been here longer to deserve this honor.”
“If you know Dennis and you know the gentle soul underneath everything you see on the outer part, it’s not surprising he would say that,” Isiah Thomas would say later. “He’s as gentle and as kind a person as you ever would know and meet.”
Rodman will be announced as an inductee in the next class of basketball’s Hall of Fame on Monday, and he deserves that, too. He so clearly deserves his number hanging in the rafters, for his basketball achievements alone, but for more than that. The Hall is all about achievement, but being honored by an organization with a jersey retirement is about more than achievement. It’s the acknowledgment of the bond between a region’s people and the athletes who embody what those people value most.
In Michigan, that’s an easy blueprint. Play hard – all out, all the time – and put the team and winning first. Rodman, for all the flamboyance that ensued once Daly left and the Bad Boys began to splinter, was always about winning, always about the Pistons.
He played hard and when they gave him awards for his contributions to the first two NBA championships in Pistons history, he would cry alligator tears.
Either behavior would have endeared him fast and hard to Detroit sports fans, who more than anything want evidence that the athletes they idolize care as much about winning as they do.
Put both behaviors together and you get the sort of unadulterated reverence this state’s sports fans of a certain age hold for Rodman. They loved Rodman for the way he cared about winning and they loved him for his vulnerability.
We’d never seen anything quite like him when he arrived in 1986 – all arms and legs and ears, wearing his emotions on both sleeves and emblazoned across his chest as surely as the word PISTONS – and, 25 years later, we’re still waiting for a reasonable facsimile.
The man who mined this nugget, as unique in personality as he was in ability, Jack McCloskey, took the microphone first for the just-right halftime ceremony. McCloskey is 85, looks like he could still box the ears of men half his age, and punctuated his speech by saying he goes back to the NBA’s forerunner and Rodman is “the greatest rebounder and most talented defender I’ve ever seen.”
“Dennis, you’re the ultimate teammate,” Vinnie Johnson told Rodman. “You sacrificed more than any teammate I ever played with.”
If the measure of a player is the trust of his teammates, Rodman is a first ballot Hall of Famer. They loved the guy. On a team filled with players eager to have everyone’s back, Rodman was first in line. Not for show, but because – and as he spoke these words Friday night, they resonated with the heart-on-a-sleeve honesty that endeared Rodman to so many – “these guys were my big brothers.”
He paid homage to the man who was a very real father figure to him, Chuck Daly, and to longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson. He became choked with emotion briefly but held it together before heaving sobs overtook him, as they often have. He went to his wife, who handed him a T-shirt he held up proudly, with pictures of Daly and Mr. D on one side, “Thank You Detroit” and his number 10 on the other, handing it to Karen Davidson before hugging her first among many.
He made clear his love for Detroit, something all those people who came of age as the Bad Boys were themselves ripening into champions might have wondered about over the years when he won titles in Chicago and turned his body into a billboard and took up with a new model or actress too often to track and stayed away when they celebrated the greatest Pistons on the occasion of the franchise’s 50th year in Detroit.
“Dennis,” Isiah Thomas began, “you’ve been a lot of places. But there’s no place like home. … The next step you take in your basketball career” – a reference to the Hall of Fame, presumably – “you will always be a Piston.”
And now, an immortal one.