Sam Smith reflects on the story of Dennis Rodman and how an outcast was accepted as a beloved figure in Chicago.
Being known as the Worm had nothing to do with behaving like an ugly, slimy, bothersome creature. It was because Dennis Rodman wiggled around so much when he was playing pinball machines.
This is the story, to me, that best defined and represents Rodman, whose turn comes Sunday with ESPN's continuing Last Dance tableau of the championship Bulls. Following a famously infamous and dysfunctional adolescence, the son of the eponymous Philander who supposedly fathered more than two dozen children with more than a dozen mothers, Dennis went to work cleaning cars in an Oldsmobile dealership and then as a janitor in the mammoth Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. It's why it was a 25-year-old Dennis finally being drafted in the second round by the Detroit Pistons in 1986.
Dennis' actual household wasn't very much, a mother who'd eventually toss him out and two athletically gifted sisters who played collegiate basketball. Dennis was awkward and unappreciated, cut from the football team, unable to dribble a basketball with any aptitude. He was clumsy and scrawny in poverty surrounded by relative successes. You know he was always hearing, "Can't you be like…." Dennis was barely 5-8 in high school with only an unexpected growth sport later sending him to his destiny.
The Detroit Pistons drafted Rodman in 1986.
It's fairly simple to envision someone forever seeking acceptance, security and attention. However he could get it. With an attention deficit disorder that apparently was so obvious I'd get unsolicited letters virtually every week when Dennis was with the Bulls from psychologists explaining the classic symptoms they recognized in his various outrages.
"I spent my whole childhood looking for an escape," he once said.
So Dennis got arrested while he was working at the airport.
Though I was something of a conservative scold toward Dennis when he was with the Bulls in my self assigned protection of the so called integrity of the game, Dennis asked me to write his biography when he was being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2011. I walked with him the three blocks from the reception, social distancing before it was de rigueur, in certainly the most unusual entrance to the Symphony Hall ceremony. He was wearing a feather lined cowboy hat and large sunglasses before an adoring and cheering crowd lining the street. As Rodman wrote, as bad as he was, he was beloved. I believe people did see him for his innocence and naivety despite his numerous offenses.
That post high school airport offense was robbery. But there was a question of pressing charges. Could Dennis just return the stolen merchandise? So Dennis went around to his friends. He had given away all the watches he stole to his friends. He hadn't kept anything for himself.
It's also why during all those years with the Bulls, Dennis was closest with the ball boys and clubhouse workers, the people who rarely got a second glance and yearned for something better, something more. That's always who Dennis has been, just a kid straining for attention and acceptance, so anxious to please with that mischievous nature. Most of us are able to repress those urges into adulthood. Dennis eventually figured out with the inspiration of his mentor and girlfriend Madonna that to his delight this combination of insouciance and imp-like whimsey was both profitable and filled the void of love and attention.
Though it also shouldn't be confused with a lack of commitment despite the many times Dennis' hyperactivity distracted him. Dennis was a manic worker, strong and in condition at his wire 6-8. Despite a lack of academic interests, he was something of a basketball savant capable of absorbing the complex triangle offense principles with ease and analyzing the flight of the basketball so innately as to make him in one eight-year stretch the game's most prolific rebounder since Wilt Chamberlain.
Dennis was as competitive as Michael Jordan in his own way. Jordan yearned to a maniacal level for success and victory. Dennis did so perhaps more for acceptance.
Few people understood Dennis Rodman like Phil Jackson.
Dennis broke down almost immediately when he walked onto that stage in Springfield, grasping for presenter Phil Jackson for support as he would have for his previous guide, the late Pistons coach Chuck Daly. When the Pistons wanted to retire Dennis' jersey, he protested about attending without Chuck, the first father he believed he ever had. Chuck and the Pistons understood. They accepted Dennis for who he was. Just as the Bulls and Phil Jackson would years later. Who imagined it was Dennis the two bitter rivals would have in common.
So perhaps Dennis Rodman was the role model.
After all, what better rags-to-riches, success-from-rejection story is there than Rodman's rise from poverty and rejection to acclaim and fame? If not exactly the way you'd hope for all your children.
After all, Rodman has had his share of substance issues. Jackson even once participated in an intervention for Rodman. Which considering the issues in society at large also places Dennis in the unusual position of some normalcy.
Another delicious irony of the Bulls championship dynasty, especially in those last three seasons leading to the Last Dance, was that one of the guys in the Pistons' black and blue hat was the same guy with the rainbow hairstyle who was so enthusiastically and colorfully embraced during those last three championship years. Dennis was the guy who harassed Scottie Pippen to distraction to support Bill Laimbeer's cheap shot tactics and eventually viciously threw Pippen into the stands late in the Game 4 sweep in the 1991 conference finals. Little recalled about that famous Pistons walk off late in that concluding game was Michael Jordan's provocative media comments the previous day at practice, declaring the Pistons frauds and unworthy champions because of their tactics. Rodman became a co-instigator of the quick exit. And then a Chicago icon.
Dennis was just another rookie when he came to the Pistons in 1986, not playing much, about 15 minutes per game in the playoffs. And even a scorer. He averaged his most points per game within his first two years in the NBA. But his vulnerability was on display immediately. The path to his heart and trust was clear, if dangerous, and first Isiah Thomas and then Phil Jackson succumbed. When you commit to Dennis, he commits in return. That humiliating 1987 playoffs was when Thomas made the ill-fated inbounds pass Larry Bird stole. After the Pistons lost Game 7, Rodman blathered about Bird only being MVP because he was white. Thomas sitting nearby and sensing Rodman's error jumped in front of the bullet and agreed with Dennis. The NBA would eventually force Thomas to go to the Finals in LA and make a public apology. Even as he knew he was merely falling on the sword aimed at Rodman.
Similarly, when Rodman made his insulting comments about Mormons in 1997 and was fined heavily by the NBA, Jackson said: "To Dennis, a Mormon may just be a nickname for people from Utah. He may not even know it's a religious cult or sect or whatever it is."
Another guy to push Dennis out of the way and take the hit. It never was there for Dennis growing up, and it wasn't in San Antonio. Dennis could smile again. People cared.
I remember the fury among Chicago fans when Rodman head butted referee Ted Bernhardt during a game in the 1995-96 season. Rodman was suspended six games, which the Bulls and Chicago fans protested as inordinately severe. After all, wrestlers do stuff like that all the time. And then the Bulls merely continued on their way to win 72 games.
That perhaps more than anything was the strength of that second threepeat team. It had this remarkable ability despite the tumult of the games's greatest player, the game's most famous coach and the game's most outrageous player to march through the hail of distractions that would have leveled any other team. We're breaking you up! Sure, see if we care!
Rodman's atrocities may have been in some respects additional help rather than hindrance. Like Michael's legendary harsh demands and challenges during games and practices, there were Dennis' behavioral volatility that further helped anneal the group for the intense cauldron of the playoffs.
So let us count the ways.
Condemnation of Mormons in Salt Lake City, kicking the sideline photographer, punching Joe Wolf in the groin, head butting Stacey King, then in Miami, suspended by the Bulls for profanities in a post game interview, sent home after missing practice after a night partying in Atlantic City. Rodman left the Bulls various times for Las Vegas getaways, even in the 1998 Finals.
"Dennis needs to dissipate energy sometimes," Jackson explained. "It builds up in him and he has to get rid of it. Whether it's on the dance floor or whatever. Sometimes Dennis plays a 40-minute game and then goes out and plays a 48-minute game afterward. He's got a perfect ability. I don't know what kind of biological clock he has in his system to do that kind of thing and bounce back and feel better."
Rodman was one of the best rebounders of all time.
Jackson once asked Steve Kerr and a few players to take Dennis to Atlantic City for a needed escape when the team was playing in Philadelphia. They only arrived back to Philadelphia the next morning straight to practice. It wasn't a very good practice.
That was part of the Dennis Rodman experience.
He was the ultimate underdog finally being, if not fully accepted, certainly appreciated by the big dogs.
Dennis didn't go out with Jordan or Scottie Pippen. He wasn't part of their famous workout Breakfast Club that last season with Jordan, Pippen and Ron Harper. Jordan would often say when he had to speak with Rodman he'd try to get him to focus like he did with his kids, stare into his eyes and reiterate, "Dennis, do you understand what I am saying!"
Dennis never really looked you in the eyes. When his dress wasn't spectacular, like when he wore a wedding gown walking Michigan Avenue to declare his intention to marry himself to promote a book, he often came to games wearing the logo shirt of a sanitation worker, security guard or truck driver. They were Dennis' people and he walked with them because they best knew his life on the inside despite what he showed on the outside.
Finally comfortable in the armor the Bulls' embrace provided, Rodman was an invaluable, irrepressible and irreplaceable part of those last three championships. Not that it was expected. General Manager Jerry Krause detested Rodman's behavior and was opposed to his signing. So was Phil Jackson, who was lobbying for Derrick Coleman because of his more versatile offensive game. But credit Krause for that buck stopping there. Krause approved, Jackson, Jordan and Pippen agreed to be patient, and Dennis was given the space he needed.
Rodman and Jordan.
Suspensions and injuries cost Rodman 45 games those first two Bulls seasons. During the Last Dance, Dennis' attendance was nearly perfect while Pippen stewed. Dennis seemed to lose interest when Pippen returned in January, though likely he was more hurt as Michael's embrace returned to Scottie. But Dennis didn't disappoint when needed on the court, his amazing defense against Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone in the playoffs crucial to the Bulls success in that era. Rodman became such a skilled defender, he was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in Detroit despite still coming off the bench.
Rodman's defensive versatility enabled Jackson to be the first to successfully employ that ultimate five-player switching lineup that the Golden State Warriors popularized in recent years. Rodman averaged more than 15 rebounds per game his three Bulls seasons and more than 11 in the playoffs. In the 1996 Finals even though Jordan was MVP, Seattle coach George Karl said Rodman won two games virtually on his own.
Dennis has had his problems since leaving basketball with arrests, reality shows and the fantasy of international diplomacy in North Korea. "There's one thing people don't understand," he once said, "I like my character." Dennis has been in many ways pierced and tattooed in a multicolored life. That also has wormed its way into so many hearts.