Rodman was different -- in a good way
Dennis Rodman was different.
Remind Me Later •
Oh, and there was the multicolored, creatively shaped hair, the wedding dress outfit to marry himself, leaving the Bulls during the 1998 NBA Finals for a WCW wrestling appearance, head butting a referee, kicking a cameraman and the eye, ear, and nose piercings, too.
But more significantly, there was the difference on the basketball court, which Aug. 12 will bring Rodman to what would seem the unlikeliest destination for this dead-end kid of sports, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the Class of 2011.
"There's no question about the fact this guy had a tremendous amount of talent for the game and changed the basketball concept," said Phil Jackson, the Hall of Fame Bulls and Lakers coach who will stand up for both Tex Winter and Rodman at their Hall of Fame inductions. "Most basketball players are bent on scoring and that end of the court. Dennis changed how players look at their game, how they can impact the game despite not scoring but by rebounding and defending. But he is kind of an enigma. No doubt, he was one of the most famous personalities in the last 20 years of basketball. Some of it hasn't always been good for basketball, though."
Which in some respects has made Rodman's inclusion one of the most controversial. In the matter of full disclosure, I've had my doubts as well. I've questioned whether a role-playing defender and rebounder who never was his team's best player should be a Hall of Famer. Yes, this is also what I've always liked and admired about Rodman. The Hall of Fame asked me whether I'd be interested in writing Rodman's biography for the Hall of Fame induction program. I said I'd better check with Rodman first given our sometimes contentious history.
I'd be fair and can also appreciate the case for Rodman's basketball immortality. Yet, it's also Rodman's weekend and I wouldn't want him feeling badly about anything and he might want someone else to describe him. I asked the Hall of Fame to contact Rodman, and they reported he was OK with my participation. But I felt it was worth an additional check. So I cornered him when he was in Chicago for a Bulls playoff game. Was he OK with me writing the piece?
"Sure, bro," Rodman offered gleefully. "No hard feelings."
That is the side I appreciated perhaps most about Rodman. There was the amazing story of him befriending the reclusive Oklahoma kid and perhaps saving the young man's life and eventually moving in with the white family after Rodman was a janitor after high school. And then his multiple kindnesses with the ballboys, the security guards, the clubhouse workers and the maintenance workers around the United Center.
Perhaps it was his innate shyness. Rodman rarely would look you in the eye and didn't engage in much conversation with teammates. But he'd relax and open up with the kids who picked up the dirty laundry, identifying more with them as that's whom he was for so long, the guy no one ever looked at, the human being as wallpaper.
There are all sorts of hard luck, tough times and improbable stories among Hall of Famers. It would be difficult to imagine there is one like Dennis'.
Dennis was raised by his mother and two older sisters. There were athletic genes as both sisters became All-American basketball players. Dennis' amazing growth spurt, from 5-9 failure at high school football and basketball — cut from the teams — to 6-7 didn't occur until he was over 20. He went to work in maintenance at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport after high school and one night broke into an airport store and stole watches. He was caught and arrested.
But classic Dennis. He stole the watches to give to friends. The charges were dropped after he went back to each friend to request the watches back and returned them. Here was a street kid, kicked out of his home and going nowhere. Dennis then went to work at an Oldsmobile dealership cleaning cars.
By this age in life, into his 20s, if you aren't a star in sports there often is the Oldsmobile dealership.
Now, having that growth spurt Dennis, amazingly, became a natural at basketball, a sinewy and willowy 6-7 athlete. He decided to try out for a junior college team in Gainesville, Tex. He made the team, but didn't like it and returned home. No surprise with his lack of family discipline growing up or any male role model he had little use for academics.
His mother by then had enough with Dennis and wouldn't let him back home. So Dennis, 22, roamed the streets and bunked in with friends.
So if you said then he was someday going to be a Hall of Fame basketball player… there was probably just as good a chance he'd be wearing a wedding dress… Oh, forget it.
But Dennis was playing basketball and you didn't slip past the bird dog scouts even then in the mid-1980s. NAIA Southeastern Oklahoma heard about Dennis from the street games and junior college and tried to recruit Dennis. Which became something of a problem because he didn't exactly live anywhere and no one knew where to find him.
They finally tracked Dennis down and at 22 offered him a scholarship to play college basketball. Since Dennis really had nowhere to eat or sleep it seemed like a good deal. The only other place offering three hots and a cot was jail.
Never having played organized ball in his life except for that brief stay in junior college, Dennis, nevertheless, averaged 26 points and 13.1 rebounds in his first season. Yes, Dennis could score, which really was another part of his well-disguised brilliance.
Few would pick up the complex triangle offense as quickly as Dennis did later under Jackson, and, almost instinctively, Dennis seemed to know what was best for his team. When Dennis first went to the Pistons, they decided to send him to summer league to work on offense. Jackson, then a Bulls assistant, was there as well as the Bulls had sent Brad Sellers. Rodman averaged 36 per game, which tells you both about summer league and Rodman. He could do it if he had to.
"He knew some guys could score better than he could, so he felt why worry about it," said Jackson.
Back at Southeastern Oklahoma, Rodman went on to lead the NAIA in rebounding the next two seasons, averaging 15.9 and 17.8 before opening eyes at the NBA pre-draft camps and getting drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the second round at age 25.
Though more typical of Dennis' life was his lifestyle at Southeastern Oklahoma. At a basketball camp the school was sponsoring, he befriended an introverted kid who'd had a traumatic experience from a hunting accident when a companion was killed. The young man had become badly withdrawn. Classic Dennis to befriend the loner, the kid no one else talked to or noticed.
Dennis one day began shagging rebounds for the young man, Byrne Rich, who was from a white, rural farm family. He invited Dennis for dinner. The family, not exactly with an open-minded past, was most uncertain. Well, shock would be one adjective. But Dennis ingratiated himself with the family, which was grateful for the way their son was coming out of his shell thanks to Dennis. I loved a story Dennis' friends used to tell about that time. Dennis would be on campus and Byrne's mother would be there driving home, trying to avoid Dennis. She wasn't exactly open-minded and people do talk in that part of the world: White lady, black young man. So there was the time she hid behind a building and Dennis came around the corner and found her and said she should come out as he knew she was hiding for him. She drove him back to their home.
Dennis' young life was a search for stability, for a family unit, and he found it with the Riches just as their son regained his equilibrium thanks to Dennis. Now, how about that for irony? Dennis the rock.
Then, of course, there was the time he announced if he ever were elected to the Hall of Fame he'd come up on stage naked. Dennis didn't think later that did much to expedite his selection. I'm fairly confident he won't follow through on that threat, though I am confident the Hall of Fame will never have seen someone inducted dressed as Dennis will be Aug. 12.
Nor, frankly, that many more accomplished. No, he couldn't make a free throw, or, more accurately, was anxious about trying. How about this for the Rodman Paradox. He flung up those free throws so quickly and indifferently not because he couldn't make them but because he hated when the game stopped and everyone looked at him, Dennis being generally very shy. But who cast more attention on himself ever than Dennis Rodman?
There's no sense trying to explain Dennis Rodman or trying to analyze him.
But the numbers speak as loudly as his actions.
He led the NBA in rebounding seven times, all consecutively. Only Wilt Chamberlain led more times. Bill Russell led five times, though, of course, he played in Wilt's era.
Rodman played for five championship teams and was twice Defensive Player of the Year, the first time when he still wasn't even a starter for the Detroit Pistons. He was an all-defensive team selection eight times, seven times first team.
He defended everyone from Spud Webb to Karl Malone. In 14 seasons, Rodman averaged 7.3 points and 13.1 rebounds, only once finishing a season averaging in double figures scoring. But in a remarkable seven-year run from 1991-92 through 1997-98, he averaged almost 17 rebounds per game, numbers unheard of since Wilt and Russell played.
And as Dennis liked to say, "They didn't have a problem with me being wild and crazy when it came time to fill the arenas."
The game was about winning, and while critics noted Dennis never was best or probably even second-best player on his team, his teams his first 12 seasons in the NBA — before late-career cameos with the Lakers and Dallas — won at least 50 games 10 times, 60 or more five times and averaged 57 wins from his rookie year through the 1997-98 season with the Bulls.
"When he went to the Pistons (and later the Bulls) he saw there were guys who could score, so he didn't worry about that," said Jackson. "The season we got Dennis we recorded the best record in NBA history. It tells you a lot about his impact. The year (Scottie) Pippen sat out the first three months after an operation, Michael told me he felt Dennis was the MVP of that team."
"All the flamboyant stuff is another story," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said about Dennis. "He was an integral player on a number of championship teams."
Actually, the outrageous phase of Dennis' basketball life, at least the commercial part, was something of an act, Jackson always believed.
"It was stepping into character, a personality," said Jackson. "Finding his character was an influence of Madonna's."
Dennis obviously survived a dysfunctional childhood and adolescence, though there was none of the outrageous antics of his post-Pistons basketball years. But that period did parallel his greatest frustrations in life of seeking out a family. First, it was the Riches, and then in the NBA, it was Chuck Daly and the Bad Boys.
Dennis wanted to do anything to please, so he adopted the Piston team's ferocity with his own version.
"He was a product of their system," said Jackson. "In Detroit, the mantra was not to back down. He threw Scottie into the seats in '91. He was not a menacing guy, but he needed to be part of something.
"I always admired what he would do, the way he'd play (James) Worthy against the Lakers, Magic (Johnson), the variety of people on the floor (he'd defend) because of his quickness. With the Pistons, he was the secondary guy after (Joe) Dumars to come over on Michael (Jordan). He decidedly was a factor.
"He couldn't take those big guys like Shaq leaning on him for 48 minutes," recalled Jackson. "We'd have Luc (Longley) take some physical pressure away. But at the end, in crucial times, Dennis would play Shaq giving up 70 pounds. He was a guy who could play 48 minutes without a breath. As the game went on he got stronger. He'd be stronger at the end than at the beginning."
Dennis finally moved into the Pistons starting lineup when Rick Mahorn was let go in the expansion draft after the first title and began his run of averaging more than a dozen rebounds for eight straight seasons.
But that was the beginning also of the breakup of the family, especially when Daly left to coach the Nets after the 1991-92 season. Dennis got divorced from his first wife, Annie, at about the same time Daly left, the Pistons decline and his personal life spiraling downward, effectively, beginning the change to the character Dennis decided to become. He hooked up with singer/actress Madonna and began reinventing himself as the Baddest Bad Boy of Basketball.
Though when the Pistons earlier this year retired Rodman's No. 10, Dennis didn't want to attend because the two men closest to him from those Pistons years, Daly and Pistons media chief Matt Dobek, had died. It was classic Dennis to want to reject such a great honor because it couldn't be shared with the people who meant most to him and were his closest basketball family.
Dennis' career began to roller coaster when he forced his way out of Detroit as they were rebuilding in 1993 and went to the San Antonio Spurs with David Robinson, something of the anti-Rodman. They combined for a pair of fabulous regular seasons, though Rodman's antics with Madonna and developing bizarre antics undid the Spurs in the playoffs.
As former Spurs coach Bob Hill once remarked, the two most frightened people when Rodman played were the opposing coach and his coach.
When Robinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame two years ago, I asked him about Rodman and he laughed.
"If you've been around Dennis a little bit, you kind of see disaster coming," Robinson said. "But as a basketball player, he was truly unique. I wouldn't call him the best teammate I ever had. But if you're building a team, you'd want to have him on your team for what he brings."
Faulted for the Spurs failure to get to the Finals, Rodman had become radioactive around the NBA.
But with Horace Grant gone to Orlando as a free agent, the Bulls were desperate for a replacement. Jackson originally wanted Derrick Coleman, but he had a long contract. Jackson felt Coleman's all-around game fit the offense better. Though with Rodman the Bulls would adjust, downsizing with Ron Harper in the backcourt, a small, defensive-oriented quick team that simply overwhelmed the NBA. Rodman had just one season remaining on his contract, so the Bulls felt they could take a risk. It helped produce history even with Rodman's injuries and suspensions, which cost him 45 games his first two seasons with the Bulls.
Rodman, again, hungered for the respect of someone like Daly. He chose Jordan, and it wasn't easy. Those first two seasons, despite some big performances, especially in the Finals in 1996 when Seattle coach George Karl credited Rodman for winning two games by himself, Rodman often struggled with a secondary role. He was at his absolute best when Pippen opted to start the 1997-98 season late in still another dispute with management. Jordan and Jackson needed Rodman and Rodman delivered. Once Pippen returned, Jackson admitted it became more difficult to rouse Rodman. Dennis didn't deal well with abandonment as it produced too many bitter memories of his childhood. So he suffered when Daly left and then during the 1998 season when it seemed he wasn't needed as much, leading to his playoff distractions against the Jazz, though the Bulls finished it out and Rodman played an important role.
There was no doubt from his difficult childhood Rodman suffered from some untreated learning disabilities, which pretty much got written off to, well, Dennis just being Dennis. But it was difficult for Rodman to concentrate for long periods and to sit still, especially in the pregame.
But the Bulls made the necessary accommodation. After all, they needed Dennis and he needed them.
"The players looked at him as a unique individual," recalled Jackson. "The rules (for the team) remained the same, but there was some variance in administering them for Dennis. He wasn't able to come to the game an hour and a half before (required of all players). There was too much tension around the game for him. He didn't go out and shoot. I let him come an hour before the game and I set up a fine structure for him (fining Rodman every game). He'd find a place to work out (on his own) until game time. Thirty minutes before tip we'd meet (with players). He'd come in, take a shower and sit at his locker naked with a towel over his head. All the presentations, the (scouting) video going on he'd have a towel over his head. It was tough for him to pay attention. He had to do things, work out, lift weights, shower. He had a very unique attitude toward getting ready for the game.
"At the end, he'd put on his shoes," said Jackson. "All the players want to get out and shoot (with) 16 minutes. He was always last. They were always pulling him along. But Dennis put his heart into it. He was a very capable triangle player, a good passer. He was an enigma, really soft-hearted, a kind, good guy, yet reluctant to talk in any conversational setting."
Yes, Rodman was different from most NBA players. After all, he's about to be a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.