Pippen followed Rodman’s lead to the NBA

Rodman and the Bulls

Aside from Jackson and members of his staff, Jordan and Pippen were the only Bulls to play a part in all six world championships, the last three which came with the help of Rodman among others.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

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By Adam Fluck | 08.10.2011 | @ChicagoBulls

Long before Dennis Rodman helped the Chicago Bulls to their second three-peat, and even prior to his days as a member of the rival Bad Boys, Scottie Pippen had an eye on his future nemesis and teammate.

While the two took to the court on opposite sides during a bitter rivalry between Chicago and Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s, it was hope and respect that first came to mind for Pippen when hearing Rodman’s name.

Dennis Rodman

“He was the one guy who gave me hope that I could make it professionally from an NAIA school,” Pippen said of Rodman. “So I followed his career and I had a lot of respect for what he did in college, being a top rebounder and a very good defender.
(Southeastern Oklahoma State University)

That’s because Rodman and Pippen share a common bond in that they played at small NAIA schools—Rodman at Southeastern Oklahoma State and Pippen at Central Arkansas—before beating the odds and making it to the NBA.

“He was the one guy who gave me hope that I could make it professionally from an NAIA school,” Pippen said of Rodman during a recent interview at his home in the north Chicago suburbs. “So I followed his career and I had a lot of respect for what he did in college, being a top rebounder and a very good defender. He was able to carry that on to the league and helped the Pistons solidify a championship team.”

Pippen also attributes a lot of the success Rodman had professionally to attending a small school, specifically that as an undersized power forward, he was able to lead the NBA in rebounding for a record seven straight years.

“It pushed him to work harder and realize that it was an uphill battle this whole career,” said Pippen of Rodman, who was selected in the second round of the 1986 draft, one year before Pippen entered the league. “That’s how he faced that challenge, which he met every day.

“Dennis worked as hard as any player in the gym,” added Pippen. “He lifted weights, he rode the bike; he kept himself going before and after games, as well as practices. He always kept himself in top shape and was very determined. You put a relentless Dennis Rodman out on the basketball court, and you better have someone there to match his energy. If you don’t, it’s going to be a long night.”

To this day, Pippen and Rodman have never discussed the similar path that led them to the NBA, and ultimately, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But it’s certainly something that Pippen, who will attend the enshrinement ceremony, has had on his mind for a long time.

From the Bad Boys to the Bulls—an unlikely transition

Following seven seasons in Detroit and two more in San Antonio, Rodman arrived in Chicago on October 2, 1995 in exchange for Will Perdue. But it was no given that Rodman, who had led the NBA in rebounding for four consecutive seasons, would be accepted by the Bulls.

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Phil Jackson’s input as to whether the Bulls should acquire the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year was given heavy consideration, as he had to agree he could coach Rodman first. But the team consulted Pippen and Michael Jordan early in the process and received their blessings. (“Michael was probably consulted on every trade,” Pippen said with a smile.)

“I was surprised,” said Pippen of first hearing that adding Rodman was a possibility. “But myself, Michael and Phil, the leaders of the team, felt that we had full control over our destiny. We didn’t think Dennis could disrupt us to the point that it would hurt us as a basketball team. We knew it would be a challenge and there could be a few distractions if things got out of hand. It was going to be different.”

Though change isn’t always easy, it’s often a reality in the NBA. And in the Bulls’ case, Jordan and Pippen were the only holdovers on the 1995-96 roster who were with the team during its first three championships. With Jordan back in the mix for his first full season since his first retirement and time with the White Sox organization, the Bulls were eager to get back to the NBA Finals. And to do so, they had to fill the void left by Horace Grant, who departed for the Orlando Magic as a free agent during the summer of 1994.

Rodman was considered a controversial figure for his antics both on and off the court, but the Bulls were confident in what they were getting.

“We knew Dennis was a heck of a basketball player and he’d bring a lot of value in terms of what he could do on the court,” said Pippen. “You had to respect the fact that not only was he a good defensive player and rebounder, but he had a very high basketball IQ. He knew how to play the game and he knew how to win.”

More importantly, the battles between the Bulls and Rodman’s Pistons were ancient history in Jordan and Pippen’s mind.

“I had moved on,” recalled Pippen. “I’ve played basketball all of my life and I’ve had things happen on the court that you eventually have to move on from. It’s part of some of the obstacles that you meet in trying to reach your pinnacle.

“Dennis and the Pistons helped us mature and grow as players,” added Pippen. “It was one of those challenges that, when you look back, you’re glad you ran into it. It made us stronger, it made us become better, and it made us become closer. It put us into a position where we had to use each other to survive. They showed us what a good team could do and we had to buy into that. We had to become better at what they had done for a number of years.”

Rodman proved he was a perfect fit for the Bulls

If there were any lingering questions about whether the addition of Rodman would be a distraction for the 1995-96 Bulls, perhaps their 37-3 start quieted the skeptics.

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After finishing the season with the best record in NBA history, 72-10, the accolades began to pile up—Jordan won NBA MVP, All-Star MVP and eventually Finals MVP, Pippen was an All-Star starter, Toni Kukoc won Sixth Man of the Year, Jackson was named NBA Coach of the Year, and Jerry Krause earned the title of NBA Executive of the Year.

As for Rodman, he claimed his fifth consecutive rebounding title and landed on the NBA All-Defensive First Team with Jordan and Pippen—the first time in NBA history for three teammates to accomplish such a feat.

Along those lines, just as the 1995-96 Bulls were a force to be reckoned with offensively, averaging 105.2 points per game, they were equally as good on the defensive end of the floor, limiting opponents to 92.9 points per game.

It was in that sense, given that defense carried such great importance during all six of the Bulls’ world championships, that Rodman was the ideal fit.

“If you ran into a pick, the switches were natural,” recalled Pippen. “We had confidence in Dennis guarding anybody up on top of the floor. Everyone held their own. That made us a very strong defensive team and knowing we were able to help each other out made us that much better. Guys stepping in and taking charges and things of that nature made it very difficult for our opponents to score.”

Though it was Jordan and Pippen garnering most of the headlines with their offensive production—the duo became the ninth pair in NBA history to score 40 or more points in a game on Feb. 18, 1996 at Indiana—Rodman had his own, unique way of making his presence felt. And he did it when it mattered most.

Dennis Rodman

“We knew Dennis was a heck of a basketball player and he’d bring a lot of value in terms of what he could do on the court,” said Pippen of the Bulls trading for Rodman. “You had to respect the fact that not only was he a good defensive player and rebounder, but he had a very high basketball IQ. He knew how to play the game and he knew how to win.”
(Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls)

“Dennis loved big games,” remarked Pippen. “People talk about some of his antics and getting thrown out of games. Dennis didn’t get thrown out of big games. He found a way to impact the game no matter what.”

In the 1996 NBA Finals against Shawn Kemp and the Seattle Sonics, Rodman hauled in 11 offensive boards on two occasions, tying the NBA Finals record held by Elvin Hayes. In Game 2 of that series, it was Rodman who picked up the slack for a struggling Bulls offense, leading his team to a narrow 92-88 victory at the United Center to take a 2-0 lead.

“The second opportunities, the little things he did, just the free throw down the stretch; he finds a way to help the team,” Jackson said of Rodman after the game.

Sonics coach George Karl agreed: “Give Dennis Rodman credit. He was probably their MVP tonight.”

Pippen, who scored 21 while Jordan had 29, concurred that Rodman was the difference. “He was playing against a very talented player in Shawn Kemp,” he said. “He was much younger and more energetic, but Dennis was able to meet that challenge and was the guy who won that game for us.

“That’s what I loved about Dennis,” added Pippen of Rodman and his offensive rebounding. “The years that I played with him, he made our offense so much more fun. You could miss a shot, and he’d literally run down and get it, then bring it back and hand it to you on a tray. It was amazing to play with a guy like that, so much passion to go and get that ball.”

Determination made Rodman the best rebounder in the game

For all of the on the court success Rodman enjoyed during his time in Chicago, yes, there were distractions as well. He head butted an official, kicked a cameraman, left the team prior to Game 4 of the 1998 Finals for a wrestling match and had a headline-grabbing relationship with Carmen Electra, just to name a few.

But to Pippen and the Bulls, it was all part of the package. And at no point did it become a problem that could not be overcome.

“It was Dennis being Dennis,” said Pippen. “It was something that was kept in a bottle for too long and it finally just exploded. For the most part, Dennis was a class act who did what was asked of him. It was a great time for us and he saw that he could benefit and take advantage of some of the opportunities that were presented to him.

Dennis Rodman with Bill Wennington and Scottie Pippen

“I don’t think it was much of a distraction for us, because we were an experienced basketball team,” added Pippen. “It wasn’t going to affect us. Dennis knew the stage he had to come and perform on no matter who he wrestled or who he went out on a date with. He knew how to butter his bread, and when he came to the United Center or the practice facility, he was always willing to do what it took for us to win.”

While much of what Rodman did screamed personality—how he dressed, the color of his hair, the nightclubs he frequented and the company he kept—it wasn’t necessarily telling of the person most of his teammates got to know.

“When he’s off the court, he’s very shy, quiet and laid back,” said Pippen. “You’ve kind of got to pull everything out of him. But you put him on the court and you can talk about anything with Dennis. He likes that arena and being in that space.”

It was that space where Rodman did what he did as well as anyone—rebound and defend.

Hesitant to compare Rodman with those who played in previous generations, Pippen called Rodman the “top rebounder he’s ever seen” and figures that when factoring in his size, he’s probably among the game’s top five rebounders of all-time.

So what was it that separated Rodman from the pack?

“Determination,” answered Pippen. “Dennis was determined to make it after having a hard life growing up. When you are pushed and your back is against the ball, you see when there are opportunities and you try to take advantage of them. It’s easy to turn and go back the other way. But Dennis was someone who was able to push through and meet the challenge. He wasn’t going to let anyone outdo him and that was just his nature. He’d wrestle and fight with anyone, from Shaq on down.”

Though it may have seemed unlikely Pippen and Rodman would ever have a relationship off the court, let alone on the court, a mutual admiration exists between the two as life after basketball for each of them continues and the next chapters of their lives ensue.

“He’s a giving guy and a good guy to know,” said Pippen of Rodman. “He’ll give you the shirt off his back. If you see him at a restaurant, he’s probably going to buy you dinner. I still see Dennis a lot and he’s always a respectful person. He’ll come over and say ‘what’s up’ and ask me about my wife and kids. Since playing with him, we’ve bonded and I respect him a lot as a person. He’s had some ups and downs during his life, but he truly is a great guy.”

On Aug. 12, when Rodman makes it the third summer in a row a former Bulls player has been enshrined, following Jordan in 2009 and Pippen in 2010, it will be the fitting end to a career for another former NAIA student-athlete who surpassed everyone’s expectations.

“It’s truly deserving,” said Pippen of Rodman entering basketball’s Hall of Fame. “Dennis has really inspired a lot of people about the game of basketball and it may not have always been in the most conventional way, but he did it his way. He made it fun. You knew when he was on the basketball court, he was looked at as one of the best players out there. He always made an impact.”

2011 Hall of Fame