An Otherworldly Talent

The first time I saw Dennis Rodman, we were in another country and he appeared to be from another world. It was the summer of 1986 when an early iteration of what would become NBA Summer League was being hosted by the Pistons at the University of Windsor for teams in their own division. Rodman had just been drafted a few weeks earlier by the Pistons, and that was a story in itself.

No one knew much about him, but NBA scouting guru Marty Blake invited Rodman to the Chicago predraft camp, where all the teams that had never heard of him wondered if Blake had lost his marbles. Rodman did nothing during scrimmages to warrant his invitation to Chicago.

But Jack McCloskey already knew about the gangly kid from tiny Southeastern Oklahoma State. Trader Jack was a few steps ahead of his time. The Pistons were one of the very few teams to have their trainer accompany the scouting department to Chicago to check out prospects medically, so maybe only Mike Abdenour came to learn that Rodman was one sick puppy while in Chicago, explaining his lethargy.

So the Pistons got Rodman with the 27th pick, three picks into the second round, when the NBA was a 24-team league. That was a star-crossed draft, filled with tragedy, from Len Bias to Chris Washburn, William Bedford and Roy Tarpley. Among first-rounders, only No. 1 pick Brad Daugherty would grow into an All-Star.

Rodman would, too. He was twice an All-Star, which seems laughable today. Of course he should have been on many more. Eight times he was an All-Defensive team selection, seven times on the first team. He led the league in rebounding seven straight years, and he won those titles going away, averaging a preposterous 18.7 one year with the Pistons. He could guard Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler, or he could guard Charles Barkley and Karl Malone. Who else could do that … ever? Twice he was Defensive Player of the Year, another list that shortchanges him.

But no one quite knew how to categorize someone who dominated the game without scoring in the NBA of that time, just as it took baseball years to warm to the idea that a bullpen pitcher with a knack for getting the final three outs belonged in their All-Star game.

On merit alone, Rodman – with five NBA titles on his resume, to boot – is a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. Forget the stats. Anybody who watched the NBA of that era knows how dramatically Rodman affected games. But Rodman’s flamboyance and a lifestyle that made him all-time tabloid fodder have clouded his career retrospectives and no doubt badly hurt his chances for enshrinement so far. Having his number retired by the Pistons, to take place when the Bulls visit The Palace on April 1, is a significant first step in rehabilitating his image.

I suspect nothing would make Jack McCloskey beam more. Trader Jack picked John Salley 11th and Rodman 16 picks later in that ’86 draft, adding them to a nucleus that already included Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer. That summer, he swapped Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson for Adrian Dantley. Those moves transformed the Pistons.

Even with the talented forwards already on the roster – Dantley, veterans Rick Mahorn and Sidney Green, and top pick Salley – the Pistons had no one quite like Rodman. Nobody else did, either. On a team that would push the venerable Boston Celtics of Larry Bird to seven games in the conference finals – kicking off a remarkable four-year run that produced two NBA titles and could have produced one or two more with a break here or there – Rodman, even as a raw rookie, forced his way into the rotation for 15 minutes a night.

That Rodman was unique was evident from the moment I saw him in Windsor. When I wrote he appeared to be from another world, you might have flashed to the ever-changing neon dye jobs or the ubiquitous piercings that would come to identify Rodman later in his career. But the only thing that made him unique as a young Piston was his otherworldly athleticism.

All that other stuff – the dyed ’do, the tatts, the piercings, the escapades … I don’t know how much of that is Rodman and how much was the persona he adopted to stay in the spotlight. I’m sure qualified psychologists could draw a line from Rodman’s challenging youth and lack of role models to the attention-gathering behavior that’s marked his life since the early ’90s. Young players often look to coaches as father figures. I don’t know that ever rang more true than for Rodman with Chuck Daly. Daly’s departure from the Pistons seemed to traumatize Rodman.

Until then, you could never have imagined Rodman cavorting with Madonna or posing in wedding dresses. He was the most childlike, guileless professional athlete I had ever encountered. During the playoffs of his rookie season, while the Pistons were in Atlanta, I ventured across the street hoping to catch another playoff game on the TV screens at a sports bar/restaurant. There, playing pinball with what appeared to be a group of high school kids, was Rodman, his body bouncing as he tried to will the ball to stay alive.

Go back several months, to that gym in Windsor. My first memory of Rodman was running the wing in that sweaty old barn, fists pumping up high under his chin as he ran, and the sound he made: the sound of silence. Those big feet, those loping strides that seemed to devour the polished hardwood, and no sound. Nothing. It was as if Rodman were gliding above the surface, the puck in an air hockey game.

There are very few parallels to Rodman in NBA history. Ben Wallace comes pretty close. On the list of players who have most affected NBA games without needing the ball in their hands, Rodman and Ben Wallace must be on everyone’s top five.

Seems fitting that their jerseys will one day flutter high above the floor at The Palace, where both played central roles in bringing Pistons championships home.