My earliest memory of Dennis Rodman is also my favourite memory of Dennis Rodman.
It’s the third quarter of Game 6 in the 1996 Finals, and Rodman is being his prototypical self against Seattle. On one possession, he slithers his way under the rim, bullying Frank Brickowski like a child. He nabs an offensive rebound and puts it back in, turning around and sprinting up court like Usain Bolt, both arms in the air like he’s a victorious corporate stock photo.
It’s not over. The Sonics bring the ball up, but an errant pass is nabbed by Scottie Pippen. He leads a 3-on-2 break with Jordan and Rodman, and you already know who the defenders cover. Pippen tosses a late pass to Rodman, who flips up a horridly awkward reverse layup — no glass. It falls in, plus the foul, and the arms are in the air again.
Rodman didn’t start the game, but he willed it to its conclusion with nine points and 19 rebounds, including a Finals record 11 on the offensive glass. On defense, he poked and prodded at Shawn Kemp like a muscular tabby cat, infuriating him into a bad game.
Above all, he punctuated the Bulls’ fourth championship as a heroic x-factor, a story written by many teams since. He was Draymond Green without an offensive skill set, Shawn Marion without a jump shot. He was a fanatical weirdo, who never stopped pursuing the ball off the rim. Nobody before or since Rodman has cared so much about rebounds, the least sexy statistical element of basketball.
I was six years old watching those Finals. To this day, the ‘96 to ‘98 Bulls are my favourite team. Most of that is due to Jordan and Pippen, sure — but Rodman took the love affair to a different level. He was my weirdo, and he helped me first see the NBA for what it was — a league that welcomed eccentricity. Unlike other leagues which punish personality and embrace conformity, the NBA was different — if you could play, you can get away with being strange.
And yes, Dennis Rodman — and the story of his basketball life — is the epitome of strange.
A shy and introverted player from Southeastern Oklahoma State, Dennis Rodman was drafted as the third pick in the second round of the 1986 draft by Chuck Daly’s Detroit Pistons.
The fit is perfect in retrospect, but at the time, the quiet Rodman wasn’t necessarily fitting of the Bad Boys persona. Behind Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer, though, Rodman’s career (and mouth) quickly took off. Daly in particular played a huge role in Rodman’s growth on and off the basketball court. Rodman’s father had left him at a very young age, and grew up in a household with just his mom and two sisters. Chuck Daly became his father figure, and Rodman looked up to him thusly.
With the Pistons, Dennis would play some of his best ball. He was pivotal to the team’s two championships in 1989 and 1990, seeing his playing time increase after the trade of Adrian Dantley and the loss of Rick Mahorn. In 1990, he averaged 8.8 points and 9.7 rebounds and was awarded the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He had arrived in the league, but the road turned rocky as the Pistons fell off the summit.
After Chuck Daly resigned in 1993, Rodman contemplated suicide. Of all people, it was the recently-passed Craig Sager who initially talked him out of it. From the Washington Post:
The Times reported in October 1993 that “Rodman left a suicide note last February, and police later found him sitting in the parking lot at the Palace of Auburn Hills with a loaded rifle in the back of his truck.”
At the height of his struggle, Rodman disappeared and was considering killing himself when Sager tracked him down on the second floor of a Detroit strip club. “The Landing Strip,” Sager told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins earlier this year.
Rodman, Sager told SI, “had the gun. He was going to do it. I told him how stupid that would be.”
The intervention worked.
Rodman demanded a trade soon after and was dealt to the San Antonio Spurs, where his career and personality again blossomed.
In San Antonio, Rodman truly came out of his shell. He constantly found himself at odds with coaches, was suspended twice in 1994, and suffered a motorcycle accident that kept him out half the remaining season. He had a highly public affair with Madonna. He started to change his hair — from “Kanye” blonde to purple to rainbow and everything in between. Eventually, he was traded to Chicago for Will Perdue and cash.
We’ve already explored the height of what happens next. Rodman continued his eccentricities, but found a much more accepting voice in Bulls coach Phil Jackson. With the guidance of Zen — for whatever it’s worth — Phil let Rodman do whatever he want as long as he showed up.
Show up he did, becoming a defensive cog on the 72-10 Bulls in 1996, then successfully guarding and frustrating Karl Malone in the 1997 and 1998 Finals. In my other favourite Rodman moment, the two tripped each other all the way up the court on one possession in the ‘98 Finals. Malone had stooped to Rodman’s level, and the whole world knew who was coming away successful.
After the Bulls gutted their team in the summer of 1998, Rodman went off for unsuccessful stints with Los Angeles and Dallas in 1999 and 2000. His life away from basketball began in earnest, and that story — a sadder one — continues to this day.
My most recent memory of Dennis Rodman is his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice, and his trips to North Korea to play for Kim Jong Un.
His pursuit of headlines through the latter half of his basketball career, after a narrowly-avoided suicide attempt, continued with stunts like this. They increased in desperation — leaving many either uneasy or jumping off the bandwagon entirely.
It was easy to love Rodman when the weirdness was offset by a brilliant rebound, or a jump shot followed by a “who me?” shrug. Without basketball, it all felt rather sad.
The biggest constant in Rodman’s life these days is alcoholism. He’s entered rehab on multiple occasions since 2008, and his most recent legal troubles include a hit and run in November. His 2005 book title, I Should Be Dead By Now, seems more prophetic 12 years later — as a slow spiral appears to continue.
For me, though, it’s impossible not to think of Rodman as a basketball player first. I’m biased in that regard — I’m sure there’s a big chunk of the NBA-watching population that’s dismissed him by now, the basketball memories melting in the face of personal struggles.
Rodman, though, will always be a five-time champion. He’s a Hall of Famer, with one of the more memorable induction speeches in recent years. “I didn’t play to be famous,” he said. “What you see here is an illusion; I just love to be an individual that’s very colorful.”
Rodman’s goodbye to basketball was repentant, but unapologetic. He wants to be remembered the way we eventually will be — a strange player on a great team, the electric, eccentric personality that shows how accepting the NBA can be.