How Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman was ahead of his time

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It’s been 20 years since his last NBA game, but Dennis Rodman is a hot topic for sports fans again. He’s the featured character in the just-released third episode of The Last Dance, the documentary series about the Michael Jordan Bulls dynasty that has done an admirable job of filling the hole in our hearts where live sports used to be.

What made (and continues to make) Rodman so interesting is that he’s so many different things to so many different people. No matter your likes, dislikes, interests, biases or worldview, the Worm has something for you — positive or negative (or both). Here are some of the things that made Rodman one of the most colourful (literally) athletes of all time:

He was a good basketball player

Rodman couldn’t really score — he averaged 7.3 points per game for his career and cracked double digits for a season only once. So he made his bones by excelling at two things most players don’t like to do: rebounding and defence. This is basketball’s dirty work. You need some talent to be effective, but it’s more about energy, desire and toughness — three things Rodman had in spades.

He was also smart enough to realize he could carve out a niche here, and dedicated enough to devote himself to the game’s dark arts. As he says in the documentary, Rodman would spend hours in the gym without hoisting a shot. He’d have a friend launch hundreds of bricks so he could study how the ball bounced off the rim and the backboard from every possible angle and practise snatching it from the air.

Rodman’s mastery of the glass endeared him to basketball nerds, his teammates and (sometimes grudgingly) opponents. He was the kind of guy no one likes to play against. That’s high praise in pro sports.

Rodman was not easy to play against, as New York Knicks star Patrick Ewing could attest. (Vincent Laforet/AFP via Getty Images)

He was a winner

Rodman won five championships in 14 NBA seasons. He was a key contributor to two of the most famous teams of all time: the Bad Boy Pistons who won back-to-back titles in 1989 and ’90, and the phase-two Jordan Bulls who won three straight from ’96 to ’98 after MJ came back from his first retirement. 

Rodman’s rebounding and defence were really important to those teams. Championship contenders need that kind of stuff. But it worked the other way too: those teams were perfect for Rodman. His more nuanced skills could have gone unappreciated on a mediocre team. But he was both lucky and good, setting the foundation for all the fame that came his way.

He was a good teammate — even when he was a bad teammate

There’s a story in the Jordan Bulls doc that really captures this dichotomy. Early in the 1997-98 season, Rodman had to step up his game (and stay on his best behaviour) to make up for the absence of Scottie Pippen, who was recovering from ankle surgery. Pippen was being a bad teammate himself, by the way: angry at the Bulls for his terrible contract, he delayed the surgery so as not to “f— up my summer.”

Anyway, when Pippen came back, Rodman was spent — and feeling down about not being Jordan’s right-hand man anymore. So he went to coach Phil Jackson with a bold request: give me a full week off to go blow off some steam in Vegas. Jackson granted him 48 hours. Rodman (master of the Overton Window, apparently) probably crammed a week’s worth of partying into that time, which he stretched past the agreed-on 48 hours. But he showed up on time for the first practice after he got back. And he dusted his teammates in a running drill designed to punish him. The point of the story? At the end of the day (or a two-day bender), Jordan and the Bulls knew they could count on him.

He came from nothing

Rodman grew up poor (and shy) in the Dallas housing projects with his mother and two sisters. His dad left when he was three. He was bullied by neighbourhood boys and wasn’t much of an athlete in high school. His bleak realization: “”I thought I would be in jail,” he told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan for a 2019 story. “I thought I’d be a drug dealer or be dead. Those were my options.”

After he graduated and didn’t get a job right away, Rodman’s mom kicked him out. He spent the next couple of years sleeping on friends’ couches and working odd jobs. He also played basketball every day. And he grew several inches. That got him onto the team at a small college in Oklahoma, where he stood out enough to get picked 27th overall in the 1986 NBA draft by Detroit. When Rodman made his NBA debut that fall, he was already 25 — a late bloomer in every sense.

He wasn’t afraid to say things

Today’s athletes, in general, won’t touch even mildly controversial topics (which is understandable — there’s so much money at stake now). Truly delicate issues like race and their personal sexuality? Forget it. But not Rodman.

After his rookie season ended with the Pistons losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference final, Rodman hot-taked to reporters that Celtics star Larry Bird owed his popularity to the fact that he’s white. The reporters took this to Pistons star Isiah Thomas, who responded with his infamous “If [Bird] were black, he’d be just another good guy” comment. OK, so that’s a little much. Bird is objectively one of the best basketball players ever. But (especially given the makeup of the crowds in the city he played in), did his stardom reach another level because of his race? It’s a debate reasonable people have been having for decades. And a bold thing for Rodman to bring up in public.

Rodman also said some interesting things in his 1996 book Bad As I Wanna Be and a subsequent interview with Oprah. Bear in mind, this is almost two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and also long before any active player in a major North American sports league had publicly come out. Rodman said he fantasized about being bisexual, though he denied ever acting on those desires. Still, a pretty groundbreaking revelation for the time.

Rodman revealed in his 1996 book that he fantasized about being bisexual. (Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images)

He pulled a lot of stunts

We already covered the Vegas bender. Rodman’s constantly changing hair colour — and the odd designs he’d put in — were always a topic of conversation back in the ’90s. There was also the time he promoted his book by announcing he was getting married… and then showed up to an appearance wearing a wedding dress and explained that he was marrying himself. He also appeared nude (with the help of a strategically placed basketball) on the cover of the book. More recently, Rodman cozied up to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in a (supposed) attempt to broker peace with the United States.

This kind of stuff never sat well with old-school sports fans, many of whom despised Rodman for the way he always seemed to draw attention to himself. But he knew how to push people’s buttons. And how to stand out. Which led to…

He became an actual celebrity

Not many athletes make the leap to mainstream stardom — someone who would be recognized just as easily by your average Entertainment Tonight viewer as a hardcore Sportscenter fan. But Rodman did. He dated Madonna and married model/actress Carmen Electra, who was probably the late-90s version of a Kardashian. He was interviewed by Barbara Walters, which was a big deal at the time. Put it this way: if you asked a sports fan back then to name two Bulls, they might say Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. If you asked your grandma, she’d probably say Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman.

He has a dark side

It wasn’t all fun and games with Rodman. There was that time he kicked a courtside camera guy in an area where you should not kick people. That landed him an 11-game suspension, and he also served six games for headbutting a ref.

A more troubling incident took place in 1993, when a worried friend called the police one night and asked them to look for Rodman. They found him in the Pistons’ parking garage, sitting in his truck with a rifle. Rodman said later that he contemplated suicide before falling asleep.

Rodman also has a history of domestic violence. He and Electra were both arrested and charged with battery after getting into a fight with each other at a Miami hotel in the late ’90s. Rodman was also arrested and charged in 2008 for allegedly hitting his girlfriend at the time. He said he’d had too much to drink that night, and Rodman continues to battle an alcohol addiction.

So Rodman is clearly no saint. But it’s interesting to think about how he might be treated (and covered) differently today. Hopefully, his domestic violence incidents would be taken more seriously, and it’s doubtful he’d get away with as much partying as he did, given how much more disciplined athletes have become about caring for their bodies (and their public images).

But Rodman also may have found more acceptance in today’s world, considering how society has bent toward inclusiveness and a greater understanding of addiction and mental-health issues. Maybe that would have changed his behaviour. Maybe he wouldn’t have become so famous. But maybe he would have found more happiness.