ALL THE WAY DOWN the San Diego Freeway from LAX to Newport Beach, I think about what it is going to be like to interview Dennis Rodman. Is this going to be a rational experience? I try to picture the scene: Dennis is sitting behind a desk at the RodMan Group, the sports and entertainment company that manages (if that is the word) him and his affairs (if that is the word). I ask him why he bought six and a half acres outside Plano and is moving to Texas. “Well, Paul,” he’ll say, “Plano just suits my lifestyle better than Southern California.” Somehow I don’t think that’s how it’s going to go.
It doesn’t. Dennis isn’t there. His agent appears, wearing shorts, a sport shirt with its shirttail flapping, and Kenneth Cole sandals. “He had an appointment,” the agent says. “I’ll take you over there, and you can interview him on the way back.” Oh, swell. Joined by two more men from RodMan, all of them young, casual, and white, we climb into a Mercedes with leather seats and two cellular phones that will be in constant use during the twenty-minute trip. It ends at an unimposing one-story office building on a busy Orange County corner. “Where’s Mr. Ed?” one of our party asks the receptionist, a remark whose relevance escapes me for the moment. She points the way, and our foursome bursts into a small room unannounced.
There is 37-year-old Dennis Rodman, levitating about two feet above the ground, wearing blue and white pajama bottoms, a gray T-shirt, and the usual assortment of accessories: a gold design snaking through his hair, two silver hoops in his left ear, a silver bead in his lower lip, and too many tattoos to count, including one that says “Torture” on his right forearm. A miniature version of the Apollo space capsule is strapped over his nose. Gradually the scene comes into focus. This is a dentist’s office. The chair is holding Dennis aloft. The nose cone delivers nitrous oxide to the patient. Teeth. Horse. Mr. Ed. Got it.
Eight of us now occupy a room that is barely long enough to accommodate a horizontal Dennis Rodman, all six feet eight inches of him. In addition to the dentist, technician, and patient, there is our party of four and another friend of Dennis’, who was already there. No one makes any move to leave, and the dentist returns to work. “Heh rurrer?” Dennis mumbles through the dental probe and nose cone, cocking a thumb at me.
“Yeah, he’s the writer,” his agent says. Rodman unfolds his right arm from its resting place on his chest, and improbably, it crosses the several feet of space between us. I watch my white hand disappear into his brown one. It’s gone. An eyeball measurement indicates that his middle finger is about as long as my entire hand. He relaxes his clasp, and his arm slowly refolds into its previous position. The beauty of this simple act is stunning—so controlled, but so natural. Even semi-drugged in a dentist’s chair, his body radiates physical grace.
As the dentist tries to repair the damage of the long NBA season that has recently concluded with Rodman and the Chicago Bulls’ winning a third straight championship, the entourage strives to keep him entertained. Still flat on his back, looking at us out of his right eye, Dennis gives hand signals to the chorus, and they try to guess what he wants them to talk about, which could be anything from a Smashing Pumpkins concert that evening to the joys of nitrous oxide. “He wants to take it home with him,” someone says, and Dennis breaks into a knowing smile and nods, ever so slowly. The dentist laughs. Don’t laugh, somebody else says, he’s serious. In the world of Dennis Rodman, the unconventional and the unpredictable are everyday occurrences. Why, someone could reach into a pocket, right here, and pull out a million dollars. Indeed, someone does—his agent. “Want to see one point three mil?” he asks, displaying a gold coin. It’s a 1907 $20 gold piece, he explains, that he has bought for another client. All work ceases while the rare coin is passed around. “Want to buy a dental practice?” the dentist asks.
Work resumes. At last the nitrous oxide nose cone comes off, revealing another silver hoop in Rodman’s left nostril. “I want to get a little more before I leave here, man,” Dennis says. The dentist turns to us. “Don’t you believe him,” he says. “This man knows no pain.”
The dentist is wrong. Anyone who has read Bad as I Wanna Be, the 1996 book he wrote with Tim Keown, realizes that Dennis Rodman has known a lot of pain in his life and that the drive to salve it accounts for why he is the way he is. His father (“the aptly named Philander Rodman”) left the family when Dennis was three; one member of his entourage told me that a part of Dennis stopped growing right then and remains three years old. His mother moved her three children from New Jersey back to her own roots, Dallas’ south Oak Cliff neighborhood, where Dennis grew up, as he says in his book, “always too skinny or too funny looking to be taken seriously,” and so shy that he hid behind his mother in the grocery store. His younger sisters were taller and more proficient in basketball than he was; he quit the high school junior varsity in his sophomore year. The most important ball in his life was pinball, which he played with so much body English that he earned the nickname Worm, which has stayed with him. At nineteen he was living on the streets; at twenty he was a janitor on the graveyard shift at DFW airport. Basketball was not part of his life. You may not admire Dennis Rodman, but reflect for a moment on the astronomical odds against this janitor becoming the greatest rebounder in the history