SPORTS • Dennis Rodman

On the court and off, he’s in a league of his own.

September 1998By Comments

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 of the game, and the character that he had to have—dedication, determination, belief in himself—to beat those odds when the opportunity came along.

It came along because he grew nine inches, from five feet eleven to six feet eight, in the two years after he graduated from high school. “All of a sudden I could do things on a basketball court I’d never dreamed of doing,” he wrote in Bad as I Wanna Be. “It was like I had a new body that knew how to do all this shit the old one didn’t.” A friend of his sisters’ saw him playing in a pickup game and suggested that he try out at the junior college where she played. He got a scholarship but flunked out. A coach for Southeastern Oklahoma State University had seen him play, however, and he started there at age 22. At the school’s preseason camp Rodman met a thirteen-year-old boy named Bryne Rich, who had troubles of his own: He had accidentally shot and killed his best friend in a hunting accident the previous year. For Rodman, this was the third formative event of his life, along with his father’s departure and his growth spurt. Black man and white boy bonded, Rodman moved in with the Rich family on their farm, got up at five in the morning to do chores, led his team to the small-college final four, and made the Detroit Pistons as a second-round draft choice in 1986. He was a rookie at 25. The rest, as they say, is histrionics.

Most great athletes grow up accustomed to attention and adulation and getting everything they want. Away from the arena, they want privacy. Rodman grew up with hurts and resentments. His book is filled with them: the black girls who ignored him (now he dates white women and briefly was married to one in 1991), the family in which he grew up the runt (now he considers the Riches his real family), the prospect of life as a janitor or worse (now he denigrates the young players who get rich without working hard). He presents himself as underpaid, underappreciated, and a victim (“I don’t fit into the mold of the NBA man, and I think I’ve been punished financially for it”). His favorite music is not the aggressive rap of the neighborhoods where he grew up but the grunge of Pearl Jam, the sound of lost Generation X types. Dennis Rodman’s very public life consists of trying to make up for what he did not have, and nothing yet—not the championships, not the records, not fame, not infamy, not Madonna—has succeeded.

We climb into the Mercedes, our number now reduced to three, for the drive back to RodMan, during which the interview is to take place. “All right, writer,” Rodman says from the front passenger seat. “What do you want to know?” I ask him something about growing up in Dallas. “Call my mother,” he says. “Is your family close?” I ask. “My mother and sisters are,” he says. “I’m not.” I start to ask about living with the Rich family. Call them, he says. Okay, let’s try the $25,000 trust fund you set up for the children of James Byrd, Jr., the black man in Jasper who was dragged to death in June, allegedly by white supremacists. That elicits a little information—he had talked to Jesse Jackson about doing something to help—but no animation. He speaks in a monotone. Only when the conversation turns to basketball does he brighten. I ask him why the Bulls always seem to win the close games. “Talent helps,” he says, “but you got to know the game of basketball. You have to study the game, visualize in your mind what the game is, live the game, be the game. You got to have the will to be a great player. The kids coming into the league today, they don’t have it.” Now he is talking with real passion. “I have a brain chip of each individual I play against. I know what he’s going to do before he knows.”

Physical attributes are the least of the reasons why Rodman is a great rebounder. Karl Malone, the man he shut down in the finals, is one inch taller and 36 pounds heavier. His assets are the knack to identify the spot where a missed shot will end up and the will to jump again and again, tipping the ball to keep it alive, prolonging the punishment of his body, until at last the ball is his. Do not be deceived by the missed practices, the technical fouls, the headline-grabbing antics: This is a very serious athlete. It is no coincidence that two of the three teams he has played for, the Pistons and the Bulls, have won multiple NBA titles; the third, the San Antonio Spurs, had the best record in the league in the 1994-1995 season, Rodman’s second year there, only to lose to the Rockets in the playoffs. Rodman does not have fond memories of San Antonio. “It was a little too small for me,” he says. “I stood out too much. I’m pretty much normal for New York or Europe.” The Spurs might have won the whole thing if they had worried less about Dennis’ behavior. “The Spurs didn’t understand the fundamentals of winning,” he says. “As long as you’re doing your job, why should anybody else give a damn?”

We are not going to RodMan after all: Our driver turns into a subdivision of ranch-style homes with lots of acreage, then into a driveway. We are at Rodman’s residence. Near a one-goal basketball court sits a pink motorcycle with silver-studded black leather seats and an inscription on the back, “Topless riders only.” Rodman and the driver vanish into the back, leaving me alone in the den. Bookcases line one wall, their shelves vacant except for one that contains about twenty volumes of Bad as I Wanna Be in various languages. The bookcases rest atop cabinets, on which are scattered dozens of magazines about African American life and coiffure: Ebony, Essence, Jet, and Vibe; Black HairStyles, Modern Hair and Braid, Sister 2 Sister, Blac-tress, and Sisters in Style. After almost an hour, Rodman and the driver emerge, and we get back in the car. “We’re going to get some lunch,” he says and camps on a cell phone to recruit additional company while we drive around looking for a restaurant. We end up at a California Pizza Kitchen, joined by a volunteer from RodMan. Introducing the new arrival, Dennis says, “I have agents, and I have puppets. He’s a puppet.” Apparently the puppet’s job is to keep Dennis unbored, which he does with an endless series of quips and commendations. When I ask how the wrestling match involving Dennis and Karl Malone was arranged right in the middle of the NBA finals, the puppet says, “Only one person in the world can pull that off. The Black Moses.” He explains how Rodman is the leader of his people: “You didn’t see a lot of athletes with tattoos before Dennis,” he says. “You can’t find a kid coming into the NBA today without a tattoo.” It’s not the Ten Commandments, but it will have to do. Far from engaging in outrageous conduct, the Black Moses is subdued throughout his lunch of grilled chicken salad. He eats no bread and leaves the plate half full. Only one visitor interrupts us, a gorgeous California blonde who comes over to indicate her availability; Dennis ignores her, letting the puppet field the play.

After lunch we will be going our separate ways, him to the gym for an hour-and-a-half workout, me to the airport. I still have one last question: “Why are you moving to Plano?”

“A lot of athletes live there,” he says.

“Texas and Florida,” the puppet adds. Texas. Florida. Not California. I get it. Welcome to Texas, Dennis, and rest assured that we won’t take any of your money with a state income tax.

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