Somewhere, there’s a broken mold of Dennis Rodman.
Never again will we see someone of his ilk, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.
Rodman tended to do that, you know. He tended to spawn confusion—in emotion, to his opponents, to his teammates, to his fans and to his coaches. He was a bemusing fellow.
But this much is true—since Rodman retired from the National Basketball Association in 2000, I haven’t seen anyone close to who he was on the basketball court. Certainly not off it, as well.
Again, not sure if that’s good or bad.
Rodman played basketball with the grace of a baby eating strained carrots. He was a freak, seemingly playing the game on his own personal pair of pogo sticks, springing from the floor to grab rebounds as if everyone else was nailed down.
The program stubbornly listed him as 6’8”, but that was when he was at rest, which wasn’t often. When he was in motion, Rodman became 7’8”, or taller, depending on how high he needed to leap to snare a wayward basketball.
Watching Dennis Rodman from the start of his NBA career, with the Pistons in 1986, and following it through to his retirement, was like watching a Fellini film—it got weirder the longer it went on.
He arrived in Detroit as a 25-year-old, drafted out of a college called Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and to this day for all I know, the Pistons made the school up.
Somehow Pistons GM Jack McCloskey found Rodman, most likely by looking toward the gym’s ceiling. I’m still impressed that Jack found the school, let alone its gym.
What McCloskey didn’t know when he first laid his eyes upon the leaping, rebounding Rodman was that the kid—who really wasn’t a kid anymore according to his birth certificate—already had a life better prepped for the Jerry Springer Show than the NBA.
Where shall we begin?
Rodman’s dad left his mom when Dennis was three years old. The old man would go on to father 27 kids with four different women. You heard me.
The Rodman household in Oak Cliff—a rough and tough section of Dallas that would become infamous for being the neighborhood of Lee Harvey Oswald—was all female at that point, other than Dennis, who lived there with his mom and two sisters.
You want more?
Rodman became so withdrawn in the all-female house, so awkward and unconfident around girls in school, that in his mid-teens, he actually believed he might be homosexual. His first sexual experience was with a prostitute.
As for basketball?
Rodman tried it, but kept getting cut from teams—both in middle school and high school. He was a 5’6” freshman who couldn’t hit a layup. He tried out for football and they didn’t want him, either.
He worked as a janitor at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport after high school, but after another growth spurt he gave hoops another shot.
Keep in mind he played little to no high school basketball.
Turns out Rodman could play the game, after all, mainly because he had a fetish for rebounding. He played a semester for some place called Cooke County College in Gainesville, Texas, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game.
From there it was on to SE Oklahoma State, an NAIA school—which was not exactly the career path of choice if one hoped to crack the NBA.
Jack McCloskey couldn’t have known this history when he first watched Rodman sky for rebounds as an NAIA All-American.
The Pistons are going to do something on Apr. 1 that, had you put money down on it in 1986, you’d be breaking the bank right about now.
On that date, Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 Pistons jersey will be raised into the rafters, which is appropriate because that’s often where you could have found Rodman himself, in his salad days as the league’s most ferocious rebounder.
Rodman will then join the likes of Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson, all of whom have their jersey numbers hanging over the Palace floor.
But Rodman was the most unlikely—to have an NBA career, period.
I remember Rodman’s arrival in Detroit.
He had big ears, gangly arms and his shorts were too short. And too tight. He ran up and down the court like a distance runner—arms pumping with loping strides. He had no offensive game that was apparent. He couldn’t shoot free throws.
Based on first blush alone, I might have cut him on the spot.
If Rodman’s book had been judged by its cover only, he’d have never made it as a pro basketball player, because he didn’t look like any pro basketball player you’d ever seen before.
Rodman was no more than a curious, second-round draft pick when he first started getting playing time in 1986 for the Pistons. He was the guy who looked funny—the guy who couldn’t throw the ball into the Detroit River, even if he was standing on the deck of the Bob-Lo Boat.
But he could rebound, as we all began to see in relatively short order. He was like a specialist on the court, a jack of one trade. He gained a nickname—The Worm—which I found ironic because worms live underground and Rodman made his living soaring above it.
It was uncanny, the way Rodman would rise above the other nine players on the court, and either grab the basketball after its carom, or tip it to a teammate for a fresh 24 seconds of shot clock.
But rebounding alone won’t keep you in the NBA, so Rodman focused on playing defense, which would.
All he did was become the best defender in the NBA, a two-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award.
When he first won the award, in 1990, Rodman wept openly at the press conference announcing his honor.
“I wanted this…so bad,” he said through tears, sobbing.
I think what might give some people pause in light of the news of Rodman’s number being retired by the Pistons is that, after he left the team, he became a sideshow.
The hair became dyed, the tattoos became more prevalent, the behavior became more bizarre. He made a movie or two. He even “married” himself in a display that made normal people squirm.
Rodman won two championships with the Pistons, and three more with the Chicago Bulls. He captured seven straight rebounding titles (1992-98). He made the first team of the All-NBA Defensive squad seven times.
Not bad for a kid who couldn’t make his high school team and who played at an NAIA school, and who lived a tumultuous life as a child.
Rodman wasn’t drafted by the Pistons. He was rescued.
Congratulations, Worm. You done paid them back with interest.