As it was 25 years ago when the Detroit Pistons drafted him out of a small college in Oklahoma, Dennis Rodman didn't come to Detroit this week as much of a basketball player.
He had spent a good portion of the week doing what Dennis Rodman does now -- making personal appearances at product releases, in casinos, surrounded by filtered libations, flashing lights and flirting lasses. Prior to Friday's ceremony to retire his No. 10, Rodman took part in a pregame news conference sporting a hat with a clothing manufacturer's logo prominently featured. He's a pro at this now, to use one of his favorite words, "bro."
Something changed on Friday, though. Perhaps it was the shot of a young Rodman on the marquee outside the Palace at Auburn Hills, unfettered by jewelry or skin-and-ink artistry. Maybe it was the Palace setting itself -- the building was rightfully hailed as years ahead of its time when it debuted in 1988, but now even some of its gaudier elements seem quite tame. Perhaps it was the nostalgia, which has a way of both humbling and enervating even the person that's being paid tribute to. For whatever reason, as it was 25 years ago, the Detroit Pistons turned Dennis Rodman into a basketball player again on Friday night.
Detroit couldn't help it. It had seen from afar the tattooed Rodman, the guy with the crazy hair and outlandish (for the 1990s, at least) style who courted Madonna and posed nude on the cover of his bestselling books as he played for the Spurs and Bulls. But Detroit never knew that guy. No, they knew the shy and sensitive Rodman that sheepishly made his way onto the Pistons roster as a 25-year-old rookie in 1986.
The quiet, do-it-all forward who rarely received the credit he deserved as a cog in a championship Pistons machine featuring Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Mark Aguirre and Bill Laimbeer. This suited Dennis just fine, initially. But though Rodman won two titles, two individual awards as the Defensive Player of the Year and nationally televised endorsements (Dennis was among many that Reebok Pumped it up, back then), this relative anonymity eventually led to the resentment that forced his way out of Detroit.
By 1991, the Bulls had supplanted the Pistons as champions, Detroit coach Chuck Daly was entering his final year with the team, Rodman had just turned 30 and was seemingly past his athletic prime. Dennis was still regarded league-wide as the pest that came off the bench to check whoever had the hottest hand, whether they worked on the perimeter or in the post. That sort of defensive brilliance helps win games, but the effort behind such work often doesn't show up in the box score, and box score stats act as currency to the casual fan. Because Dennis sought both recognition and a million-dollar contract, he decided to start focusing his efforts intently on the glass.
What was once a sterling defensive player who did quite well on the boards suddenly turned into a still-sterling defensive player who planted his formidable skills and basketball IQ on the weak side to gobble up rebound after rebound. In his last two seasons with Detroit, Rodman averaged 18.7 and 18.3 rebounds per game, shocking numbers for a wiry guy who probably wasn't any taller than Clyde Drexler.
This was all part of the downfall, though. With Daly gone in 1992-93, Dennis found little joy in coming to work. The Pistons were more than happy to deal Rodman to San Antonio, where he discovered hair dye and Madonna's Motorola number. Outside of coming back to Detroit as a player, he lost all contact with the area, and his former identity. Rodman admitted Friday night that the last time he'd been in the Detroit area was during his final season with the Chicago Bulls, in January 1998.
It was the realization that, in his words, he "should have done more" in Detroit that led Dennis to break down in tears at that pregame news conference on Friday. "I didn't fully understand the value that I had for this organization."
Unsolicited, Rodman brought up the recent passing of Daly, Pistons owner Bill Davidson and former Pistons president of public relations Matt Dobek in the news conference. He talked wistfully about seeing longtime Palace arena workers for the first time in years. He sloughed off questions about Scottie Pippen and John Salley's recent remarks about the Bulls-Pistons rivalries as just two competitors, "good guys," playing the part. When asked about the possibility that he'll make the Basketball Hall of Fame next week, Rodman pointed out that he has a lot on his plate. Not casino appearances or cologne launches, but his children's birthdays, his upcoming marriage anniversary and his own birthday.
"In four weeks I'll be 50 years old," he pointed out. "I can't believe I've made it this far."
It was a touching about-face for a man who has mostly lived on the fringes of your cable dial for the last 13 years, decked out in party-guy finery, cigar in hand and bottle service at the table. Regarding the Pistons' video tribute the team had planned for him at halftime, Dennis admitted that "this is going to be the first time [my children] get to see a video of their father doing something positive with his life."
That video was, indeed, something else. And there wasn't a tattoo or stray blond hair to be found in it. And another thing was mostly missing, as well.
The greatest rebounder in NBA history didn't have many rebounds show up in his tribute video, mainly because Detroit never knew him that way. Detroit never saw him as Dennis Rodman, Rebounder for Hire. The montage mainly featured shots of Rodman the defender, the energizer, locking up point guards, shooting guards, small and power forwards, and the occasional hulking center with six inches on the guy.
And for the first time in years, the name "Dennis Rodman" evoked memories of a basketball player, and not some late-1990s cultural touchstone. More Hall of Fame, than Hootie.
Rodman pointed out on Friday night that he'd been asked to go to Houston on Monday, to take part in the announcement that he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this September. He said it not to brag, but as more of a "can you believe all this?" add-on to what was a remarkable night.
Well, yes, we can believe all this. Dennis Rodman was, pound-for-pound, the greatest defensive player of all time. Forgetting height and weight, he pulled in more available rebounds than any other player in NBA history. He was a whip-smart, if reluctant, offensive player. He was as good as teammates came, even if he came late to practice. He was a five-time champion and, as was pointed out by Rodman on Friday night, a role model for college scorers who might have to temper their instincts and focus on the other end of the court should they want to succeed in the NBA.
Above all, as was reinforced Friday night, Dennis Rodman was a basketball player, and not a C-list celebrity. And for the second time in 25 years, he has the Detroit Pistons to thank for that.