Inside Dennis Rodman’s complex relationship with fame

Yahoo Sports

So much surrounding “The Last Dance” documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls focuses on the cost of fame.

Jordan being swallowed up by his celebrity and turning into a recluse.

Phil Jackson’s fame likely driving a wedge between himself and general manager Jerry Krause, who plucked him from coaching the CBA’s Albany Patroons.

But for Dennis Rodman, it wasn’t cost — not in the traditional sense. It was the compensation of fame.

Rodman’s introduction to Chicago … and Boston … and Los Angeles … was as an exuberant, fist-pumping nuisance who terrorized scorers on the perimeter with his quick feet and boundless energy.

His hands were as fast as a middleweight and his second jumps for those tip-to-himself rebounds were more built for track and field than the court. But he took the late-blooming gifts and became the most unique player of his time, just as the NBA was headed toward a revolution of sorts to versatile athletes who could fly downcourt and defend multiple positions while leaping with the best of them.

In 1986, he came to the perfect team in the perfect city with the perfect head coach in Chuck Daly, who recognized the best way to control such a wild spirit was to let him run free.

As much as Rodman became beloved with the Detroit Pistons, his first NBA home, it wasn’t as lucrative for him. Once perceived and even lauded for his naiveté, the late bloomer got hip. Dalliances with the likes of Madonna and Carmen Electra increased his public profile, aided by the various hairstyle changes and the rebellious character he became on the floor.

Being the best rebounder in the league and perhaps the greatest defender this side of Bill Russell will garner applause from the niche basketball community, but it won’t get you on MTV or the supermarket tabloids.

Dennis Rodman is interviewed on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' on Oct. 16, 1998. (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Dennis Rodman is interviewed on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' on Oct. 16, 1998. (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

He found that embracing his eccentricities, curiosities and being “Bad As I Wanna Be”, the title of his 1996 autobiography, was better for his bank account, if not for his emotional state. When he won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award in 1991, after the Pistons’ second straight title, he made $880,000. By 1996-97, the height of his basketball excellence mixed with infamy and celebrity, his Bulls’ salary was $9 million.

It made dollars, so it made sense.

The moments in which Rodman commanded attention are plentiful, if not cringe-worthy.

But they’re rarely boring.

He took part in a scripted wrestling feud alongside Hulk Hogan in 1998, with basketball foil Karl Malone across the ring in the madness. There was the still-puzzling attempt at diplomacy and his affinity for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he first met in 2013.

And, there was the Worm in the wedding dress in the middle of New York — on the promotional tour for the aforementioned book, where he mentioned he was marrying a mystery woman. She was supposedly young and vibrant, but no one knew who “she” was.

Turns out, “she” was “he” — Rodman said he was marrying himself, but perhaps it was celebrity he was courting and he’d finally won it over.

It’s tough to discern why Rodman was so drawn to the fame. Jordan grudgingly accepted it but changed the terms once the pedestal he sat upon began to show cracks. Krause was a scouting grunt who wanted to be loved but inevitably found himself forever in the shadows or as a footnote.

Jackson grew far more comfortable within the spotlight and used it to his advantage.

Rodman?

Initially he seemed reluctant, preferring to focus on the craft of being good at something, anything. His rags-to-riches background dictated he’d find joy in the affirmation-fueled cheers more than getting attention for attention’s sake.

Perhaps he could hide in fame? The man who once treated his body like a temple had no problem dousing it with alcohol, a struggle that has landed him in and out of rehab. In the documentary on the final season of the Bulls’ dynasty, he departs from the team for Las Vegas because although he’d been holding the team together along with Jordan during Pippen’s injury absence, he was ignoring his own urges to roam free of responsibility.

There was no “saving” Rodman, even if people knew he was drowning in demons. As long as he could focus for 48 minutes, he served his purpose.

Detroit represented a stability Chicago could not — an innocence of sorts. He then built his entire world over something that was artificial: the topsy-turvy world of professional sports. Teammates would be traded or leave on their own. A coach and father figure in Daly left him in 1992, aided by the organization Rodman trusted so much.

Even his first marriage, to Annie Bakes in 1991, was drenched in controversy.

Once that stability betrayed him, he never chased it again. Oh, he attempted to put up a good front for the people who adored him or those who knew him as the shy kid — at least possessing the wherewithal to want to preserve his image to those who saw him at his most pure — but he was well on his way to his destiny.

Sitting in the parking lot at the Palace of Auburn Hills in a pickup truck with a rifle next to him wasn’t necessarily a suicide attempt, he said, but to kill the demons that had begun to haunt him and to bring out his new self.

Shortly thereafter, he left his cocoon and headed for his next four NBA stops: San Antonio, where he clashed with an unknown executive named Gregg Popovich, Chicago, and short stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.

On the floor he was even a riddle. A dedicated worker in the weight room and film room, he chose not to develop an offensive game — despite having good mechanics and form on his set shot. Had he engaged slightly to become a threat in that department, one could only imagine the heights he could’ve achieved.

But his mystique was largely enhanced because he neglected that end. He didn’t neglect fame, though. The more he sought it, the more it responded, thus resulting in a confusion between what was an act for the cameras and what he had actually turned into.

So who’s the real Rodman? The childlike figure who thrived on raising his hands to the skies, calling for more cheers? Or the man who just showed up to play in Chicago while being in parts unknown off the clock? Or the train wreck who’d do anything for attention since?

Yes.

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