SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – The Hall of Famer in the black, studded, feathered cowboy hat reached a long arm across the bar and pulled me close, leaning down as if he planned to plant a wet kiss on my cheek.
Dennis Rodman has done that plenty of times, but on this particular instance – 3:30 a.m. in a crowded Springfield strip club-turned-after-party-pad, five hours removed from his emotional, half-tortured, half-triumphant induction speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – he merely whispered in my ear.
It just gets worse, bro.
We laughed together and surveyed the scene around us: cleavage; Patron shots; Cuban cigar smoke; loud voices straining to be heard as Pearl Jam's "Black" blared over the speakers; old friends like Floyd Raglin, Thaer Mustafa and former NHL star Chris Chelios trading war stories with the guest of honor; former Bulls teammates Steve Kerr and Jud Buechler recalling Michael Jordan's iconic pregame ritual (I'm not telling); off-duty Chicago cop George Triantafillo fending off crowds of curious revelers; a documentary crew in tow; miles to go before we'd sleep.
"Do we have a game tomorrow?" Kerr asked Rodman and Buechler, and everyone cracked up. "It's like we never left."
That we would party like it's 1996 was a given on this highly improbable occasion: Worm as a basketball immortal. As Rodman acknowledged in his speech at Springfield Symphony Hall, the mere fact that they let him in the building was no small upset, given his penchant for petulance, rejection of all things establishment and train-wreck potential.
More stunning is the notion that this kid from obscurity who stood 5-foot-11 at his high school graduation, played NAIA college ball at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was a 25-year-old rookie for the Detroit Pistons in the 1986-87 season and averaged just 7.3 points per game in 14 NBA seasons has been rightfully coronated as one of the best ever to have played the game.
If there is a more wildly implausible Hall of Famer in the major U.S. professional sports landscape, he or she probably hasn't yet been born.
[Related: Five truths about Dennis Rodman]
There was no doubt I'd be there for the crowning moment of Rodman's career – not because it was a cool journalistic opportunity or a chance to reconnect with the old crew, but for one simple, paramount reason: He asked me to come. Seventeen months earlier, at a party a few days before Super Bowl XLIV, the most compelling athlete I've ever covered told me he wanted me there when he went into the Hall, and from that point on my presence was a slam-dunk.
I consider Worm a special friend in the way that you have blind and guttural love for your best buddies in elementary school, feelings stemming not solely from the fact that he twice stuck up for me to David Letterman on national TV, when I was a young Sports Illustrated writer and we'd just emerged from a four-day, three-state bender that would change both of our lives for the crazier.
When Rodman, in the midst of that jaunt, talked about gay sex fantasies, his ex-girlfriend Madonna's ability to make him "feel like King Tut" and his desire to play his final NBA game au naturale – and posed for an iconic SI cover in a zip-up tank top, tight metallic hot pants, a rhinestone dog collar, with an exotic bird on his shoulder – the mainstream sports world wasn't ready for the fallout.
Rodman was: After getting traded to the Bulls the following year, he won the third, fourth and fifth NBA titles of his career, continued his string of seven consecutive league rebounding crowns, took his already phenomenal defensive skills to another level and pushed the boundaries of celebrity and societal tolerance on a relentless and constant basis. He also partied like a rock star and, not coincidentally, partied with rock stars: One of his friends, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, was supposed to come to Springfield but couldn't fly because of an ear infection. Instead, Vedder sent a video tribute that will be unveiled at a post-induction Hall of Fame dinner at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut on Saturday night.
I have Rodman stories that could fill up several columns, and you'd be entertained by all of them, but they're not nearly as shocking as they were in the period in which they occurred. The context has changed – not just because of evolving societal norms and the rise of social media, but also thanks to the erosion of the stodgy resistance to unorthodox thought that Rodman, among others, helped obfuscate.
For those of you who were too young to appreciate him in his prime, or too busy or disinterested to pay close attention, you missed some of the important parts.
[Photos: See more of Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman]
Yes, there was some truth to the caricature: Rodman was, in fact, an attention-seeking self-promoter who understood the direct correlation between notoriety and moneymaking possibilities. He did (and does) love to drink and gamble and stay up all night, and he had no compulsion to put up resistance to the legions of hot and unencumbered women in constant orbit around him.
The real Rodman, however, was far more complex and uncontrived than commonly portrayed. There was a point to the reckless hedonism, and it wasn't to cash in or to bathe in fame. Rather, it was a desire to poke at the conventions of what he believed was a boring, bloated and restrictive American culture, to honor the public-theater antics of '60s counterculture cavorters like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Ken Kesey and, most important, to wear his weirdness with pride.
Trust me, I was there: It's not like Rodman sat around with his advisors and said, "If I wear a wedding dress in public, I'll sell a lot of books and get offered movie roles."
The real scene was, invariably, some punch-drunk breakfast in Chicago's Gold Coast district (or wherever the circus was the night before), Rodman and his friends laughing at the madness they'd created and the ringmaster blurting out in his deep, barely intelligible voice, "What if I dressed up as a bride in midtown Manhattan and married myself? How [expletive] crazy would that [expletive] be?"
He wasn't always the life of the party. Rodman didn't have a drink until he was 30. (Certainly, he has made up for it in the two decades since.) He also, until the mid-'90s, lived a repressed, stultified existence that kept his inner freak in a secret cage. He was scared to show the world the real him, or to even explore it, because he assumed the reaction from his peers, and from the public, would be overwhelmingly negative and reproachful.
Eventually, Rodman relented and began to reveal strands of strangeness, and when I met him in the spring of 1995, he was in the process of letting the dragon out of the dungeon. What he'd discovered, to his utter surprise, was that for all the straitlaced folks who scoffed at his deviant tendencies, there were hordes of others – many not even basketball fans – who embraced him for his unabashed honesty and willingness to take the risk.
Again, you have to remember the context: Attitudes toward homosexuality, in particular, have come a long way in 16 years, and back then the notion that a mainstream athlete such as Rodman would roll up to gay bars and share tables with transvestites and transsexuals (including a particularly hot Marilyn Monroe lookalike named Mimi with whom I once danced at Chicago's Manhole) and proclaim that, "if I ever did love another man, I'd find one just like me and love the [expletive] out of him; it'd be like two bulls going at it, bro, I'll tell you that" was considered unthinkable until the Worm broke the mold.
And guess what? The "freaks" treated him like royalty. Gay men adored him like he was the love child of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. And the women – oh, my. So many ladies brought out their freaky sides in his presence that he literally turned down more kinky activities than most celebrities partake in (and no, Charlie Sheen, I'm not counting you). Yes, that sometimes made Rodman happy. But what brought him the most pleasure, I believe, were the people who came up to him and said, sometimes tearfully, "I was afraid to show people the real me, until you inspired me."
I'm not exaggerating when I tell you this is part of Rodman's legacy: Being weird is less difficult in 2011 than it was in 1995 because he took so many bullets back in the day.
On Friday, it was appropriate that Rodman literally took an unconventional path to the Hall – with an entourage that was at least 50 strong, it was unfeasible to board his custom party bus (another ode to the '90s heyday) at the Sheraton Monarch Place and head to the pre-induction reception a few blocks away.
So we walked, strolling the streets of downtown Springfield and mingling with the amused masses, two of Rodman's children at his side and a whole lot of smiles all around. Rodman's close friend Billy Penz was there, marveling that the gangly kid with whom he grew close in rural Oklahoma (where Rodman had a brief junior college hoops stint and was "adopted" by a white family) was still standing – and striding toward enshrinement. The third musketeer, Bryne Rich, was back home mourning the loss of his older brother, whom Rodman would mention in his teary speech.
As we approached the Symphony Hall a 50-something woman in a wedding dress caught Rodman's attention, and he stopped to pay his respects. At least, I think it was a woman. Not that it really mattered. With Rodman, it never does.
There would be three wardrobe changes before Rodman, the last of the 10 inductees to be presented, took the stage. Before he did, there was a brief but important video presentation with some of his career highlights. Again, for those who weren't watching at the time, the clips were a revelation. The intensity, the hustle, the passion, the work rate, the sheer determination to get to the basketball and to keep opposing players from putting it in the hoop – it was, for want of a better word, freakish.
There's no reason at all that a person of Rodman's height (allegedly 6-8, but closer to 6-6) and build (he weighed 220ish in his prime) should have been able to do what he did against the best basketball players in the world, night after night after night. Yet, it happened, and it helped the Detroit Pistons win two championships, the San Antonio Spurs make a run at the Finals and the Bulls put together a three-year run that rivals the greatest short-term stretch of dominance in NBA history.
When Rodman took the stage, he was overcome by the moment. He cried his eyes out. He couldn't speak. He gestured to his presenter and former Bulls coach, Phil Jackson, and it looked like the Worm might not say anything at all.
"Hang in there Big Um!" Raglin yelled from the fifth row, and the new Hall of Famer froze.
Then, Rodman rallied. He gave a speech that was everything it should have been – heartfelt, messy, profane (he called himself a couple of names, and no one in his inner circle felt compelled to offer objections), uncomfortable, silly and bleeding all over the place. He told his children he strove to be a better father and admitted to his mother, Shirley, that he needed to let go of his resentment toward her and be a better son. He graciously thanked NBA commissioner David Stern, who'd reprimanded him repeatedly in the latter stages of his career, and a former agent who'd sued him. There was the obligatory celebrity shout-out (to filmmaker Penny Marshall, who's directing the documentary on him) and the well-deserved thanks to his current agent, Darren Prince, who has been good for Rodman's bank account and his personal welfare.
Prince helped make sure that Rodman was stone-cold sober for the induction, and even as the party raged afterward, the guest of honor was relatively tame, sticking mostly with beer and steering clear of the trademark girlish drinks (Jagermeister, Goldschlager, kamikazes) that inevitably lead to sloppiness.
Rodman's wife, Michelle – the two live on opposite coasts, he in South Florida and she in Newport Beach with the kids – had a couple grumpy moments, but for the most part she and Dennis acted like a couple, and everyone around them was joyous and nostalgic and stunningly well-behaved. It was a great night.
"This is crazy," Rodman said as we sat at an outdoor table at a Springfield steakhouse eating massive prawns and toasting beer bottles. "I know you know how ridiculous it is that I'm here – and how hard I worked for it. I worked and worked and worked and worked. And I played and played and played."
He was particularly animated while catching up with Kerr and Buechler, talking about the glory days on and off the court. Kerr and I grew up together and co-wrote a sports column for our high school paper, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that if he hadn't been such a great shooter and had chosen to follow the same career path that I did, there's a decent chance he'd be the best sports columnist from the Pali High Class of '83.
[Related: Emotional Dennis Rodman caps Hall ceremony]
He is also, incidentally, the only person to assist on alley-oop dunks to Michael Silver and Michael Jordan, though the former came on a Nerf hoop in my bedroom.
"The work is what set Dennis apart," Kerr said at one point during the after party. "A lot of guys work very hard out there, but he worked harder. He wanted the ball more than anyone, and he literally did whatever it took to get it."
That led to a mention of the memorable photo in which Rodman was captured leaping completely horizontally to save a ball from sailing out of bounds.
"You know that classic SI shot where Dennis is completely sprawled out?" Kerr asked. "Well, that was off one of my missed shots, and Dennis was trying to save the possession. Everyone saw that and said, 'Wow, what an incredible dive!' I said, 'Wow, what an awful shot! I really had to miss that one badly for the ball to bounce that far."
Rodman laughed so hard, his cowboy hat nearly fell off. He, Kerr and Buechler kept talking for awhile, and then a bunch of us got back on the bus and headed to the Sheraton for the after-after party in a second-floor conference room. More Pearl Jam blaring, more smiles; old-timers mingling with newcomers to the Rodman scene, some who were barely out of diapers when the party train first pulled out of the station; no sleep till Mohegan for some of the gang, or so it seemed.
A little before 5 a.m., I said my goodbyes, gave Rodman a big hug and dragged my tired self to bed, the party still in full force. I looked back as I headed toward the elevator and saw Rodman sitting back in his chair, eyes closed, a satisfied smile on his face.
When Rodman and I were three days into that bender that produced the SI story that helped vault his celebrity into the stratosphere 16 years ago, we knew we were sharing something surreal that would impact us down the road. On a flight from Vegas to Houston, he asked what my next assignment was (a NASCAR story it turned out), which NFL players I liked interviewing and what my first eight months at the world's greatest sports magazine had been like.
Then he said, "You're screwed, bro." (OK, he might have used a different adjective.)
"Cause after me, all these other [expletives] you interview are all gonna seem so safe and boring, it's gonna drive you insane. Nobody will show you his real self, like I'm doing right now. This is the best it's ever going to be."
I remember two things: Laughing very hard, and considering the strong possibility that he was right.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, I stared back at a blast from my past and saw a happy Hall of Famer who made a much greater and significant impact than his caricature would suggest – and I was proud to be part of the circus again, if only for a night.
It just gets worse?
Yes, of course it does.
And better, in a way that few athletes have ever experienced.
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