Dirty Work : The Dennis Rodman Story

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Who is Dennis Rodman?

As the oldest of 47 siblings, Dennis Rodman had what some could call an odd start to life.

An outcast even among his own family, he was also incredibly small in basketball standards, measuring 5 foot 6 when he tried out for his high school basketball team, which he made but was subsequently cut from poor performance. 

After finishing school, he worked as a janitor in an airport until growing 8 inches at the age of 20, from 5 foot 8 to 6 foot 7. 

As anyone who had become a freakishly tall man giant basically overnight would, he decided to try basketball again, this time at the collegiate level.

The newly massive Rodman was a beast in college basketball, but he wasn’t a slashing athlete like Michael Jordan, or a sniping shooter like Steph Curry. The thing that set Rodman apart was effort. And not like effort in that he practised a lot. 

Dennis Rodman could reach a frenetic pace and intensity that few others could even attempt. He prided himself on fighting for every rebound and for playing impeccable defense rather than stat padding on offense. It was immediately obvious that an NBA team was going to draft him as the ultimate “do whatever it takes to win” team player.

When he got to the NBA, Dennis was drafted by the perfect team, the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, famed for their (if you ask their fans) intensity or (if you ask anyone else) straight up violence. 

But despite playing well, winning two championships and the Defensive Player of the Year Award, Rodman was still an awkward, introverted and strange person. 

He wasn’t the Rodman we know today. 

He suffered from depression and in February 1993, he drove to the Piston’s home stadium with a loaded rifle, intending to kill himself. Instead he hit on a revelation :

"I decided that instead of killing myself, I was gonna kill the impostor that was leading Dennis Rodman to a place he didn't want to go ... So I just said, 'I'm going to live my life the way I want to live it and be happy doing it.' At that moment I turned my whole life around. I killed the person I didn't want to be."

He started dying his hair, got tattoos and demanded a trade from the Detroit Pistons to the Chicago Bulls.

As a man, Dennis Rodman had two lives. 

And this second life that began in the car park of The Palace of Auburn Hills, that was the Dennis Rodman that had such a profound impact on me and thousands of others around the world.

How Dennis Rodman played the game of basketball

On the court, Rodman was a sight to behold. 

He approached rebounding like the ball was a bomb that would go off if it hit the floor. 

It was inadvisable to order anything you didn’t want to wear if you sat in the first 8 rows, as it was highly likely Dennis would come flying at you at some point during the game. 

Considerably shorter than the other power forwards in the league, Rodman led the league in rebounding an astonishing seven times through pure hustle and an approach to studying rebounding that I genuinely have never heard of anyone having before. 

His scientific dissection of the physics of basketball meant that, from the outside, Rodman looking fucking telepathic. Before the shooter had even released the ball, Rodman knew exactly where it was going to go. He maneouvered into the correct spot 90% of the time, and it was this precognitive ability to be in the right place at the right time that enabled him to snag so many rebounds against legal giants who were a good 4 or 5 inches taller than him.

If he wasn’t in the right place when the ball came off the rim, that’s where the signature Rodman hustle came in. It wasn’t unusual to see Dennis jump six or seven times for a single contested rebound. He turned loose ball situations into a battle of wills, and no one had a stronger will than Rodman.

And it wasn’t just rebounding. 

Rodman was the fiercest defender I have ever seen play the game. 

A boogeyman to offensive players, Rodman could guard every single position on the court. 

Are you 6 foot 2 and can shoot the three as easily as drinking a glass of water? Doesn’t matter, Rodman’s got you. 

Are you so big that in the 1800s you would be lifting elephants in a circus? Doesn’t matter, Rodman's got you. 

Can you teleport and move objects with your mind? Doesn’t matter, Rodman’s got you. 

Not only did Rodman guard all positions, he could guard the best of all positions. 

Don’t believe me? Look at the scalps Rodman has as an on-ball defender :

For those unfamiliar with basketball, those five players could very well be argued to be the best players ever in their positions. And Rodman wrapped them up like a blanket made of face piercings and unresolved teen angst.

Despite being the greatest rebounder to ever play the game and locking up some of the most talented players of his generation, Rodman’s truly best quality was his ability to do the things no one else wanted to or could do.

Playing alongside otherworldly talents Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Rodman was a comparatively awful offensive player. But that’s not what was needed for the Chicago Bulls at the time. 

What they needed was someone to do whatever it took to get the win. 

To chase a rebound into the crowd. 

To play 42 minutes of high intensity defence. 

To eschew stats for team success. 

To trip up Karl Malone and fight man mountain Patrick Ewing. 

Purely on the court, his game was one that should be shown to all young basketball players as a shining example of selflessness and hard work on the less flashy aspects of the game. Off the court, sometimes not…

How Dennis Rodman played the game of life

Here’s a few random facts for you to get some of the picture of who Dennis Rodman is off the court :

More rockstar than athlete, Dennis Rodman did what he wanted when he wanted. 

In the amazing documentary, The Last Dance, legendary coach Phil Jackson described Rodman as a “heyoka” which is a word from the Sioux people of the Great Plains of North America. 

A “heyoka” is someone in the tribe who walks backwards and acts completely different to those around him but is integral to the tribe. 

What makes Rodman brilliant is his complexity. 

He just simply did not fit into a box at all. 

A staunch individualist in his personal life, Rodman’s on the court play was all about the team and completely collectivist, and was a huge part of the Chicago Bulls second “three-peat” title run.

A walking dichotomy, Rodman was a selfless individualist, a team oriented lone wolf, a small giant, a vulnerable tough guy. We tend to see athletes as superheroes, but Dennis’ defining characteristic was that he was human, despite his on court play suggesting he wasn’t.

How did Dennis Rodman impact me?

It’s hard to quantify how much of an impact Dennis Rodman had on me when I was a young man playing basketball. 

He made rebounding, traditionally a boring aspect of the game, the coolest part of basketball. 

He made hustle and hard work cool. 

But the most captivating part of Dennis Rodman is that he made being yourself cool.

You could find 5 foot 3, 15 year old Matt down the local park, crashing into people way bigger than me (and who could certainly crush me like a bug) for a meaningless rebound. I went full out for loose balls on tarmac courts and took the skin off my legs. I tried (and failed) to guard the best player on the court with the energy Dennis had. Most people idolised Jordan, Kobe, LeBron. But I wanted to be Dennis Rodman.

I never had the guts to do the hair though, or marry myself. 

In a hyper masculine sport that at the time prided itself on toughness and grittiness, he wasn’t afraid of being vulnerable and emotional. 

He lived his life the way he wanted to, and yes, sometimes that caused unnecessary drama but at the end of the day, Dennis Rodman was fiercely and defiantly himself, and to a skinny, awkward 15 year old, that meant the world.

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