My younger brother had a difficult childhood. He had interests that didn’t jibe with kids his age when he was in elementary school. He didn’t make friends easily. We were poor and he had ill-fitting clothes that were hand-me-downs and were out of style even when I wore them years before. He insisted on straightening the tight curls in his hair, then attempting to style it in a spike like his classmates. Needless to say, he was picked on mercilessly.
But instead of conforming to try and fit in, he started dressing more strangely. He would wear Halloween costumes under his clothes, then take the layer of clothes off once he got to school and walk around dressed as a Power Ranger. Or he’d fashion metallic wristbands and wear those, pissing off my mom in the process because he used up all of the tin foil. Kids made fun of him even more, but somehow, it started to hurt him less in those ridiculous outfits. The costumes were an obvious coping mechanism. Behind the costumes, he could be someone else. He could stop worrying about not having cool jeans. Sometimes, he could muster up the courage to hurl a return insult at someone when he was in costume. Once in a while, he could even manage to physically fight back if a bully was being particularly brutal.
Dennis Rodman was always my favorite athlete for what he accomplished on the court, but I admired and identified with him even more for who he was off of it. Unlike the media covering Rodman during and after his career, I, and I suspect others who watched Rodman closely in Detroit and learned about his background, saw his off-court behavior for what it was: a coping mechanism similar to the one my brother used.
Much of the coverage of Rodman leading up to tonight’s Hall of Fame induction had an, ‘Ooooh … I bet Rodman will do something crazy,’ tone. Some of it was downright ugly and stupid, like this hack job of a column by Bill Plaschke of the LA Times. Fellow inductee Teresa Edwards joked in an interview before the show that she was worried Rodman would wear the same dress as her. No matter how much Steve Kerr tried to talk about Rodman as a teammate on NBA TV before the ceremony started, he kept getting asked about Rodman’s non-basketball antics. The off-court ways for Rodman to deflect attention worked, largely because the media easily falls for ruses (hey, sorry media, it’s true … overall, we’re a pretty dim bunch). Rodman is a man who has endured a deep amount of personal suffering and tragedy in his life, growing up in extreme poverty with no father in the picture. He’s struggled with addiction a portion of his adult life. He’s abused his body by, as he put it in his speech, ‘burning both ends’ partying during his playing days. He frequently alluded to the fact that he didn’t expect to live very long (hell, he even has a book called, I Should Be Dead By Now).
But in Detroit, we knew differently. We’ve seen how emotional Rodman, sobbing uncontrollably when he won his first Defensive Player of the Year award and, more recently, when his jersey was retired by the Pistons, is. We’ve seen how those emotions can push him to do destructive things — in 1993, he sat in his truck in the Palace parking lot, contemplating suicide after the Pistons and Rodman’s mentor, Chuck Daly, parted ways, and Rodman’s ex-wife had moved his daughter away from him. We watched him grow into one of the most unselfish teammates in the history of the game. We saw how integral he was to the Pistons’ championships. Some of us even begrudgingly pulled for the hated Bulls when Rodman was traded to them and won three more titles.
And hopefully, after Rodman’s Hall of Fame speech Friday, things are more clear now to the folks who get distracted by the tattoos, Madonnas and wedding dresses. That speech, that was what Rodman was about. He was humbled. He thanked David Stern for "even letting me in the building." He gave deference to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, calling them the best 1-2 punch to ever play the game. But honestly, basketball figured very little into Rodman’s speech.
He thanked several father figures in his life, including Daly and Phil Jackson. And he didn’t just thank them. He explained to everyone why he needed father figures in the first place. His own father abandoned him when he was five and has, according to Rodman, fathered more than 40 children in the Philippines.
He apologized to his children and his wife, admitting that he has not been a good husband or father to them. He thanked his wife for "being a mother and father" to their children.
He apologized to his mother, who he rebelled against and never had a good relationship with, for being a bad son. He admitted to never understanding how much she sacrificed for him, working three jobs when he was growing up.
But he didn’t apologize in an, "I’m going to make it up to you guys," kind of way. That was what was so real about it — Rodman’s life, driven by pain, driven by the difficult time he’s had managing his emotions and vices, is not controllable. He’s cognizant that he’s hurt people and at the same time terrified that he can’t change.
The endearing quality of Rodman has always been his angst. He’s always been a balance between a flamboyant, larger-than-life character designed specifically to distract from the very real tragedies he’s never been able to cope with.
I remember well during his playing days the excuse-making that would go on. The ‘Dennis being Dennis’ meme was a common cliché used when teammates or coaches were asked about off-court craziness. Rodman himself worked very hard to sell the hair, the makeup, the piercings as simply his attempt to prove his individualism. As a teenager, that resonated, because what teenager doesn’t try to do the exact same things to cultivate their public image?
But as we age, teenagers generally grow out of those frivolities. Rodman hasn’t, and he hasn’t because it wasn’t a superficial endeavor for him. It was his way of coping with pain, with tragedy that still haunts him, that would still haunt any of us. He’s a man still struggling to understand how he beat the odds, how he didn’t end up in jail or dead.
That introspection, that willingness to so openly share his innermost regrets with the world, is what makes Rodman one of the most fascinating athletes of all-time. And combined with the fact that his unique personality translated to the court, creating a one of-a-kind, distinctive athlete as well makes him as worthy of being in the Hall of Fame as anyone.
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