Black, White—And Gray

Piston Dennis Rodman's life was complicated by racial matters long before his inflammatory words about Larry Bird
May 01, 1988

Dennis Rodman could not stop himself, did not want to stop himself really. He wanted to take all the hurt that had built up inside him like water behind a dam and just let it out. He heard the words as they tumbled out, but he didn't think about them, didn't think about anything. He just talked until he felt no hurt. Then he knew it was time to go home.

The Detroit Pistons, for whom Rodman was a rookie forward, had just been beaten 117-114 by the Boston Celtics in the seventh game of last season's NBA Eastern Conference finals, and Rodman was furious with the Celtics and the taunting Boston Garden crowd, and he ached for one last chance to get back at them. He said, "Larry Bird is overrated in a lot of areas. I don't think he's the greatest player. He's way overrated." These derogatory words about Bird, widely acclaimed as the NBA's best or, at worst, second-best player, felt good as they came cascading out. "Why does he get so much publicity?" Rodman continued. "Because he's white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest." From where he was sitting nearby, Detroit teammate Isiah Thomas agreed that if Bird were black, "he'd be just another good guy."

It would be days before Rodman realized just how sensitive a nerve he had touched, but long before that he became aware there would be trouble. "When I calmed down, I knew it was all going to blow up," he says. Rodman, who was pilloried for his remarks, issued a brief public apology and then fled to his home and his family in Bokchito, Okla. (pop. 607). On the drive home he thought about everything that had happened, and he wondered how long it would take before people he had never even met stopped calling him a racist. Then Rodman thought about Bokchito, and he wondered what people would say if they knew that the family he had lived with for three years before the Pistons drafted him, the family he was hurrying home to spend the summer with, is white. He also wondered how people would react if they knew that his girlfriend—now his fiancèe—is white, too.

Rodman's real mother and father had separated when he was three, leaving Shirley Rodman with three babies to raise alone in Dallas. "He just disappeared one day," Dennis says of his father, Phil Rodman. "Haven't seen him since." Shirley worked at two jobs and spent whatever time was left over playing piano and singing at the Church of the Living God. "It was a female family, and I think we just overwhelmed Dennis," Shirley says. Dennis became so attached to his mother that when she tried to send him to a nursery when he was four, he jammed himself into the doorway of the bus and refused to move.

"I felt shut out not having a father, always having to look out for myself," Dennis says. "And my mother just didn't have enough time to be with me. She was always more interested in my sisters."

By the time Dennis was in high school, everyone was more interested in his two younger sisters than in him. Debra grew to 6'3" and would go on to be an All-America forward for national champion Louisiana Tech, while Kim, 6'1½", became an All-America at Stephen F. Austin.

Dennis tried out for the South Oak Cliff High School football team and was cut because he was too small. "He was devastated by that," says Shirley. "He went to pieces, stayed in his room for days." When he got out of high school, he was still only 5'9" and was frequently taunted by his friends for constantly tagging along after his sisters.

Rodman had wanted to play basketball in high school, but the closest he came was sitting on the bench for half a season before he quit. "I couldn't even make a layup right," he says.

After he graduated from school, he took a job as a janitor at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, "mopping, sweeping, cleaning up," he says. One night he noticed that by sticking a broom handle through a gate enclosing one of the airport's shops, he could reach a display case full of watches. He scooped up nearly 50 watches, gave most of them out to his friends and was arrested. He survived that, survived the 18 hours he spent in jail, even survived asking for the watches back from his friends, which eventually led to the case against him being dropped.

By the time Rodman was 19, practically every hormone in his body had begun to explode. In the next two years he shot up from 5'9" to 6'8", a growth spurt so convulsive that for a long time he refused to leave the house because he felt so odd. "It was weird," he says. "My clothes wouldn't fit me at all." So he began showing up for his evenings out in the coveralls he wore to work at Henry Butts Oldsmobile, where he made $3.50 an hour cleaning cars.

Oddly, as he grew, Rodman discovered that he had become less gawky when he played basketball. "Once I started growing, I picked up the game like that," he says. After a succession of menial jobs, Rodman was given a tryout at Cooke County (junior) College in Gainesville, Texas, and landed a two-year scholarship. But after 14 games there, he gave up on himself academically and left. "It got to me," he says. "I said, I ain't going to make it nohow. What do I want to do this for?"

He returned to the Dallas streets, where he was headed nowhere and getting there fast. "The way I was going I would've ended up in jail for sure," he says. "My mother gave me money to look for a job, but I would take it and just go hang out. Finally she told me she was sick and tired of me sitting around the house bumming, so she threw me out."

The next three months Rodman spent moving from one friend's place to another and he fell so far between the cracks that it took Southeastern Oklahoma State coach Jack Hedden, who had learned of Rodman and wanted to recruit him, several weeks to find him. In 1983, when he was offered a scholarship to play for Southeastern Oklahoma, an NAIA school in Durant, Rodman, then 22, was convinced it was the last chance he would get to make something of his life. "I figured I had to try again to get off those streets," he says.

In Bokchito, which is 15 miles from Durant, there are no streets to speak of, only country roads that rise and fall with the pitch of the rolling farmland. Bokchito is Choctaw for "big creek," and when you have seen the creek, you have pretty much seen Bokchito. Pickup trucks have gun racks built into the backs of the cabs, and boys learn early how to shoot and hunt.

That's what 13-year-old Bryne Rich and three of his friends were doing on an Indian summer afternoon in 1982 as they headed through the wheat fields and into the woods behind the Riches' small frame house on their 600-acre farm. "We were shooting at horse apples, just having fun," Bryne says. The Riches are reluctant to discuss details of what happened next, but according to a story in The Dallas Morning News last fall, the boys hadn't walked more than half a mile before they stopped near a tree to reload. Just as Bryne put a fresh shell into his shotgun, his best friend, Brad Robinson, started to walk toward him. Bryne snapped the gun shut, but the firing pin had stuck, and when the gun closed, it went off, the shot hitting Brad.

While the other boys ran for help, Bryne stayed with Brad, holding him and telling him how sorry he was, how everything would work out and how much he loved him. "I love you, too," Brad said. Three days later he was dead.

For months following the funeral, Bryne was inconsolable. He insisted on sleeping in his parents' room. "At one point he came to us and said, 'Maybe if you'd adopt me a little brother I could teach him to play basketball,' " his mother, Pat, told SI in early April. "He was missing Brad something awful that night. I told Bryne that if God intended for him to have a little brother, maybe he'd send him one. Then we said a prayer together. Three weeks later, God sent us Worm. I never would've dreamed our little brother would be black. I think God must have a sense of humor."

The Riches had encouraged Bryne, the youngest of their three children, to go to a basketball camp at Southeastern Oklahoma, hoping it would help him to get on with his life. One day he went to a rec center to shoot around, but soon he was joined by Rodman, who offered to rebound Bryne's shots. "It seemed sort of strange," Bryne says of that first meeting with Rodman, who despite his designation by Pat as a "little brother" is actually eight years older than Bryne. "What really caught my attention was he had these quarters in his ears."

Rodman is called Worm because he's long and skinny and because of the contortions he would go through during the hours he spent in Dallas playing pinball machines. Everyone calls him Worm now except his natural mother and his fiancèe, Annie Bakes, a model from Sacramento. "I don't believe in parasite names for human beings," Bakes says fiercely. In Oklahoma, however, few people seem to realize Rodman even has another name. "He kind of puts you in mind of a worm, the way he wriggles around and all," says Pat.

Rodman has small round ears that accommodate not only quarters but also most other forms of coinage. He liked walking around campus with quarters in his ears because, he says, "everybody looked at me like I was crazy."

When Bryne finished his shooting that day, he went home and asked his mother if he could bring his new friend home to dinner. After she said it would be all right, Bryne said there was one thing he had forgotten to mention to her: "Worm is black."

"Black?" his mother replied.

Most of the white people in Bokchito don't know any black people personally. "I almost swallered my tongue when I heard," recalls Pat. "I assumed he was a white boy. If everything had been normal, we'd have questioned it a lot more. But I tolerated it because it was good for Bryne. We thought, What harm could it do to let him have a friend for dinner? We didn't know he was going to become part of our family. It's hard to believe a family like ours could love a black boy like Worm."

The Riches live in a small house next to the road. The parlor where Pat used to do the local ladies' hair is at the front of the house, and a wood-paneled living room with a gun case is in the back. James Rich, who farms and carries the U.S. mail, has clear blue eyes that he frequently trains on his wife while she does most of the talking.

James and Pat had convinced themselves that their son's fascination with the tall stranger would pass after that dinner. It didn't. That night Bryne asked his parents if Rodman could spend the night.

"James and I started squirming around in our chairs, hemmin' and hawin' somethin' fierce," Pat says. The Riches couldn't think of a good reason to say no, so they said yes, and Rodman wound up sleeping on the floor in Bryne's room. Pat also remembers that night for another reason: She says that for the first time since the shooting accident, Bryne slept through the night in his own room. "Worm brought Bryne out of the depression he was in," Pat says. "But at the same time, I think Bryne helped save Worm."

Rodman felt immediately close to Bryne. He soon arranged for Bryne to be the water boy for Southeastern Oklahoma's basketball team, and he sometimes let Bryne stay at the dorm with him—when, that is, Rodman wasn't staying at the Riches. And Bryne says, "I kind of looked up to him. I don't really look at Worm as a friend. He's more like a brother." Although he didn't say it, he now obviously means older brother.

Nevertheless, Pat at first had trouble accepting Rodman's presence. "Bryne was doing so well that we tolerated it," she says. She was less enthusiastic when Rodman started asking for rides back to the house from the Southeastern Oklahoma campus, where she was taking classes at the time. "I'd let him ride to school in my car and that was real hard for me," Pat says. "I didn't want to be seen alone with Worm because I didn't want rumors to get started. There were times when I knew he'd be looking for a ride home, and I would try to duck him, but he would always find me. I saw him coming in the library once and hid behind some bookshelves. Finally he said, 'Mrs. Rich, I know you're in there.' "

In time Rodman came to be treated like a member of the family, borrowing the Riches' car, even being given chores to do. Dallas is just a two-hour drive from Bokchito, but for Rodman it might as well have been on another planet. "All of a sudden I'm driving a tractor and messing with cows," Rodman says. "But I never went back to Dallas, I never did. I figured if I was going to make it, if I was going to clear that street crap out of my life, I couldn't go back there."

It wasn't that easy for him in Oklahoma either. If he forgot who he was or what he was, someone always reminded him. "One time I got into an argument with Worm," Pat recalls. "I said, 'Watch it, nigger.' I wanted to die as soon as I'd said it. Of course, white folks around here sometimes forget that's a derogatory word. One time I was talking on the telephone to a friend, and she told me she'd been working like a nigger all day. I said, 'You think you' ve been working like a nig...' and I stopped. When I looked around, there was Worm, his eyes all big."

Rodman says he learned to take these affronts in stride. "I think that made me grow up," he says. "I felt bad. Like, why am I here? A few people, if they were drunk, they'd drive by and say things, they want to tease you. I didn't pay it no mind. I just said forget it." On occasion he tried to break away from the Riches and return to his dorm. "But every time, they begged me to come back," he says. "I knew they just wanted me there for Bryne's sake, but in time they accepted me as part of their family."

The question as to whether Pat is trying to use him persists: She has set about trying to sell their story to the movies, so far unsuccessfully. (Rodman says he hasn't opposed the movie idea.) "People are telling me it's a TV movie, but I see Academy Award winner written all over this," Pat says. "But so far all I'm getting are options, options, options." There hasn't been a movie yet, but the Riches were paid a modest sum, Pat says, to tell their story in Reader's Digest last January.

In his first year at Southeastern—with virtually no experience in organized basketball—Rodman averaged 26 points and 13.1 rebounds. He led the NAIA in rebounds the next two seasons, with 15.9 and 17.8 a game. As his play improved, so did his confidence, which may have partly accounted for his controversial remarks about Bird. "I'd see Bird on TV and say, I could guard that guy,' " Rodman says. "I wasn't afraid of anybody."

To quell the storm Rodman started last spring, the NBA hurriedly called a press conference during the playoff finals at which Bird and Thomas, two of the NBA's biggest attractions, sat on a podium together and said that it was all a big mistake and there were no hard feelings. Rodman wasn't invited to any press conferences, but a brief apology was released to the press by his agent. Rodman spent the summer in Bokchito with his white family, reading his hate mail and learning to live with being labeled a racist. He insists the uproar did not bother him, but his sister Debra says, "He was hurt by all that."

When pressed on the subject, Rodman concedes—once again—that his comments about Bird were ill-advised. "If we had won the game, I wouldn't have said anything like that," he says. "I was hurting, and I wanted to hurt those people back. But I shouldn't have said what I said. Larry Bird proved to me he's one of the best, and they were the better team that day. I made a mistake." Unequivocal though his apology sounds, it's clear that Rodman's remarks about Bird reflected a feeling shared by other black players: White writers and fans embrace white NBA stars a little too eagerly.

This season Rodman has been content to express himself by providing the Pistons with a tremendous lift off the bench—and even in the starting lineup. From Feb. 9 to April 1, he started 29 straight games as a replacement for Adrian Dantley, who injured his ankle. Rodman averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds a game during that stretch. He finished the season averaging 11.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, and he ranked sixth in the league in offensive rebounds and fifth in field goal percentage (.561). "Without his offensive rebounding, we're not an effective club," says coach Chuck Daly of the Pistons, who entered the playoffs this week tied with Denver for the league's third-best record (54-28).

Daly says that Rodman can be an even better player if he can control his frustrations. Rodman has always been emotional. On the day he signed with the Pistons in 1986, he hyperventilated, then had an allergic reaction and had to be rushed to a hospital. During his Pistons physical, he became so nervous his heart began to race wildly. At one point this season he missed 15 foul shots in a row and wound up the season shooting better from the field than from the line (53.5).

Amid all the hate mail last summer, Rodman received one supportive letter from the Philippines. It was from his father, a restaurant manager, who said that he was sorry for all the years they didn't spend together and that he hoped they could meet in the off-season. He said he was proud of his son, that he loved him. "I think it would be good for him to talk to his father," says Shirley. "I don't know whether he's been blaming me all these years, or whether he blames his father. But I think when he and his father meet, some of these feelings will leave him." Shirley herself hadn't seen her son for more than a year until she visited him recently in Detroit, and she saw him only occasionally during his three years at Southeastern Oklahoma. "Dennis didn't want me hovering over him," she says. "My way of looking at it was this was his chance to gain his independence."

Something else he gained was a knowledge of how much it hurts to be put down because of one's color, a lesson he appeared to apply with his comments about Bird. Indeed, it seems likely that the feelings he was expressing when those fateful words came tumbling out went far beyond the pain of merely losing in the playoffs.

PHOTODICK RAPHAELThis year Rodman (above) may get on Bird's back—but not his case—in the playoffs. PHOTOTARO YAMASAKI[See caption above.] PHOTOBOB MAHONEYShirley kicked Dennis out when he wouldn't settle down. PHOTOBOB MAHONEYDennis and both his younger sisters, Debra (left) and Kim, were All-Americas in college. PHOTOBARBARA LAING/PICTURE GROUPRodman's surrogate family, the Riches, includes (from left) Pat, Bryne, Bill and James. PHOTOTARO YAMASAKIBakes, a model from Sacramento, is not fond of hearing her fiancè's parasitic sobriquet.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)