Somewhere the worm is turning. But where?
It is late summer, and the Detroit Pistons have not seen their All-Star forward in months. To say the relationship between 6'8", 210-pound rebounding fool Dennis Rodman (a.k.a. the Worm) and his team of seven years is strained is to say the relationship between dirt and soap is strained. The Pistons' dazed-and-confused player-personnel director, Billy McKinney, is at his wits' end with the fugitive forward. "My next move is to take a picture of him and put it on a milk carton," McKinney says.
The roulette ball whirs through its arc. The Worm stares at the spinning wheel, transfixed by the vectors, the possibilities, the natural forces involved. His money is on red. The ball clatters, clatters, clatters, then comes to rest. Black! The croupier rakes in Worm's chips. Good, thinks Dennis Rodman. That's good. Take my money. Yes.
The Worm's agent, Bill Pollak, does not return calls. "Mr. Pollak is in a meeting," his secretary says. "He'll get back to you this afternoon." That afternoon the secretary says, "Mr. Pollak is on a two-week vacation." Where? "Italy."
November 8, 1993
The Worm's off-court business enterprise, Rodman Excavation Inc., in Frisco, Texas, has lost touch with its elusive owner. "We don't know where he is," says the receptionist. "No one knows." Another voice comes on the phone, the voice of a higher-up. "We haven't seen him in four weeks," the woman says.
The Worm puts his money down on the green felt of the craps table. A hundred dollars' worth of chips, two hundred, five hundred. He doesn't know how much. Maybe a thousand. Somebody rolls the dice, and the cubes bounce off the padded green wall and down the table. A number is established. The dice are thrown again. Wrong number. The Worm has crapped out. The pitman rakes in Rodman's chips. Take it, the Worm thinks. Take it all.
"I'm on the Rodman hunt too," says Piston p.r. man Matt Dobek. "Rumor is he's in Sacramento. But there's also a theory he's in Denver. Somebody told me he had come back to Detroit, but he's not here. There's still a FOR SALE sign in front of his house in Bloomfield Hills, a Corvette without license plates parked in the drive. His phone is disconnected. We've also heard he's in Las Vegas. Somebody saw him there. Staying at the Mirage. Supposedly he's got—what do you call those things?—dreadlocks."
The receptionist at the Mirage hotel says, "Mr. Rodman is not listed here, and if he is not registered, he is not here. Have a nice weekend."
But Rodman is in Vegas. His money is on the table. Lots of it. The dice are ricocheting off the wall. Rodman has wagered on the losing line, crapped out again. The croupier harvests everything the Worm has left, all of it. The 32-year-old basketball star, who once worked the night shift as a janitor at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, has made a symbolic act of penance, a cleansing of spirit that he feels will allow him to recapture, however fleetingly, the naivetè and the freedom of a former self that haunts him like a ghost. In a matter of days he has lost all he came with, close to $35,000, which is what he wanted to do.
"I hate money," he says later. "I went to Las Vegas to lose. So I could feel normal."
The word bounces off Dennis Rodman like a three-point clanger off the rim. Nothing about Rodman—nicknamed the Worm years ago by his hometown Dallas friends because of the way he squirmed while playing pinball—is normal. His background is so bizarre that it could never work as fiction. And his on-court accomplishments defy logic.
He helped the Pistons win back-to-back NBA championships, in 1988-89 and 1989-90, even though he was little more than a bench warmer during only half a season of high school basketball. He has been-named to the NBA All-Defensive first team five straight years, and he routinely guards centers, power forwards, small forwards and shooting guards even though his grounding in the game was limited to stints at a J.C. and an NAIA school. He has led the league in rebounding the last two seasons, averaging an incredible 18.5 per game during that stretch, four boards a game better than his closest challenger. He has led the league in offensive rebounds the last three seasons, averaging a persistent 5.5 per game over that period, and yet he almost has to be pistol-whipped into shooting the rock. "There were times when he'd get an offensive rebound right under the basket," says the Pistons' Isiah Thomas, marveling at the image, "and he'd come all the way out to the three-point line and hand me the ball."
In a league where scoring is everything and flash is worshiped, Rodman is a star who does not score or flash. Who does not want to score or flash. "I have become a superstar from doing stupid, crazy——," he says. "I have the job nobody wants." Once, at the Silverdome, he flew into the stands after a loose ball with such recklessness—unnecessarily so, as a court would later rule—that he injured a female spectator near courtside; she was subsequently awarded a reported $60,000 for her injuries, which included the loss of several teeth.
His career scoring average is a lowly 8.8 points per game. "He's brought back the concept of 'garbage player,' " then teammate Scott Hastings said in 1991. "But he's made it an art form."
The Worm has done garbage so well that when things blew up with the Pistons last season—when he was trying in vain to explain why he kept missing practices, when he was telling anyone who would listen that he wanted to play somewhere else (it was never clear where), when he was seeing a psychiatrist, when he was found by the police sleeping in his truck in the parking lot at The Palace of Auburn Hills at 5 a.m. with a loaded rifle under his front seat, when he kept adding more and more tattoos to his body, when he took his shoes off in the middle of games, when he shaved slogans into his scalp—even then there were half a dozen other teams clamoring for his services.
"There's never been an NBA player like him," says former Piston coach Chuck Daly, now with the New Jersey Nets. "I love him. I'll endorse him anywhere. As a coach you go to the wall for a guy like that. He'll win you six to 10 games a year without even scoring."
Rodman has shown that he can play the game, however askew his proficiencies might be. (There was a 15-game stretch in 1989, for instance, in which he shot 37% from the free throw line, and yet he is a two-time All-Star.) But more than that, what happens on the floor is, to Rodman, a sacred thing. There was the night in 1990 when he even cried on the court while playing the Houston Rockets. Hakeem Olajuwon was going to dunk on him, had him beat to the basket in the late moments of a tied game, and the Worm knew he was whipped by the much taller and stronger man, but he spun to the hoop anyway, as hard as he could, never giving up, and leaped, and blocked the dunk. It was transcendent. It was rebirth. His eyes filled with tears.
Crying at such moments is nothing for this most unrefined and delicate of men. There was also the night in 1992 when Rodman grabbed 34 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers, breaking Bob Lanier's 20-year-old Piston single-game record, and he cried like a baby. Broke a record held by a 6'11", 265-pound center. "This is not my greatest achievement," the Worm said later. "The greatest achievement of my life was turning my life around."
Which was true. But where is that life headed now?
"I think he's been overwhelmed with success," says TV analyst Dick Versace, who was a Piston assistant coach when Rodman broke into the league as a 25-year-old rookie out of Southeastern Oklahoma State. "But nothing has ever affected his desire to win. He's never violated the sanctity of the game."
And yet when a team acquires the Worm—and his accompanying rebounds, defense, hustle and fire—it must ask itself: What else have we gotten? The San Antonio Spurs, who obtained Rodman from the Pistons in a trade on Oct. 1, are already asking themselves that, and more.
"I love pain," Rodman says, driving his big Chevy truck onto a San Antonio freeway. "It makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something. I can't stand being in a game and not getting knocked down."
Rodman's defense mandates that he will take a beating. Crouching like a martial-arts expert, his arms wide, his eyes boring into the area just below his opponent's neck, Rodman gets on his foe like a shadow—relentlessly, tirelessly, maniacally; almost anything his opponent docs translates into a blow to the Worm's chest or head. Once, guard Darrell Walker, then of the Washington Bullets, grew so disgusted with Rodman's tenacious play that he tried to kick Rodman and then spat at him. The spit missed, but Rodman said he wished it had hit him so he could have rubbed it on his jersey and gotten "pumped up."
Pain, Rodman says, makes him feel whole, assures him that he is working as hard as he can and that for the moment at least, he is not, as USA Today columnist Bryan Burwell once put it, "tumbling back into that frightening old world." But that's basketball pain.
This pain is different.
"Man, my head's on fire!" he tells Fred Baldarrama, the hair designer here at Olga's Salon in the North Star Mall. Baldarrama smiles gently. He dabs soothing cream on the front of Rodman's scalp, where the gooey bleach is eating away at hair color and flesh. The Worm sits as still as he can amid the old ladies and the manicurists. Why is he doing this, becoming the tallest black man in the world with a flaming blond flattop? All the way here he talked about wanting to blend in, to be normal, to get, as he puts it, "solid." He ponders the question. "Why?" he says. "Because I don't give a damn."
But he does. He gives too much of a damn. "Dennis is a guy who has childlike qualities in a man's body," says Daly. "He wears all his emotions on his sleeve. And he's very easy to hurt."
He was so hurt during the 1992-93 preseason over Daly's departure, over the breakup of his two-year marriage to Annie and over his inability to spend more time with their daughter, Alexis, now five years old, that he locked himself in his Bloomfield Hills home and refused to answer the door or the phone or attend practices or games, and he went out only long past midnight to buy food or to work out at Gold's Gym. At one point he got a new phone number, but he didn't listen as the operator told him what the number was. If he didn't know his own number, he reasoned, how could anyone find him?
He wanted to be traded, he told the Pistons. He felt betrayed. By whom? By everyone. All his friends from the old days were gone. Daly, "the miracle worker," as Rodman describes him, the man who told him about life, was gone. G.M. Jack McCloskey, the man who drafted Rodman, was gone. Trainer Mike Abdenour and assistant coach Versace were gone. His teammate and pal John Salley was gone. His wife and his child were gone.
Rodman himself had become a child again. He said money was no factor to him, but when he was offered a trade to the Miami Heat, Salley's new team, at a slight cut in his $2.3 million annual salary, he nixed the deal. He said that all he wanted to do was spend time with his daughter, but he wouldn't visit Sacramento, where Alexis lives with Annie. He made little sense. Then less.
Then almost none at all.
He was late for practices. He was fined and suspended at different times. He missed games due to a lingering, and questionable, calf injury. He would not talk to new coach Ron Rothstein. But when the Worm played, the Pistons were a different team. At one point last season Detroit was 17-12 with him, 0-10 without him. McKinney even stopped fining Rodman for breaking rules. "Why cut off your nose to spite your face?" he said. But this was all so wrong. Where was the joy Rodman had once brought to the arena?
"When he came into the league, he was this wide-eyed, frenetic, incredibly naive guy who just cherished it all," recalls Versace. "Dennis would get the ball two feet from the basket and give it up. He was so thrilled—it was like, Wow, I'm playing with Isiah Thomas!"
"Those first few years he was the model Piston," says Thomas. "On time. Never complained. Followed instructions." The veteran Piston captain sighs. "If any of us had known how to make him happy at the end, believe me, we would have done it."
In mid-February of this year police got a late-night phone call from a friend of Rodman's, warning that the player had left home in his truck depressed and possibly suicidal. That's when police found Rodman in The Palace parking lot at around 5 a.m., unharmed, the rifle under his seat. He had broken no laws, but he scared the Piston brass plenty. As Dobek, the Pistons' p.r. man, was driving Rodman to a psychiatrist an hour after the incident, he got a call on his car phone from his own mother. She had heard the news on the radio. "Are you O.K.?" she screamed to her son. "Did Rodman shoot you?"
In the chair at the hair salon, Rodman says, "Why was the rifle there? It's always there. I was depressed, but I wasn't going to kill myself. I was just hurting, ripped to shreds. You butt heads with reality and it's like having a stroke. I didn't lose touch with reality, but I put it on pause."
Rodman has used other terms to describe how he feels during dark times. He talks of sinking into "black holes," of feeling like a "mummy." His alienation never vanishes completely, never leaves him at peace, except when he is immersed in the game on the hardwood, where, he says, "everything makes sense."
At some point, of course, this no longer generates sympathy from coaches or G.M.'s or anybody else in the league. The NBA is not a charity: Everybody plays hurt, and if you can't play, get the hell out of the way. In Rodman's case the Pistons had finally had enough. He was set to be traded to the Phoenix Suns last summer for forward Richard Dumas, but that deal fell through when Dumas tested positive for illegal drug use, was sent off to rehab and, ultimately, was suspended by the league. So the Spurs snagged Rodman because they had finished last in the league in offensive rebounding last season. General manager Bob Bass, who sent All-Star forward Sean Elliott and fourth-year forward David Wood to Detroit for Rodman and second-year forward Isaiah Morris (Morris has since been waived), figured Rodman could take some of the board pressure off center David Robinson and also help the Spurs to lose the "soft" label they've been tagged with for so long. Bass says, "We needed somebody gambling on steals and diving on the floor."
And what about Rodman's personal baggage? "We'll just have to wait and see how that goes," says the guy whose job is probably riding on that baggage.
Rodman's skull is still burning, as the toxic goop has turned his hair from black to a sickly orange. He pulls up his shirttail and uses it to fan his scalp, thereby revealing the gold ring that pierces his navel like a tiny door knocker. He got the ring this summer because his ex-wife has one and because he still loves her, even though their split has been painful. He speaks wistfully now about remarrying Annie, though he has not asked her how she feels about the matter.
And how does she feel about it? "I will never marry Dennis," Annie says. "I will not go through that suffering again."
Dennis, though, pines for her still. "I get everything she gets," he says. Indeed, Annie bleached her hair blond; hence the Worm is doing his. The tattoos, of which he now has nine, started when fie copied the shark that was needled onto Annie's back. He's going to get a new tattoo soon—an American Indian warrior's band around his biceps—but his pride and joy is the portrait of Alexis that adorns the inside of his left forearm.
Rodman's body art—including the phrases he has shaved into his scalp—could be interpreted as a form of self-mutilation, a quasi-spiritual mortification of the Mesh, a way to show the world that he is doing penance for his sins, like a pilgrim, publicly. But in truth he simply has a flamboyant streak, a part of him that revels in being noticed and in showing that he is different from the crowd. And yet another part of him detests it. "He likes attention, and he doesn't like it," says Daly. "His whole life is a dichotomy."
Annie, a former model who fell for Rodman seven years ago because of his "sensitivity, his innocence and his vulnerability," grows angry when she sees the spectacle Rodman has made of their private world. "He has a tattoo of his child on his forearm," she says, voice cracking, "but he sent her nothing for Christmas. He didn't call on her birthday. He missed her first day of kindergarten. When she had chicken pox this summer, it took us three days just to find him. Sure, he lost $35,000 in Las Vegas on purpose, but why didn't he just set up a trust fund for Alexis instead? Have you seen the tattoo he has that says LINDA, one of his girlfriends? Talk about a knife in my heart."
It is not going too far to call Rodman a tormented soul, and the roots of that torment can be unearthed in his past. Raised in a tough part of Dallas in a family with an absent father and a mother who doted on Rodman's two younger sisters, both of whom were far better basketball players than he was, Rodman never felt particularly good about himself. As a kid he had a vague dream of someday playing for the Dallas Cowboys, but he did nothing to act on making that dream come true. In high school he drifted, and he succumbed to the lure of the streets. Only 5'9" after graduation, with no marketable skills, he saw his life slipping away from him. Then, two years later, he abruptly grew 11 inches. While working that janitorial job at the airport, he stole some watches, got arrested (the charges were dropped because he returned all the watches) and finally realized that if he didn't get his act together, he was doomed to a life in what he refers to as "the netherworld." When he went off to Southeastern Oklahoma State, at age 22, following a year at Cooke County College, in Gainesville, Texas, he vowed, "I will never come back to Dallas until I have made something of myself."
He was a three-time NAIA All-America, averaging 24.4 points and 17.8 rebounds per game as a senior, and the Pistons drafted him in the second round—as a project. He was a primitive basketball marvel, people said, something like an idiot savant, the Rainman of the NBA. "Who are you?" a reporter asked early in Rodman's career. "I'm nobody straight out of nowhere," Rodman answered.
Small wonder, then, that he would one day be overwhelmed by his bounty. Certainly he had worked and prayed for this good fortune to occur, but did he deserve it? Guilt, he discovered, follows success as surely as it follows failure.
And so after last season he vanished from his world and reappeared at that holiest of American shrines, Las Vegas, to purge himself and to make amends. "I was getting rid of everything that had meaning in my life and starting over," he says of his ritualistic gaming losses. He had done things like that before on a lesser scale, just given things away. He would do it, he says, because he never wanted to forget where he came from and because the unfairness of the world genuinely troubled him. In Detroit he would sometimes drive through the streets of the toughest parts of town, giving out money to homeless people, sometimes taking a vagrant home with him, cleaning the man up, feeding him and sending him off in good spirits. Once, he struck up a conversation with a homeless man, then simply emptied his pockets to the poor soul, giving him close to a thousand dollars. "So many people need so much," Rodman explains. "I don't need possessions."
One reason the Spurs took the plunge with Rodman is that coach John Lucas feels he can relate well to the Worm and thereby keep him happy and productive. A cheery and emotional former cocaine abuser who now helps others beat their own drug addictions, Lucas is a players' coach who is willing to tolerate eccentricities and frailties in his charges.
"What I relate to with Dennis," Lucas says, "is that lack of 'big business' skill. He had a problem, and he went about getting it resolved in the wrong way. You end up destroying your own image to make your point. I understand that; I did the same thing with drugs. But this is a straight basketball decision; we filled a void in our rebounding and defense by getting him. I know Dennis likes to do things just to see your reaction. The first day he was here he said, 'What about a dress code?' I told him, 'Just tie your shoes.' "
The Worm's 'do is finally done; 3½ hours of anguish, and now his coif resembles the striping on a skunk. He pays his bill, heedless of the fact that the Spurs' shoot-around, the team's 1993-94 season debut in front of team owners and the public at the sparkling new Alamodome, began 30 minutes ago. "Just some investors," he says, shrugging.
As he leaves the salon, people stop dead in their tracks, stunned by the spectacle. At the Alamodome, Rodman is now 40 minutes late. There is tension in the air as 5,000 fans watch the team run through drills without the one player everyone has come to see. Behind the stands Rodman slowly walks toward the dressing room as team officials try to hurry him along without offending him in any way. A nervously smiling Lucas has already told the questioning local press that Rodman is late because he is new to town and unfamiliar with the city's streets.
Finally, shoes untied, jersey out, a ROD-MAN EXCAVATION baseball cap worn backward over his new golden swatch, Rodman jogs onto the floor to wild cheering and a smattering of boos. His teammates look, uncertain of what to feel.
"Last, but not least," says master of ceremonies David Robinson into the stadium microphone. "He can rebound and play defense almost as well as I can...the Demolition Man...Dennis Rodman!"
The hat comes off for an electrifying moment, then it goes back on. The crowd screeches. Rodman takes the microphone. He looks into the recesses of the cavernous arena, his face blank.
"You can like me or you can hate me," he says. "But all I can say is, when I get on the damn floor, all I'm going to do is get solid." He drops the mike onto the polished wood; that's it for today.
Rodman speaks often of how he has to be free, how he must be himself and how he cannot survive if he finds himself being manipulated by people in positions of power. "If I do something, I can live with it," he says. "But if society makes me do it, it just pisses me off, makes me feel caged." After showering and dressing in his customary sweatpants, T-shirt, construction boots, cap and shades, Rodman walks back out to the court and looks over to where Lucas is speaking engagingly to the two dozen or so team investors who are seated in front of him in the stands.
"Look at him," says Rodman with contempt. "Kissing ass." The player yells toward his coach, "Hey, Luke!" Lucas does not hear him and continues to talk to his audience.
"Hey, Luke!" Rodman yells again. This time Lucas hears him, and he and the investors turn to see what is up.
"Hey, Luke," yells Rodman. "Need some Chapstick?"
When Rodman came into the league, the Piston coaching staff nicknamed him Worldclass because, as Versace says, "if he ran the 440, he'd be world class. The guy can run all day, on his toes, like a sprinter." Rodman still can run all day, and he still can attack the boards like nobody else in the game. He studies players' shooting tendencies, noting where the caroms of their shots are likely to go; he took early lessons from Detroit teammate Bill Laimbeer, learning "tenaciousness and how to tap the ball like a volleyball." But most of Rodman's rebounding success comes from simple want-to. "I work my ass off, that's all," he says. "People ask how you dig a 50-foot hole? You dig. How do I get offensive rebounds? I go get the damn basketball."
He prides himself on playing with his heart, reminding you that the best who have played the game—Jordan, Magic, Barkley, Bird—have played with their hearts too. The sad thing is that now people arc talking less about Rodman's heart and ferocity than about his flightiness and tonsorial statements. On the Saturday of the Spurs' first preseason game, the San Antonio Express-News highlights its Lifestyle section with a report on his "futuristic platinum blond flattop," which "could be on the cutting edge of hair fashion."
On the sports page there is only an ominous "Open Letter" to Rodman from veteran columnist Dan Cook. He rips Rodman for his tardiness and posturing, reminding him that when he left the Pistons, the Detroit Free Press carried a huge headline reading simply DE-WORMED. "Dennis, you didn't come here with a chip on your shoulder," Cook wrote. "You're carrying a telephone pole, daring anyone to give it a tap."
"This summer when he came to see me, he seemed suicidal," says Annie. "He came here looking like a transient. He was in old clothes, he'd lost about 15 pounds, he couldn't sleep. He had a designer design a $25,000 wedding dress for me, but he'd just been in Las Vegas with his girlfriend. Whatever Dennis Rodman can't have, he wants."
It hasn't occurred to anyone yet, but it will, that perhaps Dennis Rodman will not feel at ease until he has lost everything that sets him apart from what he once was. Maybe the Worm really doesn't want to have anything.
There are less than two minutes until tip-off of the opening preseason game at the Alamodome against the Orlando Magic. Rodman finally joins his teammates, who have been warming up for the last half hour. He has already missed the morning's shootaround, just one of the functions he has blown off here in San Antonio. Pacing now under the hoop, Rodman, with his gleaming tuft, looks like Greg Norman coming up the fairway. It is ironic and inexplicable that this difficult, seemingly antisocial man becomes the perfect teammate once a basketball game begins. "I really think," Thomas has said, "that Dennis is a kind of genius."
Rodman gets 11 rebounds in the game. He tries hard not to shoot at all, and near the end of the game he misses a simple layup. In the Magic locker room afterward, forward Larry Krystkowiak says of the Worm, "I can't figure him out. He has endless energy. Maybe if he'd show up for shootarounds, he'd be better on layups."
Two nights earlier Rodman had gone to see a late-night screening of Demolition Man, the science-fiction movie in which a villainous character, played by Wesley Snipes, who sports a hairdo similar to the Worm's, is frozen, then thawed in the year 2032. Yet the Worm identifies more with actor Dennis Leary's underground rebel than with Snipes's bad guy. It was the second straight night Rodman had gone to see the flick, but he found it just as troubling the second time.
"Could you live in a world like that?" he said on the way out, referring to the movie's portrayal of an antiseptic future. "No ups, no downs, no swearing, no sex, no conflict, no violence?" He seemed genuinely disturbed at the prospect. "I mean, freeze me," he said driving through the dark streets. "Who could live in a world like that?"
This world is tough enough.