The Sunday morning topics at Dennis Rodman's house have ranged
from gay sex to Pearl Jam lyrics to his own drunken failures at
Las Vegas craps tables, and now America's most provocative athlete
has a more compelling matter to discuss. ``Let's talk about shot
selection,'' says Rodman, his low voice barely audible amid the
clatter of 15 exotic birds and two German shepherds who actually
hail from Deutschland.
It is the day before Rodman's employer, the San Antonio Spurs,
will open the Western Conference finals at home against the
Houston Rockets. Is Rodman so consumed by basketball that he wants
to discuss it here amid a gathering so eclectic it makes MTV's
Real World look like The Waltons?
``Hell, no,'' Rodman says, then clarifies. He wants to talk about
the magazine photo shoot that is about to take place, one he
thinks should include shots of him wearing makeup and women's
clothing or, better yet, nothing at all. ``I mean, why not be a
little risque?'' Rodman asks. ``Push the envelope.''
The beauty of this attitude is not just that it is designed to
test the boundaries of mainstream society but that Rodman has
absolutely no concern for how his antics will play in the
basketball community. And though he has a desperate and obvious
need to draw attention to himself, Rodman doesn't give a flying
halter top about what his NBA peers or employers think of his
behavior. He is moved far more by the opinions of the people in
his midst: Gregg, a manager for a mail-order company specializing
in gay men's apparel; Lara, a dancer, model and horse trainer;
Bill, who works for Rodman's excavation company; and several other
May 28, 1995
``I don't give a ---- about basketball anymore,'' Rodman says.
``It's like the Back to the Future ride in Orlando, like virtual
reality. I'm already out of life in the NBA. I'm just living my
life the way I want to. I'm not an athlete anymore. I'm an
An hour later, when Rodman emerges wearing a shiny tank top,
metallic hot pants and a rhinestone dog collar, his guests ooh,
aah and gawk in amusement. ``Dennis is in one of his transvestite
moods,'' says Rodman's friend Amy Frederick, rolling her eyes.
Were it not Rodman, a man who dreams of playing his last NBA game
au naturel, this behavior might be a bit shocking.
This Sunday at home falls near the end of a 72-hour odyssey of
Rodman-inspired insanity, a boundless weekend bender that has
spanned three states and five figures' worth of frequent flier
miles, and collected an entourage that at various times included
Hollywood celebrities and fawning women, awestruck gamblers and
acid-eating Deadheads, sultry strippers and a Bill Laimbeer-sized
drag queen. Above all, this weekend has provided a rousing
demonstration that Rodman is a rare human with both the
positioning and the resolve to live by his own rules and attack
life without regard to the demands or plans or standards imposed
Flashbacks to impressions of Rodman that began to form three days
earlier-- on Thursday night, to be exact--now seem like dim and
It's an hour before tipoff of the sixth game of the Spurs'
Western Conference playoff series against the Los Angeles
Lakers, which San Antonio leads three games to two. The San
Antonio players are gathered in the cramped confines of the
visitors' locker room at the Great Western Forum. At one end of
the room five Spurs are watching a video of Game 5 and quietly
talking strategy. One man sits near that group but not with
them, oblivious to his environs. Clad in plaid flannel pants and
a white T-shirt, senses shielded by Oakley sunglasses and large
headphones, the rebel hunches over in his chair, rocks out to
the music and lets his mind run free.
At that moment it's impossible to tell where Rodman has flown off
to. It's too early in the Rodman joyride to realize that the man
who will be the catalyst for San Antonio's series-clinching
victory is preparing for battle by listening to Pearl Jam at about
7,000 decibels and traveling via fantasy to places most people
will never admit to venturing: horrific torture chambers, chosen
suicide spots, bedrooms with various partners. This is a Rodman
who is darker and weirder than his image--the one who, depending
on your outlook, is either a selfish problem child or an authentic
genius who transcends his sport. Most of the Spurs would choose
the former, less- flattering description, and that would be
hunky-dory with Dennis the Menace, who values the opinion of his
basketball peers about as much as Albert Einstein valued his
Right now all that has been revealed is a 34-year-old, sculpted 6'
8" black man with hair of a red-orange color that looks like it
was lifted off a 1977 Camaro. Eyes closed, Rodman is visualizing
himself on stage with Pearl Jam, drumming to the beat of
Indifference: ``I'll swallow poison until I grow immune. I will
scream my lungs out till it fills this room. How much difference
does it make?''
In L.A., Rodman is the difference. Having survived a full-game
benching for insubordination earlier in the series, he assumes the
incongruous role of battle-tested leader. One by one before the
game, teammates Sean Elliott, David Robinson and Avery Johnson
approach the man who owns the only two NBA title rings on the
Spurs' active roster and ask, ``What's the best way to approach a
game like this?'' Rodman tells them to stop thinking and thrust
themselves into the flow.
There are reasons Rodman is the best rebounding forward in NBA
history, and the most important one is not that he works his butt
off or gets outrageously physical or has no fear. It has more to
do with the fact that, like hockey star Wayne Gretzky, he sees the
game like no one else and is two moves ahead of the competition.
He is less athlete than artist. He gets into his flow and becomes
one with the ball, and before anyone else knows what's happening,
it is his. ``It's a whole different game for me,'' says Rodman,
the winner of the last four NBA rebounding titles. ``I know where
the ball's going to go.''
Once the game begins the L.A. fans ride Rodman hard. They chant,
``Rodman sucks,'' but it becomes increasingly clear as he plays
to the crowd--at one point he playfully knocks the hat off a
courtside heckler--that he is made for this town. Athletically,
he carries a mystical beauty. He runs up and down the court like
a gazelle, and his defense is a study in body control. Even the
weakest part of Rodman's game, his offense, is deceptively
potent. ``He can control the tempo of a game without scoring,
and that's amazing,'' says teammate Doc Rivers, an 11-year
guard. ``He's a great offensive player. He's so smart, and he
sees the floor like a guard. He'll set the key screen or make
the great pass. His pass might not lead to the basket, but it's
the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the basket.''
San Antonio wins 100-88. Every time the Lakers make a charge, a
burst of energy from Rodman helps repel them. For the first time
as a Spur he assumes the unlikely role of floor leader, directing
traffic with emphatic arm waves and barking out commands.
Afterward he strides off the court, past the locker room and into
an empty corridor. ``This is what gets me so jacked, winning a
series in L.A.,'' he says. ``This town gets me off.''
Rodman refuses to talk to the media, saying his teammates deserve
the attention. Later he relents. Then in the parking lot he
charges a Laker fan, chasing him down and grabbing him by the
throat. Rodman's explanation? ``He reached into my bag and stole
my shades. I told him to keep the damn things.'' A
12-passenger stretch limo is there to rescue Rodman and transport
him to Sanctuary, a trendy Beverly Hills hangout.
``You need a name,'' yells Jack (Une) Haley, Rodman's friend,
teammate and guardian angel. A seven-footer who seldom plays but
has ridden Rodman's coattails to a small celebrity of his own,
Haley is the Spurs' middle man, the guy who alternately explains
Rodman to the world and explains the rules of the world to Rodman.
Though Rodman seldom listens--``He rebels just to rebel,'' Haley
says--the two form an odd couple who come with their own lingo. In
exaggerated California accents the two bust out words like schnay,
a rough equivalent of the term ``not'' that Rodman's
ex-girlfriend, Madonna, helped popularize. The key word in this
private language is june (pronounced gee-OOOON), which serves
both as Rodman's nickname and as a verb form that can be
substituted for virtually any act. Haley goes by the shortened
Une, and now he's brainstorming. ``I've got it! You're Si,'' he
says, addressing me.
``No, Si--S.I., for your magazine.''
I don't dare say schnay.
Sanctuary is filled with celebs, deal makers and ladies of the
evening, but Rodman is the center of attention. His table includes
Haley, models galore and comedian Jon Lovitz. Movie producers and
agents come over to shake his hand and pine for his time. ``I will
be in show business,'' he says, ``but I'm not going to play some
weak-ass basketball player. That would be stupid.'' An agent who
says he helped put together Pulp Fiction thinks Rodman would be a
classic Quentin Tarantino villain. Rodman is interested, though he
says he's also talking with Warner Bros. and Disney about big
Later, in the jumpin' back room, shots of Jagermeister and
Goldschlager are passed around. Rodman says that he has never been
into drugs, but he can drink like a fish, and keeping up requires
commitment. Haley, who played at UCLA, is getting autograph
requests up the wazoo while Lovitz watches. Only in L.A. could
Jack Haley be bigger than Jon Lovitz. ``Hey,'' Lovitz protests,
``he's not that much bigger than me. Only about a foot.''
A woman with a sexy Middle Eastern accent wants to know what the
deal is with the flame-haired dude. ``Who ees this man?'' she
asks. ``What makes heem so special? Why does everybody want so
badly to speak with heem?''
The answer is that Rodman, after three decades of confusion, anger
and longing for acceptance, turned a corner a couple of years ago.
He became a man who strives to live for the moment, with no watch,
no pager and few worries about how he may be perceived--but with a
quenchless thirst to be noticed. His explanation: ``I woke up one
day and said to myself, Hey, my life has been a big cycle. One
month I'm bleeding to death, one month I'm in a psycho zone. Then,
all of a sudden, the cycles were in balance.''
Rodman eats when he's hungry, sleeps when he collapses and does
whatever the hell he pleases. Few celebrities can pull this off,
and athletes almost never do. He lives more like a rock star, an
updated version of Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, than an athlete.
There is a fatalistic side to Rodman, but he's more of a '90s
dissident than a '60s insurgent. He thinks anything political is
crap and has adopted a younger generation's everything-is-
screwed-up-beyond-repair resignation. He is a man drunk on his own
ability to do whatever he wants, a rebel without a boss.
Why don't more people in his position behave so freely? ``They
hide behind their money, fame and success,'' he says. ``Then all
of a sudden they have no opinion, or they're afraid to voice it
because they're afraid someone will take away what they've got.
You can be famous and still voice your opinion, as long as you
don't hurt anybody. You can do anything you want.''
It is not surprising that some of Rodman's friends, including
Madonna and Eddie Vedder, are icons. Rodman met Vedder, the Pearl
Jam singer, and other band members two years ago; he has hung out
backstage for three shows, a number he plans to triple next month.
``I'm going to tour with them for two weeks,'' he says. ``They'd
better let me sit in on drums, or I'm out of there.''
He busted loose from Madonna a year ago, ending a hot-and-heavy
romance, but not before he learned a great deal from her about
shock value and self- promotion. It is 3:30 Friday morning, and a
heated Rodman is out front of Sanctuary talking Material Girl with
a bouncer. ``She wanted to get married,'' he says. ``She wanted to
have my baby. She said, `Be in a hotel room in Las Vegas on this
specific day so you can get me pregnant.' She had ways of making
you feel like you're King Tut, but she also wanted to cuddle and
be held.'' Through her publicist, Madonna declined comment.
The Spurs return to San Antonio on Friday afternoon, and aside
from a trip to a local workout facility, Rodman's day is
relatively tame. That night he is back at his house with his inner
circle, barbecuing. Included are Rodman's surrogate brother, Bryne
Rich, whose family essentially adopted Rodman when he was 19;
Rich's girlfriend, Frederick; and Dwight Manley, a Southern
California rare-coin dealer who, despite being five years younger
than Rodman, serves as his caretaker. Rodman has about 800
messages on his answering machine; he speeds through most of them
and writes down nothing.
At 9 p.m., the meat still thawing, Manley announces Continental
has a 10:40 flight to Vegas. ``Let's do it,'' Rodman says, and an
hour and 39 minutes later, the five of us sprint through the San
Antonio airport like O.J. Simpson, circa 1977, making the flight
with seconds to spare. As the plane takes off, Rodman is blasting
his favorite Pearl Jam song, Release, through his portable CD
player--``I'll ride the wave where it takes me''--and laughing.
``What are we doing?'' he asks, and everyone cracks up.
Everyone in the group is drinking Bloody Marys immediately after
takeoff-- everyone except Manley, who talks about Rodman and how
he met him two years ago at a craps table at the Mirage in Vegas.
``Dennis and Bryne were supposed to be out there for a few days,''
Manley recalls, ``and they stayed for five weeks.'' Rodman has
been known to drop as much as $30,000 on a trip but has won as
much as $72,000 at a single sitting. Money, to him, seems
incidental. ``He makes $2.5 million a year,'' Manley says, ``and
he doesn't save a penny.''
Rodman's father, Phil, deserted the family when Dennis was three.
Rodman grew up in Dallas, around his mother, Shirley, and older
sisters, Debra and Kim, both of whom were college basketball
All-Americas. At 22 he was working as a janitor at the Dallas-Fort
Worth airport before he got his life together through basketball
and became a key member of the Detroit Piston teams that won NBA
titles in '89 and '90. ``He never got to be a rebel as a kid,''
Rich says, ``so he's really going for it now.''
Says Manley: ``It's the classic case of a boy who grew up without
a strong male role model. He is learning manhood on his own, and
he's learning it with no one to tell him no. He can get away with
anything. No one stops him. When you're raised without boundaries,
you have to find them for yourself.''
Vegas is going nuts on this warm Friday night. The Grateful Dead
is in town, and Rodman receives glassy-eyed, LSD-inspired stares
as he walks into the Mirage Hotel. He heads for the craps table
and starts blowing dough.
The American public's lack of composure around celebrities never
ceases to amaze, but Rodman handles it pretty well. One guy wants
to trade his beat-up Vermont baseball cap for Rodman's black lid
that says simply aphrodisiac. ``Schnay,'' Rodman answers. A pair
of buxom Australian expatriates who have settled in L.A. end up
with the crew and follow Rodman into the men's room. Later a man
spots Rodman and lifts up his girlfriend's miniskirt, revealing
her bikini underwear. Rodman smiles and moves on. Everyone wants
to talk basketball, and he just wants to roll bones until dawn.
Sleep comes after Saturday's sunrise and is ended rudely at nine
o'clock by the voice of Haley, who has tracked Rodman down and
telephoned his suite at the Mirage. ``What the ---- are you
doing?'' Haley rails at Manley. After some back and forth, Manley
wakes up Rodman, now $5,000 lighter, and puts him on the phone.
The dilemma here is nothing new. Rodman has been in trouble all
season with the Spurs. San Antonio general manager Gregg Popovich,
a former Marine, and coach Bob Hill set rules for the team, and
Rodman decides the rules are stupid and disregards them. Rodman
refers to Hill as Boner and has nothing very positive to say about
the hard-line Popovich.
This time Rodman wants to blow off a Saturday afternoon film
session and a team dinner back in San Antonio. Haley, in the name
of stability, urges Rodman to be there. The problem is, the harder
you push Rodman, the more likely he is to rebel for the sake of
rebellion. It's a dangerous prospect because he has already pushed
his superiors and teammates near their limits. In San Antonio's
Game 3 defeat by the Lakers, Rodman lay down on the floor with a
towel over his head and took off his shoes during a second-half
timeout. Hill sat him for the remainder of that game and all of
Game 4, which the Spurs won, and held him out of the starting
lineup for Game 5 as all the while he and Rodman engaged in a
hissing match via the media.
``That's just immaturity,'' says Rivers, who joined the Spurs in
December. ``If you want to go out and party and have crazy hair,
that doesn't make you a bad guy. But when your actions impact the
team, that's not good. There have been guys who have decided we'd
be better off without him. I haven't done that yet, but I haven't
been here that long.''
Despite Haley's protests Rodman wants to follow through with a
plan to jet to Phoenix for Game 7 of the Sun-Rocket series this
afternoon, ``just to freak everyone out.'' Haley calls Hill, who
promptly phones Rodman. After 20 seconds Rodman slams down the
phone and launches into a tirade: ``Yeah, I really want to go to a
goddam dinner with all the wives and old people-- that'll be
really fun.'' Haley is relieved by Rodman's decision to attend the
dinner, saying later, ``The organization has been fair with
Dennis. If he'd have blown this off, the players would have said,
`To hell with him.' ''
It's Saturday afternoon, time to get down and dirty, though it
takes a while to figure this out. Rodman is at a specialty store
in the Las Vegas airport, buying a sheet of Elvis stamps, and
I'm carrying four pieces of luggage and getting ready to fly
home to Oakland. We walk to the gate for Rodman's 12:15 p.m.
flight to Houston, and I start to say goodbye. ``Why the hell
don't you get your ass on this plane so we can do some
talking?'' he asks, and before a plausible answer comes to mind,
we're sitting in first class, listening to Eddie Vedder moan,
``Why go home, why go home. . . .''
Sleep deprivation has turned us into a punchy and expansive pair.
Rodman is talking about life, philosophy, his divorce and getting
naked in public, which naturally leads to Madonna. Rodman has
great respect for his former squeeze, who has done a lot to
promote homosexual lifetsyles. Rodman often goes to gay bars in
San Antonio and doesn't shy away from hugging and kissing male
friends. He says that's as far as it has gone, ``but I visualize
being with another man. Everybody visualizes being gay--they
think, Should I do it or not? The reason they can't is because
they think it's unethical. They think it's a sin. Hell, you're not
bad if you're gay, and it doesn't make you any less of a person.''
Rodman's eyes are glistening, but he is not laughing. I ask him if
he thinks about dying young. ``Sometimes I say I'm going to play
basketball and go-go-go until I drop dead,'' he says. ``I'm not
afraid of dying at all. It's just the next boundary.''
Does he contemplate suicide?
``Sure. Sometimes I dream about just taking a gun and blowing my
head off. If I ever know it's time to die, I'll head for a
waterfall and camp out for a day, knowing I only have 24 hours to
live, fly off the waterfall and just juuune.''
The next question is whether Rodman's fantasies include murder.
``Yeah, I'd kill somebody--in my mind,'' he says. ``All of a
sudden I lose control of what I'm doing. I'm in a torture chamber,
and I've got to fight my way out. I definitely come out with a
And who, in this fantasy, does Rodman most want to kill? ``The
person I used to be. He tried to be something he wasn't. He wanted
everybody to like him because he was an athlete who had this and
had that. He was dead wrong.''
Rodman and I get to Houston with an hour layover before the
connection to San Antonio and head to an airport bar to watch the
last quarter of the Rocket- Sun game, with the winner to face the
Spurs. ``We should be there, SI,'' Rodman mumbles forcefully, and
then we're drinking beer and eating gumbo and talking about which
NBA players have the most guts. Hakeem Olajuwon, who is leading
the Rockets to victory, is an obvious choice. ``Best center in the
game,'' Rodman says, placing Robinson, his teammate, second. He
also picks Tim Hardaway and Clyde Drexler and the underappreciated
Danny Ainge. The Suns expire as we race to catch the flight.
Back in San Antonio, Rodman returns from the team dinner. ``Ever
been to a gay bar?'' he asks.
At 11 p.m., propped up by adrenaline and chocolate-covered
coffee beans, I'm in the passenger seat of Rodman's custom Ford
monster truck. ``Everyone in the state knows my truck,'' Rodman
says of the pink-and-white vehicle, ``and they all know where I
Much later, after a night of drinking and dancing at that hopping
gay bar, we pull up to his house and find the trees out front
streamed with toilet paper. A carload of young revelers passes by,
leaving a wake of unintelligible yells. We walk through the back
door, past the four bottles of Goldschlager in the backup
refrigerator, and understand each other without speaking. I will
write all night and then be gone, out of Rodman's whirlwind,
leaving him alone to pursue his calling as an unfettered spirit.
Rodman's German shepherds are barking unconscionably, and his
exotic birds are squawking with abandon. The Spurs' 10 a.m.
practice will begin in a few hours.
Something profound needs to be said as we separate, but the
silence persists. I'm walking to my computer when Rodman's low
bellow runs me down. ``Have fun juuuning that story,'' he says
merrily. ``And wake me up about 10:30.''
He seems to be kidding, but who can know?
"I'm living my life the way I want to. I'm not an athlete anymore."
"I'll be in show business, but I'm not going to play some basketball player."
"Yeah, I really want to go to a dinner with all the wives."
``I'm not afraid of dying at all. It's just the next boundary.''