x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Newsmaker: Dennis Rodman

The former bad boy of basketball has been attracting the wrong kind of headlines again this week for his second visit to North Korea to meet its leader, Kim Jong-un, writes Jonathan Gornall.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Dennis Rodman has been a lousy son, husband and father and (to paraphrase the man's own more direct self-assessment for a family readership) something of an all-round pain in the neck.

We know this because the flamboyant former basketball star confessed as much on stage when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August 2011.

In a controversial career that spanned 14 years, Rodman fizzed across the basketball firmament like a rainbow-coloured firework. His "Hoop Hall" citation summed up the 6 foot 7 inch power forward thus: "Loud. Flamboyant. Brash. Brilliant ... celebrated and hated for his tattoos, colourful hair, and bad-boy attitude."

This week, with his second self-promotional visit this year to the pariah state of North Korea, the spoiled man-child that basketball gave up on 13 years ago showed that he was as capable of "bad-boy" behaviour on the world stage as he once was on (and off) the basketball court.

But on the night of August 12, 2011, at his Hall induction, fans and former foes saw a different side to the man that they had come to know alternately as "The Worm" - a childhood nickname supposedly earned for the way he squirmed while playing pinball machines - or "The Menace", a sobriquet not unrelated to his apparent determination to reinvent basketball as a full-contact sport.

Standing on stage in front of an audience of his peers and National Basketball Association bigwigs, Rodman bent his lanky frame to reach the microphone - and began to cry.

The man whose basketball career had been succeeded by a curious excursion into wrestling showed that he was adept at another great American celebrity sport: the triple-jump of self-pity, public confession and redemption.

"A different Rodman showed up," simpered Matt Moore of NBC Sports, touched by the narcissistic display. "No brash arrogance. No outrageous behaviour. Just a world of emotion and gratitude from a man that came from struggle and played the game with ferocity, while living his life his way, for better or worse."

It took a tear-choked Rodman the best part of a minute to start his rambling speech. "I didn't play the game for the money," he finally managed, dabbing at the tears. "I didn't play the game to be famous."

Without basketball, he said, "I could have been dead. I could have been a drug dealer. I could have been homeless."

And yet, throughout his career, Rodman frequently treated his life-saving sport - and his loved ones - with something less than gratitude.

In the audience were his mother, Shirley, his third wife, Michelle, and their two children; Rodman apologised to them all for his failures as a son ("from the age of 16 to 20, I could care less what I did to my mother"), husband ("I haven't been a great husband, I can't lie about that"), and father ("I have one regret - I wish I was a better father").

The following year, Rodman and Michelle were divorced. By May 2012, the Los Angeles Times was reporting that he was "broke", owing more than US$800,000 (Dh2.9 million) in child support to his ex-wife.

No wonder he has been prepared to turn a blind eye to North Korean human-rights abuses, and hand leader Kim Jong-un a PR coup.

Or perhaps Rodman sees the Supreme Leader as the father figure that his own finely honed sob story suggests he so badly needs.

In 1964, Rodman's father, Philander, walked out on him and his mother. He was just three years old. The following year, Rodman's mother moved to Dallas, Texas, in search of work, and held down as many as four jobs at a time as she struggled to raise her three children alone.

It's hard to believe now, but at high school Rodman was shy - and, for a future basketball star, short. At 5 foot 11 inches tall, he failed to make the basketball team at South Oak Cliff High School.

Graduation brought a series of menial jobs and increasing tension between Rodman and his mother. While working as a cleaner at Dallas/Fort Worth airport, for a bet Rodman stole some watches. He wasn't charged, but his mother kicked him out. By rights, the world should have heard no more of Dennis Rodman.

"I'm something I shouldn't have been," he once said. "I should be an average Joe Blow, nine to five."

Then something miraculous happened. "Rescue," in the words of Rodman's own official biography, "came in the form of a phenomenal growth spurt."

In a year, he grew almost a foot taller, and a scout for Cooke County Junior College in Gainesville, Texas, spotted him dominating neighbourhood games. He was taken on, but nearly scuppered his career, dropping out after just one term.

Basketball, however, wasn't to be so easily denied his talents. In his brief sojourn at Cooke, he caught the eye of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and this time the transplant took.

In 1984 and 1985, Rodman topped the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics averages in rebounding - the unglamorous but vital art of taking possession of the ball after a missed free throw or field goal - and, in 1986, he was chosen in the second round of the NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons.

According to coach Chuck Daly, in the Pistons, Rodman found the family he never had. Rodman and the team went from strength to strength, winning national championships in 1989 and 1990, with Rodman named NBA defensive player of the year in 1990 and 1991.

Upset, however, was around the corner. Some of Rodman's teammates were traded, and Daly himself left the Pistons.

"Dennis kind of grew up with us," Daly said. "The Pistons were Dennis's first professional family, and he really liked what the team stood for ... It was a family to him, and when it disintegrated around him, it was tough for him to deal with."

In 1993, in the dying days of his time with the Pistons, Rodman was found sitting in his truck in the car park of the team's Detroit stadium, The Palace of Auburn Hills. On his lap was a loaded .22 rifle.

At the time, he denied that he was considering killing himself, but his autobiography three years later provided an account of the incident.

"From the outside I had everything I could want," he wrote. "From the inside I had nothing but an empty soul ... I discovered I was ready to check out of this life if it meant I could keep from becoming the man I was becoming."

Instead, Rodman chose life and moved back home to Texas and the San Antonio Spurs.

There, he continued to dominate the rebounding stats. But it was while playing for the Spurs that his flamboyant, troublesome side began to get the upper hand - manifested chiefly in unpredictable behaviour on and off the court, a series of increasingly colourful hairdos and a brief but highly publicised relationship with the singer Madonna.

"He scares both coaches every time he steps on the court," said Bob Hill, who coached Rodman at San Antonio. In 1995, the Spurs passed their headache on to the Chicago Bulls.

In some ways, the move to Chicago proved a good one for both the Bulls and the player, though Rodman was twice suspended - once for headbutting a referee and again for kicking a courtside TV cameraman.

"Though his teammates sometimes disliked his attention-grabbing behaviour," recalls his biography with some understatement, "Rodman helped the team win ... the NBA title three years in a row, in 1996, 1997, and 1998."

But his behaviour was becoming increasingly bizarre. In 1996, he published his bestselling autobiography, Bad as I Wanna Be, in which he revealed a "secret longing to be a woman". He turned up to book signings astride a Harley-Davidson - dressed as a woman.

Rodman was on a downhill roll. Pausing only to marry former Baywatch star Carmen Electra in Las Vegas in 1998 (a union that lasted just 10 days), he launched himself into a poorly received career as an actor, starring alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme as an arms dealer in the 1997 action turkey Double Team. He also neglected his basketball to appear in a series of World Championship Wrestling matches.

The Bulls let him go. By now, Rodman was 30 years old, but still willing to strut his stuff for any team brave enough to have him. For a while, that team was the Los Angeles Lakers, but after 23 games and 11 straight wins in 1999 they too fired him.

Next, he found himself back in Dallas, but even for the Mavericks, Rodman proved too much of a rebel and, after just 12 games for the home-town team, he ended his NBA career.

As he pursues his post-basketball career as a celebrity self-publicist, it's easy to forget Rodman's on-court achievements. He does, after all, still hold the record for the top five rebounding seasons since 1979 and is the only player since 1974 to have played five 30-rebound games.

Where did it all go wrong? Looking back a few years ago, Rodman was at a loss to explain it.

"Something just happened," he said. "Madonna didn't do it, my mother didn't do it, my friends didn't do it ... It just happened overnight. I didn't plan to dye my hair, I didn't plan to be a bad boy, I didn't plan to have tattoos - I didn't plan none of this."

What he did plan, however, was to visit North Korea, first in February this year to boost ratings for the HBO TV "news" magazine Vice, and again this week at the invitation of Irish bookmaker Paddy Power.

There, displaying, at best, naivety about a pariah regime that has threatened to destroy the US and has 200,000 political prisoners caged in work camps, the self-proclaimed "pop-culture icon" happily rubbed shoulders with Kim Jong-un, a man who recently had a former girlfriend machine-gunned to death.

Rodman's take on his new best friend, the world's most feared basketball fan? "Very humble ... a great guy if you sit down and talk to him".

Judging by footage of the two taken on Rodman's last visit, the bad boy of East Asia feels the same. It's a bromance made in ego hell.


May 13, 1961 Born in Trenton, New Jersey

1986 Drafted by Detroit Pistons

1990 Named NBA defensive player of the year

1992 Marries – and divorces – Annie Bakes

1998 Marries – and divorces – Carmen Electra

2000 Retires from professional basketball

2003 Marries Michelle Moyer, divorces in 2012

2008 Sentenced to counselling and community service for striking a girlfriend

2009 Appears on Celebrity Apprentice; later signs up for Celebrity Rehab

2011 Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame

2013 Visits North Korea


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