MY OLDEST SON was 5, in his second month of kindergarten, when his teacher asked why his dad hadn’t been seen in the pickup line for a couple of weeks. “He’s living with Dennis Rodman,” my son answered, dripping nonchalance, as if this were a task every Catholic-school dad would eventually get around to completing.
The living arrangement was brief, roughly two weeks in the fall of 1995, and more of a necessity than a choice. I was working under an extreme deadline to write Rodman’s autobiography, “Bad As I Wanna Be,” and having prescribed interview times — “From 9 to noon, we’ll cover the prairie years” — was not something that meshed with the Rodman lifestyle. So I headed to Southern California to camp out with him and his then-agent, Dwight Manley, a world-renowned coin expert who represented exactly zero other athletes at the time. Two weeks with Dennis Rodman in the mid-’90s might sound like a thrilling setup, but in reality, most of my time was spent in a panicked attempt to get Rodman to focus on telling the stories that needed to become a book in less than three months. The enduring image of that time in my life is Dennis, wearing Zubaz, lounging on a couch with a remote in his hand while I sit in a pool of my own sweat, trying to hear whatever he’s mumbling over the roar of the television.
Rodman: For Better or Worse
From Detroit to San Antonio to Chicago, from his appearance and his antics to his brilliance and his exuberance, Dennis Rodman crafted a Hall of Fame career on his way to winning five NBA titles in all. Watch on ESPN+
There were also moments that nestled perfectly into the mid-’90s zeitgeist: a Saturday morning at a nail salon in Beverly Hills, a block off Rodeo Drive, me sitting at the juice bar wearing scraggly basketball shorts — I was told it was a casual outing — while I waited for Dennis to get his nails painted a nice rosy pink. He didn’t have an appointment — fame doesn’t call ahead — but he was allowed in anyway. Afterward, he tossed me the keys to his Ferrari convertible and said he’d resume his spot behind the wheel when his nails were sufficiently dry. My car at the time, a ’78 Honda Civic, was not adequate preparation for the power of the Ferrari, and my failure to master the clutch caused us to bounce our way down Rodeo Drive, top down, Dennis obscenely obvious with his fuchsia hair easy for all to see. As I remember it, the nails dried quickly.
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In October 1995, I happened to be with Rodman when he received a call announcing the finalization of the trade that sent him from the Spurs to the Bulls. It’s easy to forget, amid the glare of those three straight NBA titles, how risky this move was at the time. Rodman was borderline radioactive in San Antonio, a combustible brew of grievance and insolence. His talent was undeniable, and the fit in Chicago held tantalizing potential, but why would the Bulls take this chance? At a news conference, new Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who had been general manager the year before (when Rodman played just 49 games because of suspensions and injuries), said, “Big surprise, huh?” and made a point to tell everyone how difficult it was to find a team willing to take Rodman. Asked if he considered it a big relief to be rid of Rodman, Popovich said, “A big relief? We were without him for quite a bit last season, so it’s not any different in many respects.”
The 1995-96 Bulls entered the season a mysterious bunch. The roster was strong, but roles would have to be altered. Jordan was coming off a 17-game season after ending his fling with baseball. Power forward was manned by a collective shrug. Rodman the basketball player was uniquely engineered for the job — how many Hall of Famers get there through an outright refusal to shoot? — but his potential to blow the whole thing up was no small consideration. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, loved for assembling the NBA’s greatest team and loathed for dismantling it, harbored just enough non-mainstream views to make him the ideal candidate to welcome Rodman. (For instance: Krause once told me players should be measured only to the top of the shoulder; he believed the neck and the head were not functional inches and were thereby irrelevant — hence his affection for Elton Brand, a man unencumbered by a superfluous neck and Krause’s choice as the No. 1 pick overall in 1999.)
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There was no one else around, so why not? I wasn’t there as a journalist, really, and the place seemed empty. Why couldn’t I be the preferred non-member for a change? Still, when your professional life is defined in many ways by the places you can and cannot go, an infraction like this one feels egregious.
And weirdly liberating.
The room was L-shaped, as I remember, the flooring bloodred, and my attention was drawn to human movement coming from my left, the long leg of the L: a person on a bench. Great — I’m busted. A head turned toward me. Our eyes met.
Be cool. Be calm. Me, Dennis, Michael. Nothing big, really. Just us three. Just us three dudes. Just us three dudes hanging out at the gym.
I mumbled something to Dennis about how I should probably be going. Michael’s eyes remained fixed on me, and I could feel the heat of a thousand suns bloom in my face. Dennis waved off my common-man concerns — Michael’s cool, the wave suggested — and asked me to spot him. When Dennis finished his set, I sensed a presence behind me. I turned.
My mind registered his arrival with the brain-stem buzz reserved for the moment high school kids at a kegger see the cops. How did he know? Did my new friend Michael rat me out?
Phil wasn’t there to lift. He was there to expel. The look he gave me was mostly pity — Who do you think you’re kidding? — and maybe a little amusement. I responded with a look I thought he might appreciate, one that said this was all Dennis’ idea. I might have even pointed a finger at Dennis, shielded by my body, like a hostage indicating his kidnapper.
“Time to go” was all Phil said, and it was. It definitely was. I said goodbye to Dennis, who was laughing by this point. I had to walk past Phil on my way out, and he stood his ground, looking through me to Dennis with a bemused look on his face. I knew that look, had actually employed it myself, and I knew there was more of that — more of Dennis’ quirkiness and volatility and, yes, charm — awaiting Phil, and Michael, and the Bulls, and Chicago, and pretty much everyone else in the world. I muttered an ineffective, and probably unnecessary, apology, and as Phil turned toward me I swear I detected something approaching kinship in his eyes.