Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Sept. 9, 2019. “Dennis Rodman: For Better or Worse” will re-air Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN.
LOS ANGELES — Dennis Rodman has been crying.
His emotional state is imperceptible. He arrives at this interview cloaked behind rose-colored sunglasses, which serviceably mask his tear-streaked cheeks and his red, swollen eyes. He is subdued, almost ghostly quiet. But before long, the emotions flow, because once you cut through the histrionics and the antics and the bravado and the piercings, the overwhelming characteristic of this iconic basketball savant has always been his vulnerability.
Surely you remember his news conference in 1990, when he was introduced as the NBA’s Defensive Player of Year. Back then, he was just a clean-cut kid in jeans and sneakers who never took a drink and was so overcome by the magnitude of his accomplishment, he could not speak without sobbing.
Dennis Rodman grapples with many things these days, particularly his purpose in life now that his basketball highlights are long behind him. He is here, at The Terrace at L.A. Live in Downtown Los Angeles, to discuss the new 30 for 30 ESPN documentary titled “Dennis Rodman: For Better or Worse,” which lays bare the struggles of one of the most talented and enigmatic stars in the game’s history.
But before he arrives, he is unnerved by a call from ex-wife Michelle Moyer, who informs Rodman that his teenage daughter, Trinity, wants to see him. Needs to see him. Rodman tells me he lives 10 miles away from Trinity, an elite high school soccer star who trains with the U.S. Women’s U-20 team, and his son, DJ, who plays basketball at Washington State. But when he contemplates visiting them, connecting with them, it paralyzes him.
He says he longs to be the father he never had. Philander Rodman Jr. abandoned Dennis when he was 3 years old and didn’t resurface until his son was an NBA star. Yet DJ and Trinity (born 2000 and 2001, respectively) and Rodman’s oldest daughter, Alexis, from his first marriage (born 1988) also have largely grown up without their father. Surely Dennis Rodman can do better?
“I want to,” he tells ESPN as he wipes away tears, which commence the moment he attempts to discuss his children. “But it isn’t so easy.”
Rodman grew up in the projects in Dallas with his sisters, Debra and Kim, and his mother, Shirley. He was painfully shy, clung to his mother’s shirt as a small boy, dutifully following his older sisters wherever they roamed. They were poor, his mother worked multiple jobs to support them, and he was left to fend for himself, bullied by the boys in the neighborhood. He was lonely and frightened of what the future held.
“I thought I would be in jail,” Rodman explains. “I thought I’d be a drug dealer or be dead. Those were my options.”
His sisters excelled as basketball stars while he foundered, cut from the high school football team and overlooked as a basketball prospect. When he graduated, Shirley laid down an ultimatum: Find a job — or a new place to live.
“She kicked me out,” Rodman says. “She changed the locks. I had, like, a garbage bag full of clothes. I left the house and I just sat on the steps down at the apartment complex with nowhere to go. I went into my friend’s house. He said, ‘You can stay in the backyard, on the couch.’
“Every day when I wake up, I go to the car wash, try to make some extra money. Or I go to the 7-Eleven, try to fold boxes, throw bottles away, stuff like that, for five bucks a day.”
This was his existence, on and off, for nearly two years. He played basketball all day, growing so fast his clothes ripped apart. He bummed hand-me-downs from friends, found comfort as an interloper in their families.
“I wasn’t sad,” Rodman recalls. “I never cried about not going home. I never cried about my sisters and my mother, my so-called father or any one of my relatives I never knew about. I was so used to living life this way.”
His growth spurt transformed him from a scrawny 5-foot-6 wannabe to a 6-foot-8 gazelle who could dunk. He landed in a summer league and was eventually discovered by Southeast Oklahoma, where he became a three-time All-American despite persistent racial slurs in a community that was hesitant to embrace an African-American supernova. He was an improbable success story, but it was complicated, always complicated, because those emotions were so close to the surface.
By the time he was drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the 27th pick of the 1986 draft, he was estranged from his mother. His father was forgotten, an apparition, until one night in 1997, when Rodman was playing for the Chicago Bulls. Rodman says Philander appeared at the practice facility before a shootaround on game day.
“We were playing the Utah Jazz, and I was late to practice — yep, me, late to practice,” he says. “I was driving in the gate to the Berto Center and this black guy runs up to my truck and says, ‘I need to talk to you. I need to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Dude, I’m late for practice.’ And he said, ‘I just want to let you know that I’m your father.’
“Out the blue, just like that. And I’m like, ‘Oh, come on, I gotta deal with this stuff today?'”
Rodman assumed the man was an imposter; he was growing accustomed to people hustling him for money. He didn’t think any more about it until midway through the game, in the middle of a timeout, when he noticed a commotion in the stands.
“I’m walking back to the bench and I happened to look up and I said, ‘Wait man, what’s going on up there?'” Rodman explains. “And someone said, ‘Dude, that’s your father. He’s signing autographs, doing interviews.'”
“But I’m still thinking it’s a hoax,” he continues. “When the game was over and we went back to the locker room, a reporter said, ‘Did you know your father was up there?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ Then he said, ‘Did you know that he wrote a book about you?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ And he said, ‘Because you know, it was a bestseller.’ I think it’s still a big joke, because this guy came out of the blue and I’ve never seen him before.
“He had 16 wives, and, I think, 29 kids. And I was his first one. Somebody told me that. I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ I was so used to not having a father after 37 years, I’m thinking, ‘You know, it’s a little late. It’s a little late.'”
The 30 for 30 documentary, which includes interviews with many of his family members, runs a clip of Rodman at his 2011 Hall of Fame induction speech in which, halting to maintain his composure, Rodman apologizes to his children for not being there for them.
“I lie to myself a lot about s—,” Rodman says now. ‘I’m a great dad. I love my kids.’ And then I have to go home and sit there and beat myself up because I’m just telling myself all these lies.
“We all have demons. I’ve had plenty. Alcohol being one of them — everyone knows that. But I think the only major demon I have right now is trying to convince myself that I am a good dad. That’s the worst one for me. And it’s so hard for me for some reason. It’s very hard for me to break out of that cycle, you know. You feel like it’s too late. It’s one of those things where I never had anyone ever want [to love me].”
His two younger children have no recollection of his mercurial career, which began when Rodman landed with that veteran Pistons team coached by the venerable Chuck Daly, who identified Rodman’s vulnerability and immaturity and served as his protector and surrogate father. Soon, Rodman became a regular at the Daly Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, dutifully adhering to house rules: Shoes off when you come in the door so as not to soil the pristine white carpet.
“The Daly [family] treated me like one of their own,” Rodman explains. “They didn’t look at me as a black person or as a black athlete. It was, ‘How you doing? What’s going on? You need anything?’ It was safe there. It was very comfortable for me to be there. When I was alone in my apartment and there was nobody there to be with me, I’d always call Chuck Daly or Isiah Thomas.”
Thomas, the Pistons’ perennial All-Star point guard, fielded calls at all hours from the jittery rookie, whose social anxiety was palpable. Yet, when Rodman was on the court, he proved to be an indefatigable competitor, a voracious rebounder and a relentless defender.
“What changed my whole life is when Isiah Thomas came to me one day,” Rodman says. “He pulled me over and hit me in the chest so damn hard, and he said, ‘You know, Dennis, this is not a game. This is not a joke. We want to win a championship. You’ve got to get your act together, get your ass together and get your head focused. You can’t keep going out with [Pistons big man] John Salley. You gotta do your job.’
“That changed my whole perspective on the NBA, because I just thought it was like one big playground. Back in those days, I was pretty much lost, but I was lost in happiness.”
The Pistons won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, but their moniker was the Bad Boys, a conflicting concept for a young player who was thirsting for acceptance — and affection. In 1992, while standing in the bowels of the Orlando Magic‘s arena on All-Star Saturday, the announcer listed the game’s participants for Sunday. When he bellowed Dennis Rodman’s name, the crowd booed lustily. Rodman, his eyes pooling, turned to a reporter and asked, “Why do they hate me?”
Change in the NBA is inevitable. Eventually, Salley was traded, Daly resigned and Rodman fell into a funk, his emotions running amok both on and off the floor. He was embroiled in a painful divorce with his first wife, Annie Bakes, Alexis’ mother. His lowest moment came in February 1993, when police discovered him asleep in his truck in the Pistons’ Auburn Hills parking lot with a loaded gun in his lap. As Salley chillingly notes in the 30 for 30 film, “Did I believe he was going to shoot himself at the Palace of Auburn Hills? Yes.”
And yet, Rodman still managed to win seven consecutive rebounding titles from 1992 to 1998, dying his hair the color of the rainbow, piercing his nose and his lips, enjoying a short-lived relationship with Madonna and a short-lived marriage to Carmen Electra. The Worm was omnipresent, both in the party scene and on the NBA circuit.
In 1995, Rodman joined Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and won three straight championships with the Bulls. His stunts made him instantly recognizable, a bona fide NBA character who wore a wedding dress in 1996 to promote a book.
A larger-than-life figure, Rodman once was driving in Chicago when he heard a traffic report of gridlocked streets on the radio:
“The guy says, ‘There’s going to be a delay at Route 94 and Arden, because there’s a billboard of Dennis Rodman right on the exit, and people are stopping and taking pictures of it,'” Rodman recalls to ESPN. “I’m listening to the radio and I’m saying, ‘What?’ I drive down there and there’s a traffic jam and people outside their cars on the freeway taking pictures of my face with green hair. I didn’t even know the sign existed. I passed by it every day.
“Before I came to Chicago, there was a [billboard] there of Michael and Scottie. And when I got there, it was Michael, Scottie and Dennis. Then, a few months later, it became just me. So, for that one year, maybe six months, I was bigger [than Jordan].”
By then, Rodman was engaging in an ongoing battle with alcohol that nearly ruined him. There were accusations of domestic abuse, a driving under the influence charge and abhorrent behavior that couldn’t be explained away as the actions of a vulnerable man who had it rough as a child. Yet, during that same time period, it wasn’t uncommon to spot Rodman moved to tears by homeless people, handing out $100 bills to them on the streets like candy.
There were visits to rehab centers — and a parade of agents, managers, girlfriends and hangers-on. He developed a relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un that was puzzling and controversial. His former financial advisor, Peggy Ann Fulford, was sentenced in November to 10 years in prison for swindling him out of millions.
Rodman sought solace in wealthy people who didn’t want anything from him. The late film director Penny Marshall was one. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was another.
Rodman lasted only 12 games and 29 days with the Mavs in 2000 and managed to get ejected twice, suspended once and fined $13,500 in that time span. But Cuban, who admired Rodman’s marketing acumen, kept in touch after his release.
“He was a cool guy to me,” Rodman says. “I stayed in his guest house for about three weeks. I had a bunch of parties every night. Me and Mark went out to strip clubs all the time, before he got married and had his kids.
“He liked the way I played ball, how I marketed myself.”
“He had faith in me,” Rodman continues. “He felt bad it didn’t work out there, but they were in the middle of a youth movement. I told him, ‘I had a blast, thanks very much.’ We’ve been friends ever since. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. It was never about the money. It was about the friendship. That’s refreshing.”
Rodman, arguably the best rebounder the game has seen, has been contacting NBA teams about taking on a consultant’s role, and he confirmed that he recently discussed that possibility with LA Clippers special advisor Jerry West.
He isn’t certain how the public will feel about this new documentary, but Rodman hopes people will understand him a little better.
“I think after watching the film, they’re gonna look at me and say, ‘Wow. He didn’t want no money. He didn’t want no fame. He didn’t want anything. He just wanted someone to take care of him and love him,'” Rodman says.
The irony, of course, is that’s all his own children want from him. Rodman has doubts he can succeed as a father, but his inaction has turned him into the abject failure he dreads. The struggle, for better or worse, continues.
“My kids now want to come and try to be close to me, and I’m trying to figure out if I could actually do this,” Rodman admits. “If I can sit there and ask, ‘Forget all my achievements. Forget all my awards. Forget all the money, forget all the fame, forget all the women, forget everything. Can I ask you to put all of that aside and give just a small portion of my life to getting to know my kids?’ It can’t just be for the time being and then going back to being Dennis Rodman again. Can I be [there] consistently? That’s the only thing I’m fighting with.”
He has not yet seen his own film. When he does, he will hear his oldest daughter, Alexis, who has only seen her father intermittently throughout her life, declare, “My father is a really beautiful person.”
If only Dennis Rodman believed that himself.