Dennis Rodman can be as colorful and unpredictable as his hair.
“You hear a lot of negative things about Dennis Rodman. But you don’t actually know Dennis Rodman,” the former Chicago Bulls star said in the third person. “They just see what they see on the court and see what they read in the papers. They think he’s a bad person.”
In the third episode of the 10-part series on the Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA season, “The Last Dance” showed that Rodman is a complex person. He colored his hair. He sported various body piercings. He was confrontational with opponents and officials. He once dated Madonna and Carmen Electra. But the Bulls also appreciated Rodman’s rebounding, transparency and loyalty so much that they offered Rodman freedom and accountability.
With Scottie Pippen missing the first 35 games while recovering from surgery on his left foot, former Bulls coach Phil Jackson argued that “Dennis is what held us together.” Bulls legend Michael Jordan added that “Dennis was a model citizen to the point where it was driving him (bleeping) insane.” So when Pippen returned, Rodman asked Jackson if he could take a vacation.
The three agreed that Rodman could take a 48-hour vacation in Las Vegas. He partied in Sin City with Electra and other friends for much longer than two days.
“He didn’t come back on time,” Jordan said, laughing. “We had to get his ass out of bed.”
Literally. Jordan knocked on the door of Rodman’s room in Las Vegas. Jordan declined to share details, but Electra revealed she hid behind a couch.
“It was definitely an occupational hazard to be Dennis’ girlfriend,” Electra said.
To ensure that Rodman would get back in shape, Jackson organized a conditioning drill that forced everyone to match the pace of the players in front of the line. Most of them walked or jogged lightly. When Rodman reached the front of the line, though, Jordan said he held the lead against the rest of his teammates for four laps.
“He needed to get away. But in all honesty, Dennis was always there,” Jordan said. “He was always on point.”
Rodman grew up in poverty and his mother kicked him out of the house at a young age, but he said he resisted joining gangs or trying drugs. Former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas described Rodman as a “beautiful, innocent person” when the Pistons selected him 27th overall in the 1986 NBA draft. But Rodman cultivated the Pistons’ “Bad Boy” identity with hard-nosed defense and rebounding. Former Pistons coach Chuck Daly once said “there’s no player I couldn’t be any more proud of.” But Rodman said he was at a “lost place” and was found asleep in his truck with a friend’s gun after a divorce and the departure of Daly for the then-New Jersey Nets during the 1992-93 season.
When the Pistons traded him to San Antonio, Rodman sparked more attention for his dyed hair, various piercings and clashes with teammates, coaches and officials. That explains why former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause had no interest in acquiring him. But Bulls assistant GM Jim Stack convinced Krause otherwise.
“If we had not had Michael and Scottie and the people in that locker room, we would’ve never taken Dennis,” Krause said. “If Phil had not been the coach, I don’t think we would’ve taken him. I knew Phil could handle him.”
But Jackson admitted it initially was “awful” when he met Rodman for a meeting at Krause’s house. Rodman wore glasses, a hat and avoided eye contact. Jackson asked Rodman to stand up to shake his hand and talk outside.
Once Rodman wore a Bulls uniform, though, Pippen said he fit in “like a hand in a glove.” Jordan added that “Dennis was one of the smartest guys I’ve played with.”
“Nobody can say anything bad about me as a teammate,” Rodman said. “You have the great Michael Jordan. You have the great Scottie Pippen. You have the great Phil Jackson. But if you take me away from this team, do they still win a championship? I don’t think so.”
After helping the Bulls win consecutive NBA titles (1996-97), Rodman was asked to handle an increased Role during Pippen’s absence.
Initially, Rodman did not answer the call. Jordan recalled feeling “livid” when Rodman was ejected in a game early in the season that “(left) me out there by myself.” Later that night, Rodman went to Jordan’s hotel room and asked if he had an extra cigar.
“He didn’t say an apology and didn’t say anything,” Jordan said. “By him coming to his room, that was his way of saying, ‘I (messed) up.’ From that point on, he was as straight as an arrow and we started to win.”
The documentary showed Rodman and Jordan talking strategy and wearing 30 No. 33s on his head to commemorate Pippen’s eventual return.
So when Rodman asked for a vacation, the Bulls granted his request.
“Dennis is always a rebel. But at some point, he wants to join the group,” Jackson said. “The other part of him wants to be autonomous. We appreciate the fact that he’s a maverick. But when it comes time for him to perform, he’s always on that court for us and always playing hard for us.”