Dennis Rodman: From Airport Janitor to Kim Jong-un’s Friend

Dennis Rodman is one of the strangest NBA stars to ever step foot on the court. Starting off as an innocent kid from a poor Dallas neighborhood, he’d go on to be Hall of Famer and reality TV star. Most people remember him for his wild antics, but his achievements in the league are astounding. Since 1979, Rodman lays claim to the five highest rebounding averages for a season and was capable of defending every position on the court, usually being assigned to whoever was the best player. This would help him win two Defensive Player of the Year awards and eight NBA All-Defensive team selections, 7 of those being First Team. But unlike most superstars, he only averaged more than 10 points per game once in his career, and that was his second year in the league. A basketball anomaly, former teammate Isiah Thomas said “When you talk about basketball IQ, I’d put Rodman at a genius level.” Thomas related a story from a game in Rodman’s early days. The team was shooting around during warm-ups when Thomas noticed him just standing there, watching everyone. When Thomas told him that he needed to participate like everyone else, Rodman replied that he was watching how their shots rotated so he’d know which way they’d bounce off the rim. He didn’t care about the times the ball went in the hoop, he cared about the times it didn’t, and was willing to do whatever his team needed to win.

In a way, Rodman was just lucky to get a chance to play. His early years were tough on him, with an absent father and a mother who worked multiple jobs to support him and his two sisters, and he was never more than a bench player in high school. At eighteen he started working as a janitor and seemingly resigned himself to a working class life. But after a large growth spurt, he decided to give basketball another try at Cooke County College, where he averaged 17.6 points and 13.3 rebounds before flunking out his first semester. He then transferred to Southeastern Oklahoma State University, a NAIA school, and dominated by averaging 25.7 points and 15.7 rebounds. Going into the draft, Rodman had taken a far different path than most future Hall of Famers, and the Detroit Pistons picked him with the 27th overall pick.

Little did anyone know at the time, but Detroit was the best possible place for him to go. The Pistons, nicknamed “The Bad Boys”, were one of the best and most hated teams in the league. Known for their grit and grind, blue-collar style of play, it was a perfect fit for Rodman both on and off the court. Coach Chuck Daly assumed the role of father figure and his teammates treated each other as family, giving him what he’d never had. Rodman became the key piece on the best defensive team in the league, and as they would go on to win back-to-back championships, Rodman went from role player to a NBA All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year. He couldn’t believe where his life had taken him since in his mind, he wasn’t even supposed to be there.

Things changed for Rodman during the 1992–1993 season after the resignation of Chuck Daly and the dissolution of his short marriage to Annie Bakes. He was found one night in February of that season asleep in his car with a loaded rifle. In his biography, As Bad As I Wanna Be, Rodman would say, “I decided that instead [of killing myself] I was gonna kill the impostor that was leading Dennis Rodman to a place he didn’t want to go…So I just said, ‘I’m going to live my life the way I want to live it and be happy doing it.’” He demanded a trade in the 1993 offseason and was sent to the San Antonio Spurs. Tired of being a shy, unassuming kid, he began dying his hair and getting tattoos and piercings, and the behavior he’s known for began. He continued to lead the NBA in rebounding for the next five seasons and won three more titles with Michael Jordan’s Bulls, but without the support system he had in Detroit, the troubles began to pile up for Rodman, which over the years have included multiple arrests, two more failed marriages, and a long struggle with alcoholism. But to end this, I want to leave you with his emotional Hall of Fame acceptance speech that reminds us of the human being he is, rather than the celebrity image that has been pushed on him.

The Stories Behind the Stats: The narratives off the court that make us love or hate the guys on the court.

The Stories Behind the Stats: The narratives off the court that make us love or hate the guys on the court.