On the Monday morning after the Chicago Bulls had defeated the Utah Jazz 96-54 in Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals to take a 2-1 lead, it was business as usual. The Bulls were two wins away from defeating the Jazz in the Finals for the second straight season. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson were about to complete their second three-peat. For Jordan, Pippen and Jackson, it would be their sixth championship in eight seasons.
The Bulls were scheduled for a team film session followed by media availability, which the NBA mandated. When media members arrived to speak with players, Rodman was not at the United Center. Jackson was unperturbed, joking that the NBA would fine Rodman for missing the session and reminding him through the media that practice was at 10:30 a.m. the following day.
The Bulls had gotten used to Rodman's antics, which they accepted as part of the deal in exchange for his providing a defensive presence and being a dominant force on the boards. In March 1996, Rodman headbutted referee Ted Bernhardt in a game against the New Jersey Nets and received a six-game suspension. In January 1997, Rodman kicked a cameraman in the groin during a game in Minnesota and was suspended 11 games. In January 1998, Rodman missed a shootaround and the team sent him home.
But this one would top them all. Rodman had taken the day off. He was scheduled to fly to Auburn Hills, Michigan, to appear on WCW's Monday Nitro as a member of the New World Order ("NWO") to start a feud with Karl Malone, the player he'd face in the Finals. While WCW had not yet made that storyline public, it had set a main event for its July 1998 Bash at the Beach pay-per-view in July, a month after the Finals. It would be a tag team match pitting Hulk Hogan and Rodman against Malone and Diamond Dallas Page.
Growing up, Malone was a huge fan of professional wrestling. "He told me he never wanted to be a basketball player growing up," Page told B/R. "He wanted to be a wrestler."
Page and Malone became close friends after a chance meeting earlier in the 1997-98 season in Houston. Page was in attendance at a Rockets-Jazz game, sitting about 20 rows up from courtside. During a timeout, he looked over at the Jazz bench and saw Malone forming a diamond shape by joining the thumb and index finger on both hands and flashing Page's famous "Diamond Cutter" sign at him. After another stoppage in play, the two made eye contact and Malone once again flashed him the Diamond Cutter.
The two arranged to meet after the game and made plans to hang out in New York at All-Star Weekend that season. Page had heard from WCW boss Eric Bischoff that Rodman, who had wrestled at a pay-per-view the year before as a member of the NWO, was planning to make a return to the ring. He pitched an idea to Bischoff: a tag team match with himself and Malone against Hogan and Rodman.
Bischoff didn't warm up to the idea right away. But after Malone dominated the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, averaging 30.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists in a sweep, Bischoff could see the appeal of a Rodman-Malone match.
Bischoff called Page and told him it was time to get a deal done with Malone. "Next thing you know, Bischoff and I were in a private Learjet flying to Salt Lake City," Page said. When Malone heard the idea, he made it clear that he didn't want to be a celebrity referee like Mike Tyson had just months earlier at the main event at Wrestlemania. "He wanted to actually get in the ring and wrestle," Page said.
WCW scheduled the main event for July 12, 1998, at the Cox Arena in San Diego and arranged a promotional tour following the NBA Finals, which would include appearances for Rodman and Malone on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and on WCW's flagship Monday Nitro. Except: Rodman was only available during the Finals on an off day.
On the Monday after Chicago's Game 3 win, Rodman appeared on Nitro, where he took part in several segments over the course of the three-hour show. At one point, Hogan said to Rodman, "Rodzilla, love the way you throw Malone around," referencing how the two power forwards were battling each other in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year. Later, Hogan joked that this event definitely was worth Rodman missing practice. Rodman's evening ended with delivering several chair shots to Page. He then took a private plane back to Chicago.
While the media was in an uproar over the incident, Dwight Manley, Rodman's agent at the time, said recently that Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause had given Rodman full permission to make the trip to Detroit for his Nitro appearance. "Behind the scenes, Jerry and Phil gave their blessing," Manley said. "But certain writers chose to make a controversy out of it."
The NBA fined Rodman $10,000 for missing his mandated media availability. The Bulls did not discipline their power forward. For Bob Costas, who covered the 1998 NBA Finals for NBC, it was another example of Jackson playing things perfectly when it came to Rodman's off-court distractions.
"Phil Jackson played it exactly right," Costas said. "He had everyone, including Jordan and Pippen, on board, and the message was, 'Look, if this happened in the regular season, maybe we suspend him. But we need this guy to win a championship, so we're going to express our disapproval mildly, but we're not going to put our championship chances in jeopardy.' It was the right approach."
Manley, who had negotiated a back-end incentive deal with WCW based on pay-per-view buys for the Rodman-Malone main event, enjoyed the additional coverage of Rodman's appearance on Nitro. "It only made it better," Manley said. "Dennis is the personification of any news is good news. Bad media is good media."
NBC's broadcast briefly mentioned the incident at the start of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, and then it was back to business as usual. The news of Rodman and Malone's wrestling match—only a month away—was becoming public. In the third quarter during Game 6, the game many basketball fans remember for Jordan's iconic Finals-clinching shot over Bryon Russell, Rodman and Malone got tangled up on the court, with Rodman drawing a technical foul after tripping Malone.
During the chaos, Costas, who was calling the game for NBC, quipped: "He and Karl Malone, regrettably, are scheduled to wrestle in one of those bogus events next month. Why Malone wants to lower himself to that is anyone's guess, and Rodman apparently wants to start wrestling now."
"The reporters didn't respect our s--t," Page said. "But I didn't give a s--t. We were on the road 275 days a year. The toll of one main event match for me would be like a normal person being in five automobile accidents. Not one, not two, not three, not four. Five. There were guys who got it. The guys who got it, they respected what we did."
"I had been a wrestling fan for much of my life," Costas said. "But the tone [in wrestling], especially at that time, had gone from good-natured to something darker.
If there was anyone who respected professional wrestlers, it was Malone. After the Finals, he flew to the Power Plant—WCW's training facility in Atlanta—where he trained regularly with Page to prepare for the match. "He was a natural," Page said. "I just showed him how to do wrestling moves, and how to do them without killing the other guy, and how to take a bump, how to land on your back." The first time Malone tried taking a bump, actually taking a slam and falling on his back in the ring, it knocked the wind out of him.
The main event ended up drawing a 1.50 buyrate, the highest of any WCW pay-per-view event that year. The actual match lasted 23 minutes. Of the two, Malone was definitely the more active participant.
Malone bodyslammed Hogan and Rodman during the match and executed Page's finishing move, also called the Diamond Cutter, on Hogan. Officially, Rodman and Hogan won the match, thanks to interference from NWO member The Disciple. Malone got his money's worth, though.
After the match, he stomped around the ring, upset with the result, and eventually landed another Diamond Cutter, this time on the referee, to the applause of the crowd.
From a financial standpoint, the main event was a success. According to Scott Levy, who wrestled as Raven at the time for WCW and now hosts the wrestling podcast The Raven Effect, no one was particularly bothered that two professional athletes took up a main event slot, as long as they sold tickets and pay-per-view buys.
"It was so stupid and so out of place," Levy said. "But it was good for the company. It added to our paychecks, and that's all that mattered."
Following the match, some discussed continuing the Rodman-Malone rivalry. Manley believes that would have happened if not for two things. The NBA lockout at the start of the 1998-99 season made Rodman a free agent, increasing the precariousness of participating in wrestling and risking injury. And Rodman signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, so his matchup with Malone was no longer a mainstream draw.
Years later, there are those who still wonder what was in it for Malone. "I understood why Dennis did it," Costas said. "But I didn't know what was in it for Karl, especially for someone who rarely drew attention to himself."
Manley, who says Rodman and Malone earned $1.5 million and $900,000 respectively for the main event, believes both had such a love for wrestling that they would have done it for free.
Levy said he knows why even the most successful professional athletes are attracted to the squared circle. "Because we're rock stars," Levy said. "We're athletic. We act and do our own stunts. We hold the crowd in the palm of our hands. Who doesn't want that?"