North Korea, Jordan and Tabloid Stardom: A Conversation with Dennis Rodman

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2019

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2013, file photo, former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman leaves a sports arena after a practice session for North Korean basketball players in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
David Guttenfelder/Associated Press

The latest entry in ESPN's 30 for 30 series attempts to do one of the most difficult things in sports: unpack just what the hell we're supposed to make of Dennis Rodman.

Rodman: For Better or Worse, directed by Todd Kapostasy, is as close as anyone's come to a comprehensive chronicle of Rodman's life, which, taken in totality, is still hard to make sense of or put in a box.

"Your life's story really isn't curated until you die," Rodman told B/R last week. "There's a new generation that's coming up in the world, and they're going to get to know about Dennis Rodman and see some of the things he's done, used to do and is still doing today."

Of course, it's impossible to fully capture one of the most colorful athletes—or celebrities—in American history in under two hours. Rodman's story is completely unlike anyone else's: homeless after high school, he grew a foot suddenly and started excelling at basketball, earning a scholarship to Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He was an important part of two of the NBA's most iconic teams of the modern era, the Bad Boy Pistons of the late '80s and early '90s and the second Chicago Bulls three-peat with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

All the while, he drew even more attention off the court for his wild hairstyles and wilder lifestyle. He briefly dated Madonna and married Carmen Electra. He was open about his fondness for frequenting gay bars and dressing in drag at a time when sexuality was a taboo subject in sports. His post-playing career has been more fraught, with several stints in alcohol rehab and a bizarre recent turn as an unofficial ambassador to North Korea.

All of this is touched on in Rodman: For Better or Worse, which nonetheless only scratches the surface of his life and career. The title of the film is accurate. It shows Rodman as a Hall of Fame basketball player and trailblazer for self-expression in sports but doesn't gloss over some of the more problematic aspects of his life, including his alcoholism, his shortcomings as a father and his inexplicable friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Ahead of the film's Tuesday night premiere on ESPN, Rodman spoke with B/R on the phone in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on his tumultuous childhood, his thoughts on the current NBA, how Pearl Jam saved his life, his current relationship with Jordan and, yes, his controversial relationship with Kim Jong Un. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)


B/R: One thing I've never heard you talk about is your introduction to basketball, before you had your growth spurt after high school and started playing more seriously. Were you a fan of the game growing up? Who were your favorite players?

Rodman: I didn't really have any interest in basketball. I was living in the projects. Doing project things—playing jacks, skipping rocks, stuff like that. Taking sticks and putting them in the canal and watching the sticks race. Those were the games we played in the projects. I wasn't really thinking about sports. But then, my sister started to play sports. Basketball and volleyball. So I got into sports by supporting them. And then all of a sudden, I started getting interested in football. I think everyone knows, when you're from Texas, everyone's all about that Texas football. I was really into the Cowboys. I didn't even want to go to church on Sundays because I'd miss the Cowboys game. So I was pretty much a football-minded person. I didn't know anything about basketball.


B/R: And then when you had the growth spurt, that's when you decided to try it out?

Rodman: I stopped playing football in 10th grade. I don't know why; I guess I just wanted to find other avenues in my life. Living in the black community, we had to be bussed to the white school. My mother was driving the bus and teaching at the school across town. So I stopped playing football, and then my sisters started getting very popular in basketball and volleyball. They won the state championships four years in a row. They were going to college. So basically, when I left high school, I was 5'6" or something like that, but I got really into the game of basketball. I would go to the rec center every day and play basketball. I was getting good at it, and then all of a sudden, I realized something was going on because I was growing. The refrigerator was 5-foot-7 or -8 or -9 back then. 

One day, I realized, I'm getting tall. I can look over the refrigerator. What's going on? My shoes were getting too small, my pants were getting too short. And the more I was growing, the better I got at basketball. And then I was like, "OK, I really like this game." Every day at noon, I'd go to the rec center and play basketball. I wore five pairs of socks and my Converse—that was the thing in the ghetto—and I'd play seven or eight hours a day and then come home and do it all over again the next day. And all of a sudden, I was 6'8". I started dunking the ball, doing all this crazy stuff. And I got lucky some college coach found me.

RICHFIELD, OH - 1993:  Dennis Rodman #10 of the Detroit Pistons passes the ball during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers during a game played circa 1993 at the Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images


B/R: And at what point did you start to think that getting to the NBA was actually a realistic goal?

Rodman: I never even thought about the NBA. I went to college, and even then, I was not educated enough to understand what I was doing there. I liked school, but I didn't realize that you had to go to school and play basketball. I forgot about all the school stuff. I'd go play basketball and then go home and try to do some homework, but my main focus was basketball. I went down to Cooke County Junior College, and I went there for four or five months, and then I failed out. I came home, and that's when I got into a whole bunch of trouble.

My mom kicked me out for two years. I lived in the street, went from house to house, doing odd jobs just to survive. Living on people's porches. Then someone asked me to play in a [rec league] game near my mother's house, and I won MVP of the tournament. I left the gym and I had nowhere to go. And for some unearthly reason, two people walked up to me and handed me a card from my mother and walked away. And I opened the card, and there was 20 bucks in it. And the card said, "Dennis, it seems like you've got your life together; you can come home."

A few days after that, there was a knock on my door, and two white guys were standing there. They said, "Are you Dennis Rodman?" I said, "Yeah." They said, "We're coaches from Southeastern Oklahoma State. We'd like to have you come and try out" So I went down there and tried out, and they gave me a three-year scholarship. So I signed the scholarship that day. I didn't know what the hell I'm doing. I went back home on the Greyhound and told my mother, "I'm not coming back here unless I make something of myself." So I packed up all the stuff I owned in garbage bags, got back on the bus and went back there.


B/R: Once you got to the NBA, how steep was the learning curve? You're in your mid-20s by that point and you've only been playing basketball seriously for a few years, and most of the guys you were playing against had been playing their whole lives. Were you ready for that adjustment?

Rodman: I still didn't understand what was going on. I didn't know who was in the NBA, what was what. I just wanted to play basketball. That was my passion, just to play. In one of my [predraft] interviews with a team, I said, "I don't care about making any money. I'll play for a dollar a game just to play basketball." I didn't know anything about making money. I was just going into it wanting to play basketball.


B/R: One of the big turning points in your life that's touched on in the documentary is your suicide attempt in the early '90s. What do you think of the conversation about mental health that's going on in the NBA now, with guys like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan being more open about their struggles compared to when you were in the league?

Rodman: It wasn't really common back then. For me, I wanted to be loved by somebody or someone because I was never loved by my mother or father because they were never there. So when I got to Detroit, they embraced me as one. And then when things started to disassemble [after the Pistons' Bad Boys run], I started to feel betrayed. I said, "What the f--k's going on?" I was so enamored of the way that they loved me and being embraced by the people in Detroit. So once a lot of the people that loved me were gone, and [former Pistons coach] Chuck Daly was gone, I was all by myself. I had nobody to turn to. I wasn't really connecting with my mother or father. I had no contact with them.

So one day, I wrote a note and went to the parking lot of the Palace. I had a gun rack, and I had a gun in my car. I had it in my hand. But for some reason, I played this music. I put it on, and I was listening to this song and this music, and I was just debating. It didn't have anything to do with basketball. It had to do with this love that I wanted, and it suddenly just left me.

And this song came on. It was Pearl Jam. "Even Flow" and "Black" and stuff like that. And I had the gun in my lap, and next thing you know, I fell asleep listening to Pearl Jam. Then I woke up, and all the cops and everyone was there. I didn't know what was going on. I totally forgot I had a gun in my hand. They got me out of the car. That was pretty much what it was. It wasn't about the game of basketball. It was about feeling betrayed, because I wanted to be loved so much in my life. And when I got to the NBA, I didn't expect the NBA to be like that. I didn't expect teams to just trade players and you say, "OK, this is a business," and forget about it. That was what drove me to that point.


B/R: Do you think if there had been more of an open attitude about that kind of stuff back then, would that have prevented you from getting to that point?

Rodman: I think it's really different today. There are so many outlets and so many open doors that you can go through and reach out for help. It's so common now. Back then, we didn't have those things. You didn't have people you could call right away. We didn't have the Suicide Hotline. Those things weren't open like it is today. Back then, you shoot yourself and you're just a number. Now, people are coming out with it. I was one of the few players back then who were opening the door to that, that an NBA player is a human too. The game of basketball is not your life. There's something out there that's more important than that. I think I opened the door when I did that. I wasn't trying to get attention. I needed help at the time. I didn't want to go on. I thought that I was abandoned. Today, it's not the game of basketball, there's a lot of other stuff in life that really triggers that. But if I had the options back then that people have today, that would never have happened.

MARK LENNIHAN/Associated Press

B/R: On a similar note, how do you think your career would have gone if TMZ and social media had been around in the mid-'90s when you were dating Madonna and wearing wedding dresses to book signings?

Rodman: I wish social media, Instagram, TMZ, all that s--t was around back then. I'd be a f--king billionaire. I was the first one to have TV cameras in his house. All this reality TV stuff, I was the first guy to do it. I didn't even know how to do it. I just did it. You've got Howard Stern calling you at 5 in the morning saying, "How are you doing?" I say, "I'm great." "What are you doing right now?" "Well, I've got a party downstairs, but I'm just trying to sleep." "No you're not. I can see you on TV." I forgot I've got cameras in my f--king house.

That's when MTV called me about doing the Rodman World Tour show. That was the most popular show on MTV at the time. So I was an innovator for that. A lot of people don't realize that. I embraced it back then. I'd probably be the same way now. I never played for money, I never worked for money. I never looked at money as my gateway to heaven. I looked at it as: I wanted to have a good time, live my life and be loved. That was my whole thing.


B/R: A lot of players have their own podcasts and media companies now.

Rodman: I was the first one to do that. I wasn't ashamed to open my life to people like people are doing today. I wasn't ashamed of it back then. If you go back and look at me from '96 to now, I think I'm probably the only athlete to do that, to open my life to people. If you read my books, that's me. That's Dennis Rodman. People are doing it now because it's cool to do it now. It wasn't cool back then, because people didn't realize that if you do that, people will like you outside of basketball. People were liking me who weren't even fans of basketball back then because I was doing so much stuff off the court.

I'd do everything I was doing, and then you have to put it to the side and play basketball. And you're still doing it during the season. A lot of people can't do that. I was doing it for four years straight. I didn't have a break for four years. I was being Dennis every day 24/7. I was sleeping five or six hours a day, if that. The night before a game, I'd go out with my boys. Then I come into the gym at 6 in the morning, go practice, eat lunch the next day, go out that night, then go play a game. That was my whole life.


B/R: What's your relationship with Michael Jordan like these days?

Rodman: Me and Mike and Scottie have so much love for each other now because we're not haters with each other. We embrace the fact that we had a chance to play with each other. We're friends. We're not calling each other every day and hanging out, but when we see each other, we share the love. Like, "Hey, appreciate you, man. I've got your back." Stuff like that. That's how we love each other now. We embrace it because we put the NBA back on the map in the '90s. Me and Mike and Scottie revolutionized the game. The way everyone plays now, that's how we played then. And now all of a sudden everyone's talking about Big Threes. Now? Really? We were the Big Three. We were the main three. We consistently won, we consistently won championships. And the only reason we didn't repeat four in a row is because Mike said, "I want X millions of dollars." And they didn't want to pay him, so he left, I left, Scottie left and Phil Jackson left. We were all waiting on Michael. That's how the run ended.

Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls (C) talks to teammates Michael Jordan (L) and Scottie Pippen (L) 10 June during game four of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz at the United Center in Chicago, IL. Rodman hit four foul shots down the stretch to lead t
JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

B/R: Who are the guys in today's game that remind you the most of yourself as a player?

Rodman: Players have to have the heart to go out there and do whatever they have to do to win. That's who I look at. You've got the Steph Currys, the LeBron James, players like that. But I want to see the player that says, "OK, I want to be the player that stands out to do my job and earn the money for the role that they're paying me for." That's what I'm looking for. I don't see that player out there. Draymond Green is something sort of like that. But besides him, I don't see other players who have that passion, who have that love, that drive, they need basketball. No money, no fame. They have three hours of their life, "I'm going out to do my job, to win for people. I'll get the gratification at the end of the day when I have a ring on my finger." That's the kind of player I'm looking for.


B/R: I want to know the origin of your involvement with North Korea. What was the thing that led you to decide you wanted to go over there and start this relationship with Kim Jong Un?

Rodman: They asked me to go play in a celebrity basketball game with the Harlem Globetrotters. They asked Michael Jordan first, and he said no. Then they asked me, and I said, "OK, great." I didn't realize I was going to a country that people didn't like. People advised me not to go and I said, "No, I'm going. This will be a different adventure. Something different." For me, being there with my eyes open, all I saw was red carpet, people clapping, people smiling. And for me personally, they asked me to join him. I didn't even know who this guy was. I knew nothing about this guy. We played this game, and I sat with him the whole game. We just bonded right there. We just talked about basketball. We skied, we swam, we did everything like normal people do. I never talked to him about politics at all. He liked the fact that I didn't just embrace him for his military sense. He liked that I just talked about sports and life and normal stuff with him.

He said I could come back anytime. That's why I go back there. The door is open. I go back all the time because I want to show the world that if I can go there and he embraced me, what does that tell the world? Dennis Rodman, of all people, who do you want to be connected with? The most powerful leader on the planet besides President Trump wants me to come visit with him. Now, I see people saying they want to go just to see how it is. I say, "You will now, but back then you wouldn't." I opened the door to say it's safe to come here. What's wrong? Nothing's going to happen.

(Editor's Note: The U.S. State Department issued an advisory against travel to North Korea on July 10.) 


B/R: Would you have still done it if you had known a little more at the time about the history of the country and what the backlash was going to be?

Rodman: I still would have gone. If you see what I've seen in America in the '60s … Martin Luther King got shot, and in my neighborhood there was uproar in a neighborhood that was white. People were getting beaten to death. I told myself if I can handle that, I can handle this, easy. That didn't make me feel better, when I saw people in the '60s getting beaten to death and crawling for their lives and scrambling to get away. ... I didn't want nobody to get beat like that. But when you see so much of that in your life growing up, you get used to that. It's an image that you'll never forget. So when I went over there, I wasn't worried about that. I was worried about playing a game and shaking hands, and that was it. I didn't care.


B/R: Do you think this whole saga is going to affect the way people remember your life and your career, given how divisive the political climate is right now while you're doing this?

Rodman: What I'm doing these days, I've been doing since 1994 or '95. People respect me more for what I'm doing off the court than what I did on the court. That's how long I've been doing it. I do interviews sometimes where they don't even bring up basketball. They bring up everything I've done in my life besides basketball. And I love that. I don't want to just be known because of basketball. That's why I've always tried to put myself in positions to reach out in other areas in life, instead of, "He's just a basketball player." No, I'm not. There are all these are other things I've been doing for 25 years, and people recognize that now.


B/R: So what do you ultimately want the Dennis Rodman legacy to be?

Rodman: I just want people to love each other. I want people to look at each other with compassion. There are people who can't do things that you can do, but that doesn't mean you can turn your head and spit on them when they ask for money. They need love too. You can reach out to people and they'll hug you. That's what I want people to remember about me. No matter who you are, what you do or where you came from, I was a person that cared about everybody. No matter who or what you've done.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.

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