Demons and sorrows, tears and sensitivity. The 'Worm' of basketball is not who you think, he never was

It’s easy to fall into oversimplification, into the easy narrative when we talk about Dennis Rodman. It’s easy to think only of his histrionic poise, his media following, his need to push the boundaries all the time.

It is all smoke and mirrors, all bait for those who seek superficiality. The truths of the ‘Worm’ are not these. They are hidden phrases and emotions, they are eternally present demons, insecurities to be disguised in the eyes of the world.

You don’t know who Dennis Rodman is. You cannot know.

Dennis Rodman signing autographs

THE ORIGINS OF THE WORM

Before the choreographic bounces, the Madonna liaison, and the extreme late nights. Before. Before all this Dennis Rodman is an out-of-focus Texas kid. He lives in a working-class Dallas neighborhood, in a house of pink tyranny, heavily conditioned by his sisters and mother. His father abandoned the family shortly after the birth of his only son, ended up in the Philippines running a bar, producing another 30 or so children.

Dennis dresses as a woman, does so in front of his own bedroom mirror. He is helped by his sisters, allows them to adorn his body, to draw his lips with lipstick. He begins to live and live with another version of himself.

On the streets of Dallas, he is not known; in fact, along his teenage years he turns out to be something of a ghost. Not liked by himself, not liked by others. Young Dennis is stuck in a limbo of general disinterest, he is a nothing, a human being without direction, abandoned on the fringes of society.

He does not excel in sports, unlike his sisters. His life is filled with long solitudes and games of pinball. It is precisely this passion that generates his nickname: ‘Worm’, because he constantly moves during each game.

Dennis Rodman in drag
Dennis Rodman

He is cut from the high school football team, on the basketball team he finds no room: he is puny and until the age of 18 barely exceeds 5 feet 7 inches. He finds himself lost among thoughts of an uncertain future and an anonymous, colorless present.

Rodman seeks a smile in those around him; it is the only goal he sets for himself, the only goal he desperately pursues. He wants to be accepted, he wants to be loved. This is precisely why he ends up in prison: a night in a cell shortly after graduation. He steals watches from an airport store, where he’s working as a night handyman. Once back in his neighborhood he gives the watches to so-called friends. Airport police drop the charges because there is no tangible sale of the watches.

Dennis Rodman photographed at book signing in New York on 21st August 1996

A HOMELESS YOUNG MAN IN COLLEGE

At home, the mother can’t stand a son with no interest in life. So, she kicks him out of her life. Rodman begins to wander, lost in an unstable universe.

“I slept at the homes of people I knew, I slept in parks, I slept behind a 24/7 store. During the day I walked around, didn’t know what to do.”

Nature mysteriously gives almost 25 inches to Rodman between the ages of 18 and 20. The ‘Worm’ starts playing basketball again, back in the only oasis of a life of turmoil and negativity. At the threshold of 22 comes interest from a remote college in Oklahoma. Rodman packs everything and says goodbye to Dallas.

At Southeastern Oklahoma State University he debuts with 24 points and 19 rebounds. “I hope I didn’t let you down,” he says at his coach at the end of almost every game. Rodman needs approval – it’s an intense, dramatic need

Dennis Rodman in: Bad As I Wanna Be.

In a small town of just over 720 people he meets his first, real family. They are the Rich, some white local farmers. He befriends the youngest of their children, a 13-year-old boy. Rodman is shy and introverted, able to confide only in that young boy. They sleep together, play together, work on the farm together.

It is his way of regaining a lost adolescence. It is his way to feel part of something real. Rodman goes so far as to ask the Rich family for adoption. On the court, meanwhile, the oasis becomes a battleground. Basketball is something natural in the ‘Worm’s’ muscular and mental chords. He grabs rebounds voraciously, runs the hardwood like a gazelle. He is an overflowing, cataclysmic force on the collegiate circuit, and become an All American.

“When they told me I was going to be honored as an All American, I asked what that meant. I didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman

THE NBA AND THE RODMAN NO ONE REMEMBERS

Rodman arrives in Detroit at the age of 25. He immediately gives the impression of being a sweet, innocent 15-year-old to the Pistons family. “He was the typical guy who would order a glass of milk in the clubs,” John Salley revealed. Rodman finds in Chuck Daly the father figure he never had. At the coach’s house he spends Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthday parties. In the Bad Boys he sees a magical alchemy emerging, another family to rely on.

On the hardwood the ‘Worm’ reveals unpredictable qualities. He has endless energy, is a free spirit, plays hard, flies through the frontcourt in search of a lost ball, and is loved by the Motor City and his teammates. The Pistons collective drags Rodman into an ecstatic period, and the unexpected confidence exalts him.

Rodman signature Converse All-Star Shoes
Dennis Rodman with the Detroit Pistons

He dominates every rebound, studies every trajectory, and erects impassable defensive walls. “He is the first player able to be idolized without scoring,” the national media say of him. Basketball for Rodman is not a business; basketball is about bonds and brotherhood. He goes on to win two NBA titles, alongside his mentor Isiah Thomas. He also gets the award for best defensive player of the year: during the press conference he bursts into tears.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END, OR THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING

Then he collapses. A vertical, uncontrolled collapse. The Bad Boys disband, Chuck Daly resigns. Depression takes over the mind of Dennis Rodman. On February 11, 1993, he is found asleep, inside the Palace of Auburn Hills parking lot, with a shotgun pointed at his head. Demons and ghosts, pain and anger.

“From that point forward my mindset changed to Fuck the World.”

A few months later he moves to San Antonio, the Spurs wants him with the ‘Admiral’ Robinson. Rodman arrives at the presentation with his hair dyed straw yellow, emulating the character played by Wesley Snipes in ‘Demolition Man.’ He grabs the microphone, shouts “I’m here to be solid!” and throws it to the floor.

Something is changing, something has changed. In Texas Rodman begins to descend into a vortex of forced exhibitionism and total freedom. The Rodman character is born, the iconoclast, the rebel, the superstar who flirts with Madonna.

The ‘Worm’ dyes his hair, cross-dresses, confides to Sports Illustrated that he has gay fantasies. And he associates with the LGBTQ+ community. He alternates between real words and cartoonish parodies of a social activist. He starts drinking, a lot. He drifts, and the Spurs locker room fails to understand the true needs of this troubled boy.

“His basketball had become more of a performance art than a sports art.”

Cohabitation with David Robinson doesn’t work; Rodman is constantly ejected and suspended. His restlessness is poured out against referees and opponents. It can’t work. A new father figure is needed, a new family context is needed.

Dennis Rodman with the San Antonio Spurs
Dennis Rodman in San Antonio

THE BULLS JOURNEY

Phil Jackson’s Bulls contact him shortly after MJ’s comeback. The Zen master asks Rodman if he is okay with joining the Chicago organization. Rodman tells him he doesn’t give a shit. “We’ve got a deal then,” the coach-prophet says.

Rodman asks Scottie Pippen’s forgiveness for his treatment in previous years, and becomes a superstar. Under the glasses he picks up every rebound, with unparalleled style and power. In the Winter triangle he proves he is not only a predator, but also a fine brain.

The 3 consecutive NBA titles come with the respect of ‘His Airness,’ idolized from day one in the gym, but they’re also lived with an insane life. The Bulls allow Rodman to live free more than 20 hours a day. Chicago bars watch him drink dozens of beers in a single night, 40 shots of jagermeister in just over an hour. A few hours later Rodman reaches the training center, with the Reebok shoes in his hands, ready to pour out every drop of sweat. He is not human, he is a special man.

1998 Chicago Bulls Dennis Rodman during Game 3 of a first-round playoff series against the New Jersey Nets
Dennis Rodman in 1996/97 Chicago Bulls vs Seattle Supersonics Playoff Series

Rodman’s so-called self-centeredness peaks in the Bulls years. He goes so far as to marry himself on the occasion of the release of his own autobiography ‘Bad as I wanna be’. Many claim that in the three-year period ’96-’97-’98 the ‘Worm’ comes to be more popular than MJ himself. Then the lights go out. Again.

From left: Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc

THE CONFUSION, THE TEARS, THE DICTATOR

Rodman is broken at the core, he is a vase broken by the shards scattered who knows where. The seasons in the Lakers and Mavericks are the manifesto of a lost man.

“I am not capable of love.”

The family scenario that had so negatively scarred Rodman is replaced by himself. He snubs his first daughter, still born in his Detroit days, and his other two children born at the turn of the 2000s. Love is an unsolvable riddle for Rodman, a puzzle that finds the right combinations only in a few public appearances – interviews that show his suffering, his tears, his inability to build a real fatherly relationship.

Rodman cries. He often does so. He gives the cameras regrets and fears. He is locked in a persona created who knows how, in a reflection of himself, meant to please the outside world. There are those who mock his status, those who mock his delirious speeches, those who label him as a relic of a forgotten pop world.

In the relational and human carousel, the ‘Worm’ strikes up a friendship with dictator Kim Jong-un. It is a surreal relationship that sees the former number 91 visit Pyongyang several times, playing as a self-proclaimed U.S. diplomat.

Rodman also plays a key role in the release of an American prisoner. Sometimes reality can overcome fantasy.

Dennis Rodman in: Bad As I Wanna Be
Dennis Rodman in 1997

DENNIS RODMAN, A HUMAN BEING

His speech during the induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame is a heartfelt acceptance. “I have not been a good father. I have not been a good son.” Today Dennis Rodman is trying to overcome his demons, his past: a real battle in the depths of his own personality.

We can’t know whether he will succeed, just as we can’t know who Dennis Rodman actually is at age 62. What we know is that the ‘Worm’ has always been more than a rebounder. More than his hair. More than Madonna.

Dennis Rodman has always been a lonely man harassed by the outside world, an individual with powerful and painful inner storms – a human being, just like all of us. More than all of us.

Credits

Gianmarco Pacione

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Icon Sportswire / Avalon.red / Pond5 Images / United Archives / MediaPunch / HJS / Camera 4 / POP-EYE