The latest in ESN’s remarkable documentary series, 30 for 30, “Dennis Rodman: For Better of Worse”, presents a not-unfamiliar profile of an elite athlete looking back at a chaotic life with a mixture of regret and confusion. Rodman’s story is similar in some ways to those told by others who arrived at great celebrity from circumstances that were more than daunting. An absent father, a critical mother, successful older siblings – painful but not uncommon. In many circumstances, we can also anticipate the sorts of difficulties the highly prized athlete would face: adulation, a free pass during school and college years, protection from consequence, betrayal by those who profited from his success.
What sets Rodman’s story apart is his invention of himself at about the midpoint in his career, an artifice of significant oddity, seemingly emerging at the end of Rodman’s glory years with the Detroit Pistons.
As presented in the documentary, until the age of twenty-one, Rodman was noteworthy only for being a nonentity. In this case the word actually means what it is intended to mean; Rodman moved through his small world as though he did not exist. His sisters had successful athletic careers; his mother raised a family and held expectations of her children. He appears an afterthought in photographs, a 5’8 skinny kid who would steal watches from an airport in order to buy friendship. Even his incarceration was pallid; he spent time in an airport lockup. Then, in less than a year, he grew to 6’8 and picked up basketball. With virtually no experience in the sport, he displayed a genius for rebounding, attracting the attention of NAIA Southeast Oklahoma where he became an All American drafted with the 27th pick by the Detroit Pistons.
During those years, Rodman befriended Byrne Rich, a twelve year old boy who had killed a friend in a shooting accident. The traumatized boy was sent to basketball camp in the hope that he might begin to recover in the company of boys his own age. Instead, he bonded with Rodman, a gigantic man-child, as tentative and damaged as he was. Rodman moved in with the Oklahoma family, and was treated with great kindness, sleeping in the same room as his friend. Pat Rich cooked his favorite meals, did his laundry, and held him to the standards of behavior she set for her two sons. Rodman was absorbed into the Rich family. The elements of this part of the story are complicated. Rodman is a huge black man living with a white family in southeastern Oklahoma, sharing a room with a twelve-year-old boy. Complicated enough, but with what will become a persistent theme, Rodman travels into the next chapter without attachment to or memory of his time with the Riches. He expresses gratitude to the Riches in his ghost-written autobiography, Bad As I Want To Be, but has had no contact with or concern for them in the decades that followed.
Rodman still had a conspicuous shift in personality ahead, but an immediate point of comparison at this point is with Wilt Chamberlain, an equally gigantic African American who spent several summers as a bellboy at Kutsher’s Country Club, a Jewish resort in the Catskills. An earlier 30 for 30, “Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop” includes remarkable footage of high school junior Chamberlain toting suitcases in his bellhops uniform. His presence in the Catskills is enough to fuel a documentarian’s imagination but the more compelling part of the story has to do with the friendship formed between Chamberlain and Milton and Helen Kutsher
“We thought of Wilt as an extended member of our family,” Helen Kutsher tells Cherry in the book. “I used to kid him, ‘You’re like my fourth child. He always stayed in touch, and we’d talk during the year. He never really left us.”
Chamberlain and the Kutshers sustained this unlikely friendship throughout their lives. Rodman walked away from the Rushes and never looked back.
The athlete who left Southeastern Oklahoma is described as an innocent. In Detroit he enjoys arcade games, frolics with his new teammates, appears stunningly immature; he bonds with Chuck Daley, Piston coach and surrogate father, and weeps with embarrassment when praised as Defensive Player of the Year.
Childlike. An untutored rebounding savant.
In later years, as drugs, alcohol, non-stop hedonistic excesses take their toll, Rodman seems frantic, exhausted, `and oddly vulnerable. He’s credited with bringing flamboyance to the NBA, and his costumes, piercings, tattoos, and hair styles were certainly outside the conventions of professional basketball in his era, but, the trappings are merely trappings. Rodman isn’t there; he’s in disguise. He takes space and makes noise, but he remains determinedly absent from his own life.
There are a few moments of tentative authenticity when the contemporary Rodman is interviewed, some tears, expression of some regrets, particularly in recognizing his absence from his children’s lives, in which the sixty-eight year old alcoholic and addict appears to approach something like a sense of self, but those moments are fleeting. It’s not that Rodman is hiding; in the end we understand that there is no Dennis Rodman behind the curtain.