For Worse

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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.

And Now For Some Good News … Milwaukee

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When people ask me if Marquette University is in Michigan, and I tell them my alma mater is in Milwaukee, they sometimes say, “What’s the difference?” – Steve Rushin

Steve Rushin is among my favorite sports writers because he takes such joy in the play of words, as evidenced in his timeless jest – “Happy 110th Birthday to Frank Zamboni who left us in 1988 but who still resurfaces periodically.” Understated and smart. His offhanded defense of Milwaukee strikes just the right tone as well; he leaves room for the reader to be amused but feels no need to hammer home the obvious observation that one of the partners in that conversation is an idiot, and it’s not Steve Rushin.

To be fair, Milwaukee is generally underappreciated. Yes, the mind leaps to the obvious points of celebrity, Beer, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the oldest bowling alley in America, the Harley-Davidson Museum, the world’s largest dinosaur skull, the massive collection of microphones including that used by Hitler in the Eagle’s Nest, and, of course, the statue of Arthur Fonzarelli (The Bronze Fonz), but to the uninitiated, Milwaukee resides in popular estimation as a very small market sports town. Think Milwaukee, think Sacramento, Toledo, Stockton, Boise, Reno. Even Clevelanders presume themselves a more populous sports base, that’s from two major sport Cleveland, actually roughly two hundred thousand people short of Milwaukee’s population.

Why this paean to Milwaukee? Why now?

Well, we could start by noting that at the present rate, Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, is on pace to hit 162 home runs. That’s a hypothetical prediction, of course, but in the here-and-now, the Brewers have a roster that should give NL pitchers bona fide Wisco fits. For the last two seasons, three Brewers have hit more than thirty home runs; in 2019, it’s entirely possible that six Brewers (Yelich, Shaw, Aguilar, Braun, Moustakis, and Grandal) could become thirty plus roundtrippers. Pitching looks solid, fielding excellent ( Lorenzo Cain’s game winning grab at the wall on Opening Day! ), and spirit is sky high.

And then… The Milwaukee Bucks are almost certainly the Number One seed in the Eastern Division NBA playoffs, likely facing the Magic, Nets, or Heat in the first round, then dealing with whatever carnage the Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, and Pacers wreak upon each other. Just as MVP Yelich sets out to repeat as MVP, the Bucks mega-star, GIannis Anteokounmpo is the only player other than the prolific scoring James Harden contending for the NBA’s MVP award, which, if God is in his heaven, he should win. It’s fun to watch Harden score; it is inspiring to watch Giannis control every game in which he plays.

I was not fortunate enough to have been raised in Milwaukee or as a Brewer or Bucks fan. Neither team existed as I came up; the Braves arrived in Milwaukee when I was seven and shoved off for Atlanta by the time I had become a rabid Yankee fan terrified of Spahn, Burdette, Matthews and Aaron, terror made real in 1957 as the Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series, Spahn tossing a 5-0 shutout in the seventh game. It’s taken some time for me to catch up with Milwaukee’s teams as a fan in late-adulthood (senescence), but I’ve come to admire and respect the franchises for a host of reasons.

Another of Wisconsin’s finest products, J.J. Watt, put it simply in describing himself, a description that I extend to Brewer and Bucks fans as a group: “I’m a Wisconsin kid, so I like brats and burgers and stuff like that. Cheese curds.” With that confession in mind, I encourage all fans of baseball to make a pilgrimage to Maryvale, a small community within the Phoenix, Arizona city limits, to a ballpark that seats about seven thousand, next to playing fields operated by the city, the high school,and the Brewers training facility. Ticket prices vary; most games run from eight dollars to twenty-five, but when the Brewers play the Dodgers or the Cubs, prices leap to twelve to thirty-eight dollars a seat, and there is not a bad seat in the house.

Spring Training has become big business in the Cactus League as the number of teams has grown and as almost all of the stadiums have been modernized. The amenities at all are now impressive, and the menus distinctive. The Rangers and Royals serve Cheese Steaks and Barbecue, the Dodgers no Dodger Dogs but a sorry replacement, the Chicago Dog. The Mariners and Padres live large with Salmon Caesar Salad and Baja Fish Tacos, while the Indians trot out six varieties of hot dog – the Jumbo, the Chicago Dog, the Arizona Dog, the Cleveland Dog, the New York Dog, and the ever-popular Cincinnati Dog.

Brats and Beer. Throw in some Cheese curds. Wisco cuisine at its finest. Maryvale does Brats, Klements Bratwursts. One of my favorite rites of spring is the annual photo of the three Racing Sausages (The Polish Sausage The Hot Dog, and Brat Johnsonville) with suitcases in hand, ready to board the team plane for Phoenix. They race at every home game, before the sixth inning, bringing the crown to its feet every time.

My son and I like to sit behind home plate in Maryvale ($14.00 for a Mariner game) nestled in among Brewer fans and scouts with stopwatches and World Series rings. The scouts talk among themselves, but Brewer fans manage to keep track of the game while catching up with far-flung friends and family, creating mini-Milwaukee for folks flying in from LA and Denver. You can take the Badger out of Wisconsin, but … you know. Yes, beer is spilled and brats occasionally roll to the front of the stands, but these Brewer fans are the warmest, kindest, most welcoming groups of people we’ve ever encountered. They’re happy to chat at length, probably the only fans we’ll encounter who wear a Seattle Pilots’ Saint Patrick’s Day ball cap, devoted to Milwaukee but true to the team’s origin.

By the end of the third inning, we’re up to date on the entire lineup and the hardcore Brewer fans turn to prospects ripping up the Carolina League with the Mudcats, or the Midwest League with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, playing now in Grand Chute. The Rattlers are no joke; a partial list of alumni includes David Ortiz, Boog Powell, Dean Chance, Alex Rodriguez, and Goose Gossage. Keep an eye on Keston Hiura, a second baseman with an OPS of .875.

An afternoon in Maryvale reminds me of why baseball calls me back year after year. I love the clean symmetry of the field and the remarkable athleticism of the players, but it’s the buzz in the stands, the spontaneous catching of breath as a ball almost clears the center field wall, the happy hum of families taking on those brats that allows me, a fugitive from all other parts of the country, to feel at home in the midst of Brewer Nation.

LeBron and the Lakers , Antonio Brown and the Steelers, Bryce Harper and Nats fans – too much sturm und drang. I’ll take the Bucks and Brewers, thanks, and remember why I love sports.