The Freedom in Dennis Rodman

This was written sometime in the summer of 1996, after the Bulls won the NBA championship, led by the trio of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and, implausibly, their former nemesis and Detroit Piston Bad Boy, Dennis Rodman.

 A former colleague and good friend of mine, Grant Farred, with whom I’d shared numerous conversations about sports, invited me to write it for a collection he was putting together.  Grant went on to a very successful academic career in the field of sports studies, but this particular collection never got published and I thought my contribution was lost forever. But I recently found the typescript in a drawer at my parents’ house and thought I’d share it here.  Some of the writing and formulations are out-of-date, embarrassing, or just wrong.  But I haven’t changed anything in it. 

 You have to turn your imagination back to the 1995-1996 season and especially the finals (or fire up some youtube clips from the period).  And if you can, then this piece might have some historical or archival value – as a way of seeing the Dennis Rodman of that time. ~ yc

I.

Dennis Rodman looks out of place on a basketball court.  His body doesn’t seem to belong, not to him and not on the court.  First, there’s the way he runs the floor.  For all his athletic ability, maybe even because of his athletic ability, Rodman runs like that guy in middle school: the one the coach pulled out from behind the school where he was smoking cigarettes with the other dirtballs, switched his leather jacket for a pair of gym shorts, and put him at center because he’d hit puberty before anyone else.  He could run the floor faster and longer than any of us who had been doing it all our young lives, but purely as a physiological act.  His body seemed to do it in spite of himself, in spite of his mind, which surely was elsewhere.  Knees picked up too high, landing almost on the tips of his toes, arms doing nothing but helping him run.  He could run alright, he was a natural runner, but not a basketball player who was running.  He could jump too, but the same way, as a natural jumper.

Our resentment surely began there, covetous of squandered gifts we knew already we would never enjoy, we turned our timid pre-pubescent wit at everything else about him:  his skills first, but also his grades, his appalling and shameful delinquency, and above all, his nonchalance, which we, true to the formula of athletics, recast as “lack of intensity,” egotism, or when it related to the coach, “insubordination.”  The “head case” was born of our envious juvenile imaginations.  This is Rodman, and you see it everytime he pulls down a defensive rebound.  He seems almost afraid to move his feet because of the disaster that will ensue if he tries to do that which he does so well when he’s just moving in a straight line down the flow while he has to think think of something else, like how to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible.

Then watch Rodman on offense, in a half-court set.  More than anything, he seems to be trying to stay out of the way.  It’s not that he lacks skills: he’s a better than average passer, with a knack for making the easy pass to the open man, a surprisingly rare skill, even among the league’s best assist-men (though he’s also more than capable of threading a difficult bounce-pass from the high-post on a back-door play, for example); he does a good job of moving without the ball to set picks or to space the floor – crucial in Chicago’s “Triangle” offense; he even makes decent cuts, half-heartedly raising a hand to signal a willingness, though not a particularly urgent eagerness to receive a pass.  This last, moreover, is not because he can’t shoot if he does get the ball, at least from inside:  he’s a 54 % shooter from the floor for his career.  So it’s not a lack of skill, or a failure to fulfill his responsibilities on offense.  Indeed, Rodman’s unexpected offensive production was an essential aspect of Chicago’s run through the NBA playoffs this season.  Rather the appearance that he’s trying o stay out of the way seems almost to suggest the sense that he doesn’t belong on the court, at least not on offense.  At least on an individual level, offensive in basketball is the positive, the affirmative, the realm of creation and self-expression.  And in this realm, Rodman is markedly uncomfortable, willing and able to perform those offensive tasks most oriented toward the team and thus least individualized.

At the same time, this has to be contrasted with both his jubilant self-expression when he does make an individually excellent offensive play (as though he has surprised himself, not only with the play but with the good feeling it gives him) and with his movement on defense.  If defense is more, though not exclusively the realm of the negative, of a kind of destruction, and of the denial of the opponent’s self-expression.  Rodman seems almost to play defense offensively.  This may simply be a way of saying that he plays defense aggressively, or perhaps may simply be a description of good defense.  But I think there’s something more here.  There’s a comfort and confidence, deriving from a connectedness between Rodman and his own body that often seems lacking when he’s on offense, especially when he has the ball.

However, though Rodman is a first rate defensive player – two defensive player of the year awards, six-time NBA all-league defense – he’s even better at rebounding.  But how does Rodman rebound, and rebound so exceptionally effectively? Here the statistical measures of his dominance merit consideration and elaboration.  In his nine seasons in the league, Rodman has averaged close to 13 rebounds per game.  This make him one of the top rebounding forwards in history already.  But there’s more: in the past five seasons, in each of which Rodman has led all players in rebounds, he has averaged nearly 18 per game, a pace that would put him third all-time, behind only two of the greatest centers to play the game, Wilt Chamberlain (22.9) and Bill Russell (22.5).  This season, Rodman averaged almost 15, despite playing only, on average, 32 minutes out of each 48 minute game for a Chicago Bulls team that was usually so far ahead by the fourth quarter that Rodman and the other starters don’t play.  Russell (standing 6-9, and possessing exceptional quickness, leaping ability, and timing, and playing in an era with few, if any big men like him) and, in particular Chamberlain (7-0, and as quick and springy as Russell but much stronger), regularly played every minute of their games so that Rodman, with only a slight stretch, can be considered among the top three rebounders in league history.  Finally, Rodman’s sudden and sustained rebounding dominance in the league, accompanied by a somewhat less dramatic decline in his scoring output, suggests a kind of willfulness.  As though he decided five years ago to become the league’s leading rebounder and that was all there was to it.

Yet despite this preeminence, Rodman’s rebounding prowess actually reinforces his general appearance of awkwardness and invisibility on the court.  Of course, rebounding is much less given to spectacular visibility than scoring, assists, or even steals and blocked shots.  But there are ways to rebound spectacularly.  Rodman, however, doesn’t rebound this way.  He doesn’t sweep the ball of the rim or backboard with one hand, popping it against the other on his descent back into the crowd of unsuccessful competitors on the floor.  Rodman, who, at 6-8, is often two to four or more inches smaller than his opponent, barely gets off the ground when he goes for a rebound.  Not of course, because he can’t jump.  It has been said of him that he could have been a national class long jumper.  Rather, it is because he rarely has to jump he is so well-positioned to get the rebound.  Often, watching Rodman, you see him alone, away from a crowd of big men jockeying for position near the basket.  Many of the rebounds he gets seem to come straight to him.  In fact, Rodman studies the angles of missed shots and thus gets himself to the spot where the ball will go.  If he misjudges the angle, or if someone else accurately judges it, so that he actually has to jump against an opponent for the ball, Rodman often gets just high enough off the ground to tip the ball to himself.  An extremely quick and seemingly tireless leaper, he can do this repeatedly on a single play.  Added to his studied good judgment, this allows Rodman to pull in record numbers of rebounds without your really noticing.

And none of these numbers or analyses can capture Rodman’s forceful leadership on the floor.  He doesn’t appear to say much during games, at least  not to his own teammates.  But he combines the capacity to discern the flows determining the course of a game and the force of will and the skills to raise his level of production, offensively, defensively, and on the boards, when his team seems to need it most.  Consider a few moments from this year’s finals.  The Bulls went to Seattle to play Game 3 of the championship series leading two games to zero.  The next three games would be in Seattle and it was important they win at least one.  Game 3 turned out to be a hard-fought one.  Neither team was particularly effective offensively and though they occasionally took small leads, the Bulls could not put the Sonics away.  With 6.9 seconds remaining in the game, and the Bulls leading by a s core of 91-88, superstar forward Scottie Pippen went to the free-throw line for two shots.  He missed them both, air-balling the second one.  In the ensuing scramble for the loose ball, Rodman tied-up Seattle’s Sam Perkins.  They would face off in a jump ball.  Now Perkins is 6-11 and with famously long arms, Rodman, of course, is 6-8.  But Rodman successfully controlled the tap and was fouled.  He made one of his two free throws to ice the game.  As if his late game heroics were not enough, Rodman also scored ten points for the Bulls and grabbed twenty rebounds, including a finals record-tying eleven offensive boards.  Nor was this particularly exceptional.  At least twice during the Bulls’ difficult second-round series against the Knicks, twice during the Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando (when Rodman was the Bulls’ most effective defender against the Magic’s 7-1, 300 pound Shaquille O’neal), and again in the championship series, when he led a 7 point run to help the Bulls to a safe lead en route to winning the trophy in Game 6, Rodman consistently raised the level of his game to what can only be called dominance when the stakes and pressure were highest.

What all this adds up to is that Rodman seems to play the game so as to maximize his production while minimizing visibility.  He achieves a self-effacing excellence on the floor that appears almost as the result of the awkwardness you see when you do pay attention to him.  As though he were so sensitive to his discomfort that he developed skills permitting him to be effective without drawing attention to himself and thereby heightening his painful awareness of his awkwardness.  And this is one sense in which he’s speaking the truth when he says, as he has, that he’s not a basketball player.  Maybe it’s not so much, as he says, that he’s not a basketball player anymore, but rather that he never was one.  Not a basketball player, but a person who plays basketball sometimes and, in his case, professionally.  This certainly fits with the facts of his well-known biography: cut from his high school team, Rodman sprouted from 5-9 to 6-8 and was spotted starring for a junior college squad before flunking out of school.  This led, eventually, to a scholarship to Southeastern Oklahoma State, where Rodman, finally getting some coaching and some peace in his personal life, flourished, leading the team in scoring and rebounding, making NAIA All-American three straight years, and taking the Savages to the NAIA Final Four in Kansas City.  That’s where he was spotted by then Detroit Pistons’ General Manager Jack McCloskey.  The rest, as they say, is history.

II.

So why do sportswriters, whose primary responsibility would seem to be to pay close attention to the details of the game on the floor, appear to ignore them in Rodman’s case?  There’s much grumbling, if not outright biblically proportioned lamentation, complete gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands, and beating of breasts, among basketball writers these days.  The NBA is in deep trouble, and not just the game on the floor but rather its whole accompanying culture of contracts and commercials.  Players have too much money and too much control over coaches and, especially, management.  At the same time, they are consumed and distracted by the lure of endorsement and entertainment industry deals.  Coaches overcompensate for their impotence and job insecurity by blindly asserting their authority wherever they can, especially in micromanaging the style and pace of the game on the floor.  Management is weak, indecisive where not erratic, and more concerned with image and the bottom-line than with the substance of the product they put on the floor.  In many such accounts, Dennis Rodman figures as the preeminent symptom and symbol of the league’s general malaise.  In a few, he even appears among the causes of the disease, a mighty pathogen single-handedly making a farce of the sacred game.

In this mythical history, the nostalgically elegized Golden Age is the fifties and sixties, with a brief renaissance during the 1980s.  Back then, coaches were brilliant and had much more authority over personnel decisions and consequently over their (still only weakly organized) players.  Players themselves were just happy to get paid to play a kid’s game and they didn’t care how much.  There were no product endorsements, no rap records, no movie deals, no appearances on TV sitcoms.  The game itself was fast-paced and high-scoring, with players embodying the athletic virtue – at least for team sports – of total self-effacement, invisibly blending their skills with those of their comrades for the good of the team.  And the team’s success was the only measure of excellence.  Witness the old Celtics – Wilt Chamberlain rivalry of the 60s.  Readers of today can sit on grandpa sportswriter’s knee and hear the morally edifying tale of how Chamberlain, despite his astonishing physical gifts and individual talent (he holds over 60 individual records in the NBA), was never able to subordinate his massive and moody ego for the good of his teams.  Thus, time and again, throughout the 60s and early 70s he was whipped by a Celtics squad whose individual stars were able to harmonize their skills under the masterful guidance of Red Auerbach.  Plus, they never criticized their coaches, teammates, or the media, never talked about how good they were individually, and never sullied the purity of the sport by introducing thorny social issues like racism.  Even in the 1980s, when television fueled the NBA’s revival by making celebrities out of former college rivals Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the distractions were not fatal.  For Johnson and Bird, good as they were individually, were consummate team players.  Loving the game for its own sake and never forgetting that they were only as good as the number of championships their teams won.  All that, the tale grimly concludes, came to a repulsive end when Dennis Rodman and the Detroit Pistons, self-styled ‘Bad Boys,’ dethroned Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA title in 1989, repeating again in 1990 with a slow-down, unspectacular offensive game and aggressive bullying defense.

But wait a minute.  Rodman hasn’t been in any movies.  And though his endorsement stock has recently risen somewhat, it doesn’t compare with that of benign stars like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, or even the more controversial Charles Barkley.  He’s had his contract squabbles, but he still makes much less than the few players with comparable accomplishments (five league rebounding titles, two defensive player of the year awards, and three league championships), and even less than players with no accomplishments who’ve only been in the league a few years.  And yet we’ve seen his style of play:  perhaps more than anybody in the league, Rodman on the court embodies the Golden Age ideal of self-effacing excellence and team play.  So how does Rodman become, not only the slug in the garden as Chicago Tribune sports columnist Bernie Lincicome said (both before and after the Bulls’ remarkable 1995-96 season), but the satanic snake in the garden of the NBA’s sacred paradise lost?

The one element of Rodman’s play on the floor sportswriters don’t mind talking about his aggressively physical defensive style.  To this day, Rodman freely acknowledges that physical intimidation is part of his game; that, for example, he would teach Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, elegant stars of the Bulls, how to “brawl.”  The most frequently cited instance of this element of Rodman’s game occurred in the 1991 playoffs.  With the Bulls creaming the two-time defending champions Pistons in the conference finals, Rodman, then a Piston, pushed Pippen from behind on a drive to the basket and sent him into the basket support, causing a chin injury requiring stitches.  But this crossed even Rodman’s own lines of propriety.  He sent Pippen a written apology that, incidentally, the latter rejected (Rodman, as promised during an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” apologized again to Pippen during the Bulls post-championship parade in Grant Park).  Though admitting his physicality, Rodman steadfastly denies being a dirty player, or deliberately seeking to injure others.  The truth is that being physical is part of basketball, especially under the basket.  Sportswriters know this and don’t mind it, or they wouldn’t celebrate a given player’s physical strength, as they often do. What is that strength good for if not to dominate the physical battles under the basket? That occasionally, as in all sports, even ostensibly non-contact ones like baseball, competitiveness overwhelms sportsmanship and combines with physical strength to produce brutality, is surely cause for concern, but hardly Dennis Rodman’s problem alone.  Indeed, Rodman’s first coach in San Antonio, John Lucas, identified a much more disturbing cause of the problem in the NBA’s tacit endorsement of on-court violence.  Physical play, after all, and even fights have a kind of car-wreck appeal for sports fans, though many might not admit it, and the league wants to keep those fans happy.  It is not inconceivable that on some level Rodman became the whipping boy allowing the league to compensate for distance itself from its own complicity in the problem of violence.  Moreover, despite the magnified impression of Rodman’s physical play, over his ten year career in the NBA, Rodman has only averaged three personal fouls per game, has fouled-out only twenty times (including only once in the past four seasons).  Even Rodman’s technical, practically one per game, come from mouthing off to referees rather than from flagrant fouls or fighting.  So whatever one may say about Rodman’s physical style, one must acknowledge that it appears in general that it is no way new to the game, that Rodman recognizes that it has limits, and finally, that it appears by and large to be legal.

III.

But Rodman’s sins hardly end there.  Of his nearly $100,000 in fines in the past five years, the majority of them have been levied for what the NBA calls disciplinary infractions.  Beginning in the 1992-1993 seasons, his last with the Pistons, and continuing through his two year stint with San Antonio, Rodman has been fined or suspended for skipping or being late for practices or exhibition games, and, less frequently, penalized by his team for ‘insubordination’ to his coach oby the league for disrespecting officials, including this year’s notorious head-butting incident.  Here, Rodman’s behavior may well be out of the ordinary, but whether it is out of line is another question.  Consider the circumstances.  For five seasons with the Pistons, between 1986 and 1991, Rodman had no disciplinary problems at all. They began in 1992, when the club fired coach Chuck Daly, who had guided the team from the NBA cellar to two consecutive league titles and with whom Rodman had a particularly close relationship.  Rodman was outspoken about his feeling that Daly had been treated unfairly and fired against the best interests of the team.  In San Antonio, Rodman had few problems under coach John Lucas.  But when Lucas was fired and replaced with the much stricter Bob Hill, Rodman again protested.  On top of this, Rodman believe, somewhat plausibly, that the Spurs management was waffling on promises to renegotiate his contract.  Finally, the period in question began with the acrimonious ending to Rodman’s brief marriage and a separation from his daughter.

I’m far from wishing to make Rodman an innocent victim of divorce, or much less of a vindictive wife.  Such speculation would be treacherously unfounded and difficult to support.  Nor would I say that, given ideal circumstances, Rodman chose the most appropriate means to express his dissatisfaction.  The point, however, is that given what Rodman felt were unsound and unfair personnel decisions by management, or overly restrictive team policies set by coaches (themselves justifiably insecure about their authority in the organization), Rodman protested in what might have appeared the only effective way: by withholding his services.  NBA players are supposed to play, and nothing else.  Of course, superstars have occasionally appeared to gain a voice within management (Magic Johnson, Jordan, and Isiah Thomas are examples), but the run of the mill player, as Bill Walton has put it, is supposed to do his job and shut up.  Given this climate, what options are available to a player with a grievance, or even just an opinion? Is it reasonable to expect that players, whatever their motivations but especially when they have the team’s success in mind, should quietly submit to all the decisions of coaches, some of whom have never played basketball, or, much less, general managers, often business executives with no particular expertise about the game?

The issue at stake is control.  And it is a complicated one.  But its fundamental source is the fact that basketball in the NBA is not only a game, but rather a profession and a for-profit industry, deeply connected to many other for-profit industries (television, sportswear, soft drinks to name just a few).  Coaches rightly complain that they are caught between, on the one hand, general managers and owners with unrealistic expectations, a poor understanding of the game, and bottom-line interests not exclusively tied to team performance, and, on the other hand, players encouraged to believe, from junior high on, that they need not account for their own actions by virtue of their exceptional athletic ability.

But this is certainly not Rodman’s story.  Hardly coddled, Rodman traveled – from the Oak Cliff projects of Dallas to a stint as a janitor in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport that ended with Rodman in jail for theft, from junior-college dropout to obscure college standout – one of the rockiest and most circuitous routes of anybody currently in the NBA.  Moreover, if the NBA is an industry producing a commodity, the issue of control has a resonance that goes far beyond the particularities of basketball.  “Disciplinary problems” or “insubordination,” “trouble-making” and “distraction” become age-old management euphemisms for the behavior of workers – especially black workers employed (or enslaved) by white supervisors, managers or owners – seeking to influence the means by which they produce their particular commodity.  I don’t want to make Dennis Rodman into a socialist – God knows, he has image problems enough – but I think it’s worth considering his track record in this light, particularly if those interested in the league are serious about diagnosing its ills.

IV.

But I still don’t think all this, even viewed from the conventional sportswriters’ perspective, justifies the vilification Rodman has undergone.  Rather, I think we have to go back to Rodman’s self-effacing style of basketball play to begin to understand that puzzle.  Ironically, the very fact that he is a throw back to an era of self-less team play may be counting against Rodman.  His conflicts with coaches and management – hardly uncommon among professional athletes today – appear to sportswriters and so forth as so jarring precisely because they seem to out of place with his style of play.  Sadly for his treatment in the media, Rodman evokes for these people a period of basketball history associated with canvas shoes, white skin, short (undyed) hair, and total, on and off-court self-effacement.  But then after evoking this cherished image, Rodman mercilessly soils it with his black skin, outspoken emotional nature, and exuberant self-expression.  He might get away with all this stuff if his game were more “commensurate” with it: if he was a “hot-dogging slam dunker,” or a “trash talking ball hog.”  Then he’d just be doing what we all expected and could be easily dismissed, without much fuss or anxiety, as one more thing wrong with the game today.  But he’s not.  He’s more disturbing than that because, as a time-traveling snake in the garden, he simultaneously evokes and sullies the Edenic picture of the 50s and 60s on which most rants against the state of the game today rest.  This must be difficult for sportswriters, or the league, to admit to themselves, let alone publicly.  But it certainly helps to explain why they ignore his style of play, as though wiping their columns clean of any sign of this train of thought.

It also explains why, as though to straighten the tortuous logic driving their coverage of Rodman, they appear so obsessed, in a mode of persistent curiosity, alternately prurient and ghoulish, with his lifestyle.  Thus the first question an interviewer for Gentleman’s Quarterly wants to ask: “what was Madonna like in bed?” or, an otherwise fairly sensitive reporter for Inside Sports, getting Rodman talk about the athletic politics of going to gay bars, pauses for a detour:  “Have you had a sexual experience with another man?”  You get the results of this kind of data retrieval inquiry in articles on Rodman.  What’s interesting about these is the way in which everything about Rodman (precisely except his basketball playing) gets tied together in long sentences or paragraphs creating a giant lump of unacceptable behavior.  Thus, in Business Week, we read the following description of Rodman, all in one paragraph:

openly defiant of his coach and boastful of his late night revels and gambling habit, he has made himself into a bizarre rebel.  In one of his latest public tantrums, a pouting Rodman removed his sneakers and refused to confer with teammates after he was benched in the closing seconds of a game in this spring’s NBA playoffs.  Then there was the recent Sports Illustrated cover featuring Rodman in a halter top, metallic hot pants, and a studded dog collar.  Rodman, who is single and avowedly heterosexual, displays a public penchant for gay bars.  He showed up for a playoff game in April sporting white hair emblazoned with a red AIDS-awareness insignia.  That followed earlier dye jobs of magenta, neon green, and brick red.

Besides Dennis Rodman, these things seem to have nothing in common other than that they all violate the writer’s standards of decency.  If Rodman’s off-court behavior were merely dismissed as bizarre, these writers would betray nothing more than their own, rather conventional standards of normalcy.  But their interest runs far deeper than that.  His behavior not only must be catalogued in detail for full effect, it must also be interpreted, and judged.

Granted, not all writers are so flagrantly and indiscriminately judgmental.  Sports Illustrated, in particular, has put together some pieces on Rodman that at least try to get into his world rather than holding their nose and walking by.  But even these writers, exhibiting a degree of good will, or sympathy, or at least an eager voyeurism, eventually fall back on the need for an explanation.  An explanation, it seems, that would answer the unspoken question:  what’s wrong with him?  Here explanations range from Rodman trying desperately to discover boundaries that were never set for him on account of his absent father to Rodman has a “quenchless thirst to be noticed,” from Rodman is trying to “lose everything that separates him from what he once was” to Rodman is a child to no answer at all: Rodman is just “a strangely tormented soul.”  Perhaps all these explanations contain a grain of truth, though there is enough in each of the articles in which they appear to contradict their own theses.  It certainly is difficult, for example, to say that a black man in American has never experienced boundaries or limitations.  But the point is not whether they have succeeded in penetrating the mystery of Dennis Rodman, but rather that they see a mystery at all, and in particular, that they a disturbing mystery.

V.

It seems not to have occurred to anyone yet that perhaps the secret of Dennis Rodman is that he is a kind of magic mirror reflecting back on us our deepest fears.  One writer suggests that we are fascinated with Rodman because he enacts our secret desires.  Maybe.  But I’m not sure that exactly right.  I think rather that he enacts what we would like to think are our secret desires.  In fact, our revulsion shows the degree to which we relish our conformity, our anxious narrow-mindedness and intolerance.  Rodman reveals what really being free would be like, including its devastating effects on the morality and social attitudes that structure and order our lives.  And it’s much too scary to contemplate.  As this suggests, I think that Rodman’s racial anger, his outspoken and self-assured support of and engagement with gay culture, his underground aesthetic, and his extravagant spending are all particular expressions of something larger and even scarier.  Of course, I wouldn’t want to underestimate the racism, homophobia, aesthetic and fiscal conservatism of the mainstream sports media and the white basketball unconscious that feeds and is fed by its fantasies.  No doubt, Rodman pushes all those buttons as well.  But I think that’s too simple an explanation and one that, in a sense, gives Rodman too much credit as a self-conscious political and aesthetic radical, and not enough credit as a human being.

This certainly isn’t about getting to the real Dennis Rodman.  If anything the peculiarly negative press coverage he’s received, which is the only way the vast majority of us get to Dennis Rodman at all, makes that impossible.  But I do think you come up with a different picture of Rodman if you rub hard enough on the tarnish of sportswriters’ anxieties.  Interestingly, it’s possible to speculate that what you see then might be what’s most disconcerting for those who write and talk about Rodman.  I’m talking about an intense desire for freedom, in a variety of manifestations.  I think this, not nonsense about tormented souls, is the common current running through Rodman’s seemingly bewildering array of behaviors.  He may indeed be searching for boundaries, but only for the exhilaration of crossing them.  Whether it’s rebounding records, professional etiquette, heteronormativity, financial mores, racism, or even death, Rodman sees not the comforting confines of a secure, homey order, but rather artificial barriers against a fully lived life of freedom.  Of course, the conservative fear of freedom has always being that it leads to chaos and, in particular to a lack of ethical concern for others’ freedom. And so this is what is emphasized in Rodman’s “record.”  But doing so requires ignoring Rodman’s clearly manifested awareness that he lives among others.  He doesn’t need to and doesn’t care about their opinions, much less their prejudices, but he lives in most facets of his life, by an ethical standard most of us would do well to live up to:  don’t hurt anybody and people need to back each other.  Outside of this, Rodman’s guiding principle is a simple radical freedom.  In this sense, he challenges the ethos of professional sports in this country, subordinated as they are to economically and socially required hierarchies, and returns sport to its most fundamental basis:  play.

And for all those naysayers who cast hyperbolic doubt on the Bulls trade for Rodman: in mid-season, he got his first career triple-double: 10 points, 10 assists, and 21 rebounds, with crucial help from coach Phil Jackson (who left Rodman in despite a lopsided Bulls’ lead), from Michael Jordan (who told Rodman to pass him – Jordan – the ball for his tenth assist), and from the fans at Chicago’s United Center arena, who gave Rodman, bowing at mid-court during the game, a wild, standing ovation.  And Rodman, after the game, as after every game, literally gave them the shirt off his back.

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