Michael Jordan was the quintessential franchise player. Scottie Pippen was the prototypical sidekick. Rodman was the wild card of all wild cards, dating the likes of Madonna and Carmen Electra while dyeing his hair and accessorizing with countless tattoos and nose rings.
His antics were impossible to ignore, but Rodman was content to operate in the shadows on the court. He welcomed tough defensive assignments, mastered rebounding angles, played with boundless energy and never worried about his own scoring. He was already well into his 30s by the time he arrived in Chicago, but he still laid out horizontally chasing loose balls and hounded opponents on defense.
His excellence shouldn’t be overlooked or undersold. A seven-time rebounding champion and one of the premier defenders of his era, “The Worm” earned five championship rings during his Hall of Fame career.
“I created this monster,” Rodman said in a recent video interview, referring to his wild persona. “Nobody could say anything bad about me as a teammate. If you take me away from this [Bulls] team, do they still win a championship? I don’t think so.”
Like Pippen, Rodman overcame serious poverty to make his mark at a small-time college not known for producing NBA talent. “The Last Dance” unearthed remarkable footage of a hyperactive Rodman flying around the court at Southeastern Oklahoma State, but his delayed basketball journey saw him last until the second round of the 1986 draft. He didn’t make his NBA debut until he was 25.
“I lived in the street for two years,” he said in an interview. “I could have been a drug dealer. I could have been dead. I don’t know why I never did that drug stuff, but I never did. I’d just sit there and watch them do it.”
Rodman emerged as a key role player for the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s. Isiah Thomas said Rodman arrived to the “Bad Boys” as an “innocent, beautiful” person who was “a little naive about the world,” but his tenacity made him a natural fit. Coach Chuck Daly compared Rodman’s spirit to a “mustang,” while Rodman said his aggravating style of play was akin to “that rash you can’t get rid of.”
As Rodman acclimated to Detroit, Jordan and Pippen were climbing the standings in Chicago. Unleashed by Doug Collins, then an energetic young coach, Jordan established himself as the NBA’s signature player, winning the MVP award, Defensive Player of the Year honors and the Slam Dunk Contest.
During the 1989 playoffs, Jordan hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo to eliminate the Cleveland Cavaliers. For Jordan, who celebrated his series clincher by jumping and wildly pumping his fist, it was a turning point.
“We finally got over the hump of a loser’s mentality,” Jordan said, gleefully recalling his reaction at the time. “Get the f— out of here. Whoever’s not with us, all you f—ers go to hell.”
Chicago and Detroit were on a collision course. Rodman, with his length, physicality and peskiness, was ideally suited to match up with Pippen. The Pistons’ larger concern was limiting Jordan, and their solution was the so-called “Jordan Rules.”
Brendan Malone, a Detroit assistant coach, artfully laid out the strategy: Prevent Jordan from driving the baseline, push him to his left hand at the top of the key, double-team him when he gets the ball in the post, and punish him whenever he gets to the paint. The strategy lifted Detroit over Chicago in the playoffs in 1988, 1989 and 1990, and it left a permanent mark.
“I hated them,” Jordan said in a recent interview. “That hate carries even to this day. They made it personal. They physically beat the s— out of us.”
It was noteworthy, then, that Jordan and Pippen welcomed Rodman to Chicago in 1995, despite their playoff battles and his growing reputation as a malcontent and distraction. The Bulls’ superstars knew they needed a replacement for Horace Grant, a reliable power forward who was part of the first three-peat before signing with the Orlando Magic.
Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause needed to be talked into trading for Rodman by one of his staffers, and Coach Phil Jackson said he was unimpressed by Rodman during their first meeting because he refused to stand up, take off his hat and shake hands.
Rodman’s play wound up smoothing everything over, with Pippen saying he fit in Chicago “like a hand in a glove.” The 6-foot-7 forward led the league in rebounding all three seasons he was in Chicago, and his arrival was a key factor in helping the Bulls post a then-record 72 wins in 1995-96.
Chicago’s successful bet on Rodman embodied a line of thinking that persists to this day: Contending teams have the luxury of betting on wild-card talents as long as they have all-stars to serve as monitors in the locker room. Recent parallels to Rodman’s experience include Chris Andersen in Miami and J.R. Smith in Cleveland.
Rodman started slow while Pippen was recovering from his foot surgery at the beginning of the 1997-98 season, but he later stepped up his all-around game as Jordan’s stand-in sidekick. Pippen’s January return sent Rodman back to third-wheel status, triggering a malaise for the marginalized forward. “The Last Dance” hints at mental health issues, noting that a sleeping Rodman was found by police with a rifle in his car late at night in 1993. And in archived video from his Bulls tenure, Rodman describes being overwhelmed by the circus atmosphere that followed the team.
“It’s not just the basketball that we have to deal with on this team,” he said. “It’s the pressure of the bulls—. The public pressure, the media pressure.”
The episode ends with Rodman requesting a midseason vacation to Las Vegas, with Jackson approving it over Jordan’s objections. Rodman strutted into Sin City with a beer in hand and rode into the night on a motorcycle, his Bulls teammates already a distant memory.
Best quote: “If anybody needs a vacation, I need a f—ing vacation. If you let this dude go on vacation, we are not going to see him. If you let this dude go to Vegas, we are definitely not going to see him.” — Michael Jordan
This clip from one of Jordan’s interviews was so good that ESPN used it as an episode teaser. Years later, Jordan still struggled to wrap his mind around Jackson’s willingness to make such a concession to Rodman during a title chase. This was before the days of “load management,” but even the most forward-thinking, mental-balance-seeking coach would struggle to justify a three-day bender for any player, let alone a starter on a top contender.
Although Jordan could relate to Rodman’s exhaustion and need to reset, his concerns were justified. Rodman was an integral piece of Chicago’s puzzle — playing more minutes that season than everyone besides Jordan — and the stakes were incredibly high. Jackson was betting that a short hiatus in January would translate to improved focus and effort throughout a long postseason run.
Such an adventure would be untenable in the social media age. Players occasionally miss games for undisclosed personal reasons, but Rodman’s Vegas exploits would have been captured by untold Instagram and Twitter users. His behavior, character and commitment to winning would have been subjected to endless doubt from television pundits. And Jackson would have been skewered for granting him special treatment. The other Bulls would have faced weeks of questions about the trip no matter how well they played.
Funniest moment: Of the three men besides Jackson to coach Jordan in the pros, Collins is the only one to claim a major role in the superstar’s career narrative. His intensity and personal rapport earned Jordan’s respect, as did his willingness to turn over the keys and get out of the way. Player and coach reunited more than a decade after Collins’ departure in Chicago, with Jordan trusting him to oversee his ill-fated two-year stint with the Washington Wizards.
Back in 1986, though, Collins was a 35-year-old rookie coach seeking his first victory on opening night against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. As Collins told it, he was so nervous that he sweated through his suit and chewed through his gum, leaving a gunky film on his mouth late in the game.
That’s when Jordan, still only 23 at the time, came over to the sidelines with a reassuring message.
“Coach, take a drink of water and wipe that stuff off your mouth,” Jordan said, according to Collins’s recollection. “I’m not going to let you lose your first game.”
Indeed, the Bulls won, 108-103, thanks to Jordan’s 50 points.
Collins’s genial, self-effacing style has served him well during his career as a television and radio broadcaster. As Jordan’s coach, though, he sought an unrelenting style.
“The greatest respect you can give a great player is to coach him and coach him hard,” Collins said.
Most revealing scene: When the documentary last left Pippen, he was fuming at Krause over management’s refusal to renegotiate his bottom-dollar contract and its public discussion of trade talks. After initially requesting a trade, Pippen’s position softened once time passed and he realized Chicago was not going to move him.
In an exclusive interview from his hotel room during the season, a resigned Pippen explained that he simply had no leverage.
“I knew that it was probably going to come down to me and the team playing hardball,” he said. “I would lose in that situation because they would start to fine me probably. I wasn’t going to let them benefit in that way.”
Already disgusted by his modest salary, Pippen could not stomach the idea of giving back any of it.