Dennis Rodman: From Basketball Bad Boy to Dubious Diplomat

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Americans sought explanation for the sudden bellicosity, and some had an answer: Dennis Rodman, the unofficial "U.S. ambassador to North Korea." Rodman's Twitter feed exploded with animosity — "Dennis Rodman Sparks Nuclear Holocaust #futureheadlines" — and in the span of one month, he'd gone from a washed-up hoops star haunting Hallandale Beach strip clubs to the most controversial athlete on the planet. He surfed the international current to the Vatican in a failed campaign to elect a black pope and rode — yes — an ersatz popemobile.

His confounding resurgence represents yet one more Rodman rebound in a life full of them. He's conquered extreme poverty, crippling insecurity, NBA giants, and American pop culture. He's married model after model, dyed his hair neon colors, and worn a wedding dress to a book signing (where he married himself). But now, as Rodman settles again into obscurity, the question is: What the hell's next?

Dennis Rodman and a 13-year-old suburban white kid named Peter Ginopolis jostled a small TV set inside a New York City hotel room and hollered at the screen. They clutched Nintendo controllers, sticky with palm sweat. It was 1987, Rodman's second year in the NBA. He was 25 years old, making $160,000 in salary, and bereft of tattoos, earrings, and attitude — just another benchwarmer on the championship-bound Detroit Pistons. Earlier that day, the Pistons had defeated the Knicks, and some of his teammates had gone clubbing. But Rodman abhorred drinking and clammed up around strangers.

So he and Ginopolis, the Pistons' dark-haired ball boy, plowed through a pizza and played Nintendo, which Rodman took with him to every away game. "He was really, really good," says Ginopolis, today a private wealth manager near Detroit. "But it was like I was dealing with someone who was 13 years old. It was so weird; here I am this young kid, and my best friend is this NBA player who loves doing what I do."

But the childlike exuberance belied a profound sadness rooted in Rodman's past. Growing up the oldest child in a fatherless apartment in a Dallas housing project called Oak Cliff, he suffered relentless schoolyard taunts. He was a homely child. His ears stuck out, and his body slithered back and forth when he played pinball, earning him the moniker "Worm," which has stuck with him since. When Rodman was still a boy, his dad, Philander Rodman, abandoned the family; he went on to father 29 children and live in the Philippines. "I was 28, with three kids, working three to four jobs," Rodman's mother, Shirley, tells New Times. "And my husband just threw us aside. Dennis never understood I'm only one person. I had to be both a mom and a dad. And I did the best I could."

For Rodman, that wasn't good enough. She was austere and unloving, he says. Rodman's first wife, Annie Rodman, agrees: "She put him down a lot. She never gave him praise. I have nothing good to say about Dennis' mother... She just wasn't a good mom."

Then came the first of many miracles. Dennis was 19 years old, five-foot-11, and pushing a broom at the Dallas airport when he sprouted nine inches in a little more than a year. Shirley Rodman, a devout Christian, perceived God's hand. What else could explain it?

"It scared him, and it scared me," recalls Shirley, now 73 and still living in Dallas. "Nobody could understand that kind of growth. Afterward, Dennis just withdrew. He was an introvert and just so horribly, horribly shy. He was always an overly sensitive man, and back then, he wanted to have a different personality... He lived in a fantasy world."

Basketball, at least for a time, fulfilled that fantasy. Though he had never played on his high school's varsity team, there was still a possibility he could compete in college. Standing six-foot-eight, he squeaked onto the squad at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, nestled in Durant, then a rural, backward town of 6,000 inhabitants. "They'd tell me: 'Get your black ass out of here,' or 'Go back to Africa, nigger,' " he wrote in his 1996 book, Bad as I Wanna Be.

Rodman remolded himself, earned a reputation as a workout fanatic, and netted accolade after accolade, bringing in three consecutive All-American nods at Southeastern. But he sank deeper into reserve. While his mother fretted over what that meant, the scouts saw only raw talent. In 1986, the Pistons snapped him up, selecting him with the 27th overall pick.

"Then everything changed," Shirley Rodman says.

Rodman's NBA career followed the same pattern as his dramatic growth. His first season was slow. He averaged only 6.5 points and four rebounds per game. He also disappointed in the second season. But then came a meteoric transition. In his fourth and fifth years, he won the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award. In his sixth and seventh seasons, his rebound average exploded to more than 18 per game.

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Terrence McCoy