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Dennis Rodman: From Basketball Bad Boy to Dubious Diplomat

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When Rodman left the reclusive nation soon after that dinner, he had no idea what awaited him.

"When you said you loved Kim and think he's awesome, were [you] aware of his threats on the United States and his regime's horrendous record on human rights?" newscaster George Stephanopoulos asked.

It was the morning of March 3, the Sunday after Rodman had returned, and in the bright lights of the ABC studio in New York City, the athlete turned wan. ("He was blitzed — absolutely fucking blitzed," says AJ Bright, one of Rodman's advisers. "We wondered whether we should cancel, but decided to let him go on. He had no business being on a political show.")

Wearing a lavender scarf and a blazer printed with dollar signs, Rodman pressed his hands together. "He doesn't want war," Rodman sputtered.

"He said he wants to destroy the United States," Stephanopoulos pressed, expression severe.

"He loves power," Rodman explained. "He loves control because of his, uh, you know, his dad. But he's a great guy. Just a great guy."

"A great guy who puts 200,000 people in prison camps?"

"Guess what, we have presidents who do the same thing, right," Rodman parried. "It's amazing how Bill Clinton can have sex with his secretary and do one thing and still be powerful."

"How can you compare that to prison camps?"

"Prison camps do one thing," Rodman replied quickly. "We don't need to do one thing. We do one thing. Kim's a friend to me. I'm going to go back and do one thing: find out more about what's really going on."

"Next time you go back, you should bring this report from Human Rights Watch" about North Korea, Stephanopoulos said, pushing paper at Rodman. "Ask some questions about that. You might learn a lot more."

Rodman laughed. "Either way, do one thing: Don't hate me. Don't hate me."

That day, Rodman's schedule had been booked with national interviews, Bright said. They were all canceled.

Days passed. Things got weirder. As the world's eyes turned toward the Vatican in mid-March, Rodman, wearing a flower-print blazer, suddenly materialized in Saint Peter's Square. As cardinals from around the globe pondered who would follow Pope Benedict, Rodman was ostensibly advocating for a black pope. But when the Associated Press asked him about Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, Rodman was perplexed. "From Africa, right?" he asked. Rodman's Irish sponsor, Paddy Power, had arranged for him to ride through town in a Mercedes popemobile. (The vehicle was delayed by snow in Northern Italy, so Rodman rode it a day later than planned.)

When Rodman arrived home from his adventures, he was exhausted and didn't want to see anyone, his friend Bright says. Only his daughter Alexis, who visited him that week, got any time with the athlete. "He's completely different when he's not in public," she says. "He's normal. It's a beautiful thing... But he's built up a tower of drinking and craziness, and it's so high that now he can't come down."

On a Thursday afternoon soon after, the Miami drag queen Elaine Lancaster called Rodman for lunch. They've known each other for 30 years, and "Dennis will do anything — anything — for Elaine," Bright says. Many of Rodman's outlandish outfits originate with Lancaster. "He just loves the attention," Lancaster explains. "And he gets jealous if someone else around him gets it."

Which rarely happens.

Rodman arrived at Balans Café on Biscayne Boulevard that Thursday at Lancaster's urging. Empty Corona bottles and discarded glasses perspiring with melted ice soon populated the table, one of the few occupied at the small restaurant. Around the table sat Lancaster, Trishy Trish, Mike Bradley, Bradley's brown-haired wife, and Rodman. The onetime rebounding champion wore white Reebok basketball pants, Chuck Taylors, and burgundy socks.

"Excuse me, miss?" he yelled at the waitress, a cute and effervescent brunette. "I'm just gonna say this, and it's going to be vulgar. But do you have any pussy on ice?"

Puffing a cigar as thick as a sausage, Rodman howled with laughter. The cackle infected the rest of the table, and everyone smirked at the waitress, who giggled uncomfortably. Soon after, Rodman lost interest in the table's banter. A visitor asked him how long he'd lived in Miami. "It doesn't matter," said Rodman, who untangled his impossibly long legs to stand. He then espied a dark-haired man charming a pretty woman in the parking lot. The sight of this pleased Rodman. "Just fuck him already!" Rodman yelled, and everyone laughed. "Fuck him!"

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Terrence McCoy