How Dennis Rodman went from a homeless, junior college walk-on to one of the most interesting and controversial NBA legends

Kim Kwang HyonDennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
  • ESPN’s “The Last Dance” has put a spotlight back on Dennis Rodman.
  • Rodman is one of the most compelling figures in sports thanks to his unique game and enigmatic personality.
  • Rodman’s journey to the NBA was unusual, including being homeless and undergoing a late growth spurt, and his time after the NBA has been rocky.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

While ESPN’s docuseries “The Last Dance” focuses on Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman has emerged as a co-star.

From tales of Rodman’s unusual journey to the NBA, his rise with the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, success with the Chicago Bulls, and off-court antics, Rodman remains one of the most compelling figures in any sport.

Rodman’s tale also involved his transformation into an enigmatic figure who pushed the boundaries for an athlete. His journey after the NBA has been up and down, including an unexpected friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Read below how Rodman grew into a fascinating, controversial figure in sports.

Dennis Rodman remains one of the most captivating figures in the NBA and all of sports.

A Hall of Famer and one of the NBA’s all-time greatest rebounders and defenders, Rodman’s outsized personality and off-court life made him a massive celebrity in the 1990s and has kept him in the spotlight after basketball.

Rodman was born in 1961 and grew up in the neighbourhood of Oak Cliff in Dallas, Texas.

Rodman described himself as “really shy” growing up, saying he’d hide behind his mother and sisters.

via ESPN Films

Rodman grew up without his father, Philander, who fathered 28 children. He has said his mum was often more interested in his sisters, who were local basketball stars. Rodman was not athletic and barely played sports.

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

Rodman said growing up he had “no direction.”

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

After high school, Rodman got a job at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport as a janitor, which he called “the beginning of the end for me.”

Rodman was arrested for stealing watches from an aiport store and spent the night at a jail in the airport. Criminal charges were eventually dropped because he didn’t sell the watches.

Rodman bounced between jobs, lacking direction until his mother kicked him out of her house two years later.

Rodman lived on the streets, sleeping at friends’ houses, in their backyards, in parks, or behind a 7-11. He said he did nothing during his days, simply walking around town. Rodman said he had begun to accept that “this was the way it was gonna be for the rest of my life.”

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

After graduating high school, Rodman hit a sudden growth spurt, going from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-8 in a little over a year. He began playing basketball at a local rec centre when he was noticed by Cooke County, a junior college in Gainesville, Texas.

Though Rodman flunked out of junior college and never played a full season of basketball, Lonn Reisman, an assistant coach of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, a small NAIA school, noticed Rodman and recruited him.

Reisman said when he went to Rodman’s mother’s house to recruit Rodman, Rodman did not come out his room for several hours. Eventually, when he did, he was convinced to visit Southeastern Oklahoma State.

While in Durant, Oklahoma, Rodman worked at a local basketball camp where he befriended a 12-year-old named Bryne Rich. Rodman and Rich eventually grew closer and Rodman moved into the Rich’s house, calling them his “surrogate” family.

Dennis Rodman and Bryne Rich.

Rich became the college basketball team’s ball boy. Rodman called it a “changing point” in his life because “someone actually liked me.”

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

While at Southeastern Oklahoma, Rodman dominated on the court, winning NAIA All-American three times. Rodman was still relatively new to the concepts of basketball but went all-out on the court. He averaged 26 points and 16 rebounds per game for his college career.

Rodman was drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the 27th pick in the 1986 draft.

Rodman was 26 when he entered the NBA, far older than most rookies. Former Pistons president Tom Wilson called Rodman “extraordinarily, painfully shy” and hard to get comfortable around.

Isiah Thomas called Rodman “sweet” and “innocent.” Many of the Pistons loved Rodman, but felt he was immature and naive.

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

However, on the court, Rodman wowed teammates and the NBA with his unique style of play. Rodman didn’t care about scoring. Instead, he focused on rebounding and defence.

Rodman also had a knack for tirelessly chasing loose balls. Isiah Thomas said Rodman turned the NBA “upside down, on its own head.”

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

Rodman’s dedication to rebounding was historic.

Rodman would study how players shot the ball, counting the rotations of the ball in the air and where their misses would go. He would watch film of all misses to see which direction the ball went off the rim. He also held late-night rebounding sessions with friends where he would track where the ball went.

Read more:
Dennis Rodman spent late-night gym sessions rebounding for his friends so he could track the trajectory of different shots

Rodman became a key cog on the “Bad Boy” Pistons, known for their rough, physical style of play. The Pistons made three straight Finals appearance from 1987-1990, winning the championship in 1989 and 1990.

Rodman made his first All-Star appearance in the 1989-90 season and won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1989 and 1990.

However, things eventually turned south in Detroit for Rodman.

In 1992-93, Rodman admitted to losing motivation to play. His attitude turned sour around the Pistons and was reportedly “despondent.” Rodman said he was likely depressed.

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

On February 11, 1993, Rodman was found asleep in his car outside the Pistons arena, with a loaded rifle.

Rodman said in 2019 of the incident:

“I had the gun in my lap, and next thing you know, I fell asleep listening to Pearl Jam. Then I woke up, and all the cops and everyone was there. I didn’t know what was going on. I totally forgot I had a gun in my hand. They got me out of the car. That was pretty much what it was.”

Rodman said he was struggling with the business of the NBA and had little connection to loved ones in his life outside of basketball.

Bleacher Report

In 1993, Rodman was traded from the Pistons to the Spurs, which marked a turning point in his career.

Rodman not only began to embrace that he was different than many NBA stars, but he also began to show more personality. At his introduction in San Antonio, he revealed he dyed his hair in a blonde mohawk like Wesley Snipes in “Demolition Man.”

Rodman described himself as an “entertainer” in San Antonio, frequently changing his hair colour, dressing differently, and showing more of his personality.

“When he started getting some positive reinforcement for letting his freak flag fly, then it kind of opened the floodgates,” Michael Siver, who profiled Rodman for Sports Illustrated in 1995, said.

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

Rodman also began a high-profile relationship with Madonna.

Some claimed their relationship brought Rodman’s national profile to a new level.

“Without Madonna, there’s no Dennis Rodman as we know him,” former teammate John Salley said.

Silver’s 1995 profile of Rodman also revealed that Rodman liked dressing in drag, partying at gay night clubs, and had sexual fantasies about men, though he denied being gay.

Rodman’s embrace of the LGBTQ community was rare in the sports world at the time and also exposed him to new audiences, raising his national profile further. However, some debated whether Rodman’s involvement in the LGBTQ community was genuine or meant to be “shock value.”

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

Rodman eventually fell out of favour with the Spurs and was traded to the Chicago Bulls in 1995.

Rodman proved to be a good fit with the Bulls. His defence and rebounding were valuable skills for a team welcoming back Michael Jordan from a break to play baseball.

The Bulls, under Phil Jackson also embraced Rodman’s personality, so long as he played his role on the team.

Rodman became an even bigger celebrity in Chicago thanks to the Bulls dominance and the spotlight on Jordan. He said he was more famous than Jordan from 1996-98.

Source: “Rodman: For Better or Worse”

In 1996, Rodman promoted the release of his biography, “Bad As I Wanna Be,” by dressing in a bride’s wedding dress and going to a book store in New York City. The event drew thousands of spectators. The book went to No. 1 on The New York Times Bestsellers list.

Rodman played a critical role on the Bulls in 1997-98 as Scottie Pippen was sidelined. Rodman became Jordan’s No. 2, lifting the Bulls with his defence and rebounding.

It was revealed in “The Last Dance” that midway during the 1997-98 season, Rodman asked for a vacation and went to Las Vegas for 48 hours. He stayed away from the team for several days until Jordan literally went to his apartment and brought him to practice.

Read more: Michael Jordan once had to retrieve Dennis Rodman from his apartment after he vacationed in the middle of a season, all while Carmen Electra hid out of sight >

Rodman’s career fell off quickly after the Bulls championship in 1998.

He was released by the Bulls in 1998, and played with the Lakers and Mavericks over the next two seasons, but appeared in just 35 total games during that time. He retired in 2000.

In 1998, Rodman briefly married model and actress Carmen Electra, who was with Rodman during his vacation in Vegas. They divorced after less than a year.

Rodman played basketball in the ABA, China, Mexico, and Finland, but never stayed long in any of the leagues.

After basketball, Rodman was involved in reality TV, appearing on shows like “Celebrity Big Brother” and “The Apprentice.”

After retiring, Rodman also struggled with substance abuse.

His ex-wife Michelle said in the early 2000s, Rodman partied five times a week, often drinking all day long. Rodman was often seen partying in bars and police were frequently called to his Los Angeles beach home.

Rodman has been cited for DUIs in 1999, 2003, and 2018. He was sentenced to three years probation in 2018.

Source: USA Today

Arguably, nothing has garnered Rodman as much fame since retiring as his surprising friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Rodman first went to North Korea in 2013 for a basketball exhibition, which led to his friendship with Kim.

Rodman has drawn criticism for the friendship, as Kim rules over a totalitarian state with a poor human rights record.

In 2014, Rodman grew angry defending himself and Kim during an interview on CNN. He appeared to be under the influence of alcohol. He later apologised for the incident.

Rodman also flew to the Donald Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in 2018.

He did not take part in the summit and appeared to be there to promote a cannabis cryptocurrency. He told Business Insider in 2019 that he frequently receives invites to North Korea, but is not allowed to go.

“It’s up to Donald Trump,” Rodman said. “So if he opens the doors – I get calls all the time. They want me to come back every month, but I can’t go because Donald won’t let me go.”

Read more:
Dennis Rodman says Kim Jong Un is not like ‘people portrayed him to be’

Amid reports that Kim is in poor health following surgery, Rodman told TMZ that he hopes they are just “rumours.”

Source: TMZ

Rodman has gotten sober several times, though he has also had relapses. His former agent said in December of 2019 that Rodman was four months sober. It’s unclear if he still is today.

Source: Blast

Rodman was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. He gave an emotional speech in which he thanked several of his coaches and teammates for caring for him. He also apologised for not being a better son to his mother or a better father to his kids.

Source: Official Hoop Hall

Rodman has said he thinks he would be a drug dealer, in jail, or dead if not for basketball.

Now, see where other members of the 1997-98 Bulls are today…

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: The key members of Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team documented in ‘The Last Dance’ >

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.