Dennis Rodman: The Baddest Man in Sports Wasn't What He Seemed

Dennis Rodman grew up not knowing what love was.

His aptly named father, Philander, left his wife, Shirley, and a young Dennis for the Philippines. He would have at least 25 (Dennis has said it was as many as 47) more children with at least 16 different women. From there, men in Shirley's life only got worse; Dennis has recounted that in a particularly horrifying incident, one tried to kill her by running her over with a lawnmower.

None of these men were going to act as Dennis' father, and his strained relationship with his mother ensured that he would have to raise himself. Dennis had grown up a self-proclaimed "mama's boy" before his teen years, clutching onto his mother and refusing to leave her side. Shirley, however, didn't demonstrate the same physical expressions of love- she never hugged her children or said she loved them. In Dennis' words, "She never came close...she couldn't show love because all she knew was abuse."

Growing up Black in Dallas' projects in abject poverty, nothing came easily for Dennis Rodman.

For a long time, nothing came at all. Dennis grew up with everything going against him, basketball and football his only ways out. While both of Dennis' sisters found their way to college via basketball scholarships, Dennis was actually the odd man out of the family on the court. He failed to make his high school's football team, and when he finally made the basketball team, he rarely left the bench. Rodman said that his athletic failures in his youth made his mother more interested in his sisters than him, further excluding him in an entirely female household.

At 18 and 5'9 with no future prospects, Shirley kicked Dennis out of the house, leaving him homeless.

Rodman does the impossible:

Rodman found work as an overnight airport janitor but spent most of the following year homeless. Then, something incredible happened. In the year between Rodman's 19th and 20th birthday, he grew from 5'11 to his eventual height of 6'7. For context, the average male is essentially done growing by the age of 16, and Rodman grew more in that year than he did between his freshman year of high school and the age of 19. A family friend would tip off a local community college basketball coach about the 6'7, now 22-year-old Rodman. For the first time, Dennis had hope.

Basketball became Rodman's escape from an unforgiving place without a way out. While his skills were raw and he was still adjusting to his body, he played with unmatched energy and desire. Pointing to the crowd with a giant smile on his face every time he made a good play and running around like a maniac, Rodman's basketball joy was contagious. In Dennis' words years later, "I was so happy just to be there...I'm not trying to show off, I'm just so happy, so excited. My life was changing."

Although Rodman flunked out of Cooke County College after one season, he had done enough to get himself another look, averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds. He transferred to Southeastern Oklahoma State University, which (as a NAIA school) played close to the equivalent of D-II opponents.

After a very successful first season, Rodman met a 12-year-old camper named Bryne Rich at a youth basketball camp. Rich, a 5'3 white kid growing up in rural Oklahoma, and Rodman, a fully grown 6'7 Black man, were considered an unlikely pair. However, mutual hardship ensured that the two needed each other; they quickly became inseparable, as Rodman would spend the next three years in Rich's home. Below is a segment from halftime of the 1990 NBA Finals that details the situation.

It also provides an intriguing look at Rodman as a loving and caring father with his first child, Alexis. Tearing up, Rodman described her by saying, "She's strong, and she smiles all the time. She's a very happy're not a man- you're not a person if you don't cry. It makes me feel good talking about everything that's worthwhile."

While it is challenging to gain recognition as an NBA prospect outside of Division I, especially considering Rodman’s older age, what he did over his three seasons ensured that he would garner attention from teams at the highest level. He led the NAIA in rebounding twice, averaging 26-16 over his three seasons. In his final season, he led SOSU to the #3 overall ranking in the NAIA and the NAIA Final Four. In the NAIA tournament, Rodman had separate games in which he managed 46 points and a tournament record of 32 rebounds.

While many teams still didn't have Rodman on their radar given his lack of competition and his advanced age (25 by the 1986 NBA draft), there was an emerging contender in Detroit that found his rebounding, defense, desire, and tenacity to be precisely what they needed to get to the next level. However, nobody could have anticipated the greatness that Rodman would go on to offer, nor the downward spiral that led Dennis to his truck at 5 AM with a rifle in his lap, contemplating what to do next.

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