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Black, White—And Gray
Bruce Newman
May 02, 1988
Piston Dennis Rodman's life was complicated by racial matters long before his inflammatory words about Larry Bird
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May 02, 1988

Black, White—and Gray

Piston Dennis Rodman's life was complicated by racial matters long before his inflammatory words about Larry Bird

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Oddly, as he grew, Rodman discovered that he had become less gawky when he played basketball. "Once I started growing, I picked up the game like that," he says. After a succession of menial jobs, Rodman was given a tryout at Cooke County (junior) College in Gainesville, Texas, and landed a two-year scholarship. But after 14 games there, he gave up on himself academically and left. "It got to me," he says. "I said, I ain't going to make it nohow. What do I want to do this for?"

He returned to the Dallas streets, where he was headed nowhere and getting there fast. "The way I was going I would've ended up in jail for sure," he says. "My mother gave me money to look for a job, but I would take it and just go hang out. Finally she told me she was sick and tired of me sitting around the house bumming, so she threw me out."

The next three months Rodman spent moving from one friend's place to another and he fell so far between the cracks that it took Southeastern Oklahoma State coach Jack Hedden, who had learned of Rodman and wanted to recruit him, several weeks to find him. In 1983, when he was offered a scholarship to play for Southeastern Oklahoma, an NAIA school in Durant, Rodman, then 22, was convinced it was the last chance he would get to make something of his life. "I figured I had to try again to get off those streets," he says.

In Bokchito, which is 15 miles from Durant, there are no streets to speak of, only country roads that rise and fall with the pitch of the rolling farmland. Bokchito is Choctaw for "big creek," and when you have seen the creek, you have pretty much seen Bokchito. Pickup trucks have gun racks built into the backs of the cabs, and boys learn early how to shoot and hunt.

That's what 13-year-old Bryne Rich and three of his friends were doing on an Indian summer afternoon in 1982 as they headed through the wheat fields and into the woods behind the Riches' small frame house on their 600-acre farm. "We were shooting at horse apples, just having fun," Bryne says. The Riches are reluctant to discuss details of what happened next, but according to a story in The Dallas Morning News last fall, the boys hadn't walked more than half a mile before they stopped near a tree to reload. Just as Bryne put a fresh shell into his shotgun, his best friend, Brad Robinson, started to walk toward him. Bryne snapped the gun shut, but the firing pin had stuck, and when the gun closed, it went off, the shot hitting Brad.

While the other boys ran for help, Bryne stayed with Brad, holding him and telling him how sorry he was, how everything would work out and how much he loved him. "I love you, too," Brad said. Three days later he was dead.

For months following the funeral, Bryne was inconsolable. He insisted on sleeping in his parents' room. "At one point he came to us and said, 'Maybe if you'd adopt me a little brother I could teach him to play basketball,' " his mother, Pat, told SI in early April. "He was missing Brad something awful that night. I told Bryne that if God intended for him to have a little brother, maybe he'd send him one. Then we said a prayer together. Three weeks later, God sent us Worm. I never would've dreamed our little brother would be black. I think God must have a sense of humor."

The Riches had encouraged Bryne, the youngest of their three children, to go to a basketball camp at Southeastern Oklahoma, hoping it would help him to get on with his life. One day he went to a rec center to shoot around, but soon he was joined by Rodman, who offered to rebound Bryne's shots. "It seemed sort of strange," Bryne says of that first meeting with Rodman, who despite his designation by Pat as a "little brother" is actually eight years older than Bryne. "What really caught my attention was he had these quarters in his ears."

Rodman is called Worm because he's long and skinny and because of the contortions he would go through during the hours he spent in Dallas playing pinball machines. Everyone calls him Worm now except his natural mother and his fianc�e, Annie Bakes, a model from Sacramento. "I don't believe in parasite names for human beings," Bakes says fiercely. In Oklahoma, however, few people seem to realize Rodman even has another name. "He kind of puts you in mind of a worm, the way he wriggles around and all," says Pat.

Rodman has small round ears that accommodate not only quarters but also most other forms of coinage. He liked walking around campus with quarters in his ears because, he says, "everybody looked at me like I was crazy."

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