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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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When Bryne finished his shooting that day, he went home and asked his mother if he could bring his new friend home to dinner. After she said it would be all right, Bryne said there was one thing he had forgotten to mention to her: "Worm is black."

"Black?" his mother replied.

Most of the white people in Bokchito don't know any black people personally. "I almost swallered my tongue when I heard," recalls Pat. "I assumed he was a white boy. If everything had been normal, we'd have questioned it a lot more. But I tolerated it because it was good for Bryne. We thought, What harm could it do to let him have a friend for dinner? We didn't know he was going to become part of our family. It's hard to believe a family like ours could love a black boy like Worm."

The Riches live in a small house next to the road. The parlor where Pat used to do the local ladies' hair is at the front of the house, and a wood-paneled living room with a gun case is in the back. James Rich, who farms and carries the U.S. mail, has clear blue eyes that he frequently trains on his wife while she does most of the talking.

James and Pat had convinced themselves that their son's fascination with the tall stranger would pass after that dinner. It didn't. That night Bryne asked his parents if Rodman could spend the night.

"James and I started squirming around in our chairs, hemmin' and hawin' somethin' fierce," Pat says. The Riches couldn't think of a good reason to say no, so they said yes, and Rodman wound up sleeping on the floor in Bryne's room. Pat also remembers that night for another reason: She says that for the first time since the shooting accident, Bryne slept through the night in his own room. "Worm brought Bryne out of the depression he was in," Pat says. "But at the same time, I think Bryne helped save Worm."

Rodman felt immediately close to Bryne. He soon arranged for Bryne to be the water boy for Southeastern Oklahoma's basketball team, and he sometimes let Bryne stay at the dorm with him—when, that is, Rodman wasn't staying at the Riches. And Bryne says, "I kind of looked up to him. I don't really look at Worm as a friend. He's more like a brother." Although he didn't say it, he now obviously means older brother.

Nevertheless, Pat at first had trouble accepting Rodman's presence. "Bryne was doing so well that we tolerated it," she says. She was less enthusiastic when Rodman started asking for rides back to the house from the Southeastern Oklahoma campus, where she was taking classes at the time. "I'd let him ride to school in my car and that was real hard for me," Pat says. "I didn't want to be seen alone with Worm because I didn't want rumors to get started. There were times when I knew he'd be looking for a ride home, and I would try to duck him, but he would always find me. I saw him coming in the library once and hid behind some bookshelves. Finally he said, 'Mrs. Rich, I know you're in there.' "

In time Rodman came to be treated like a member of the family, borrowing the Riches' car, even being given chores to do. Dallas is just a two-hour drive from Bokchito, but for Rodman it might as well have been on another planet. "All of a sudden I'm driving a tractor and messing with cows," Rodman says. "But I never went back to Dallas, I never did. I figured if I was going to make it, if I was going to clear that street crap out of my life, I couldn't go back there."

It wasn't that easy for him in Oklahoma either. If he forgot who he was or what he was, someone always reminded him. "One time I got into an argument with Worm," Pat recalls. "I said, 'Watch it, nigger.' I wanted to die as soon as I'd said it. Of course, white folks around here sometimes forget that's a derogatory word. One time I was talking on the telephone to a friend, and she told me she'd been working like a nigger all day. I said, 'You think you' ve been working like a nig...' and I stopped. When I looked around, there was Worm, his eyes all big."

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