Rodman says he learned to take these affronts in stride. "I think that made me grow up," he says. "I felt bad. Like, why am I here? A few people, if they were drunk, they'd drive by and say things, they want to tease you. I didn't pay it no mind. I just said forget it." On occasion he tried to break away from the Riches and return to his dorm. "But every time, they begged me to come back," he says. "I knew they just wanted me there for Bryne's sake, but in time they accepted me as part of their family."
The question as to whether Pat is trying to use him persists: She has set about trying to sell their story to the movies, so far unsuccessfully. (Rodman says he hasn't opposed the movie idea.) "People are telling me it's a TV movie, but I see Academy Award winner written all over this," Pat says. "But so far all I'm getting are options, options, options." There hasn't been a movie yet, but the Riches were paid a modest sum, Pat says, to tell their story in
In his first year at Southeastern—with virtually no experience in organized basketball—Rodman averaged 26 points and 13.1 rebounds. He led the NAIA in rebounds the next two seasons, with 15.9 and 17.8 a game. As his play improved, so did his confidence, which may have partly accounted for his controversial remarks about Bird. "I'd see Bird on TV and say, I could guard that guy,' " Rodman says. "I wasn't afraid of anybody."
To quell the storm Rodman started last spring, the NBA hurriedly called a press conference during the playoff finals at which Bird and Thomas, two of the NBA's biggest attractions, sat on a podium together and said that it was all a big mistake and there were no hard feelings. Rodman wasn't invited to any press conferences, but a brief apology was released to the press by his agent. Rodman spent the summer in Bokchito with his white family, reading his hate mail and learning to live with being labeled a racist. He insists the uproar did not bother him, but his sister Debra says, "He was hurt by all that."
When pressed on the subject, Rodman concedes—once again—that his comments about Bird were ill-advised. "If we had won the game, I wouldn't have said anything like that," he says. "I was hurting, and I wanted to hurt those people back. But I shouldn't have said what I said. Larry Bird proved to me he's one of the best, and they were the better team that day. I made a mistake." Unequivocal though his apology sounds, it's clear that Rodman's remarks about Bird reflected a feeling shared by other black players: White writers and fans embrace white NBA stars a little too eagerly.
This season Rodman has been content to express himself by providing the Pistons with a tremendous lift off the bench—and even in the starting lineup. From Feb. 9 to April 1, he started 29 straight games as a replacement for Adrian Dantley, who injured his ankle. Rodman averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds a game during that stretch. He finished the season averaging 11.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, and he ranked sixth in the league in offensive rebounds and fifth in field goal percentage (.561). "Without his offensive rebounding, we're not an effective club," says coach Chuck Daly of the Pistons, who entered the playoffs this week tied with Denver for the league's third-best record (54-28).
Daly says that Rodman can be an even better player if he can control his frustrations. Rodman has always been emotional. On the day he signed with the Pistons in 1986, he hyperventilated, then had an allergic reaction and had to be rushed to a hospital. During his Pistons physical, he became so nervous his heart began to race wildly. At one point this season he missed 15 foul shots in a row and wound up the season shooting better from the field than from the line (53.5).
Amid all the hate mail last summer, Rodman received one supportive letter from the Philippines. It was from his father, a restaurant manager, who said that he was sorry for all the years they didn't spend together and that he hoped they could meet in the off-season. He said he was proud of his son, that he loved him. "I think it would be good for him to talk to his father," says Shirley. "I don't know whether he's been blaming me all these years, or whether he blames his father. But I think when he and his father meet, some of these feelings will leave him." Shirley herself hadn't seen her son for more than a year until she visited him recently in Detroit, and she saw him only occasionally during his three years at Southeastern Oklahoma. "Dennis didn't want me hovering over him," she says. "My way of looking at it was this was his chance to gain his independence."
Something else he gained was a knowledge of how much it hurts to be put down because of one's color, a lesson he appeared to apply with his comments about Bird. Indeed, it seems likely that the feelings he was expressing when those fateful words came tumbling out went far beyond the pain of merely losing in the playoffs.