Dennis Rodman could not stop himself, did not want to stop himself really. He wanted to take all the hurt that had built up inside him like water behind a dam and just let it out. He heard the words as they tumbled out, but he didn't think about them, didn't think about anything. He just talked until he felt no hurt. Then he knew it was time to go home.
The Detroit Pistons, for whom Rodman was a rookie forward, had just been beaten 117-114 by the Boston Celtics in the seventh game of last season's NBA Eastern Conference finals, and Rodman was furious with the Celtics and the taunting Boston Garden crowd, and he ached for one last chance to get back at them. He said, " Larry Bird is overrated in a lot of areas. I don't think he's the greatest player. He's way overrated." These derogatory words about Bird, widely acclaimed as the NBA's best or, at worst, second-best player, felt good as they came cascading out. "Why does he get so much publicity?" Rodman continued. "Because he's white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest." From where he was sitting nearby, Detroit teammate Isiah Thomas agreed that if Bird were black, "he'd be just another good guy."
It would be days before Rodman realized just how sensitive a nerve he had touched, but long before that he became aware there would be trouble. "When I calmed down, I knew it was all going to blow up," he says. Rodman, who was pilloried for his remarks, issued a brief public apology and then fled to his home and his family in Bokchito, Okla. (pop. 607). On the drive home he thought about everything that had happened, and he wondered how long it would take before people he had never even met stopped calling him a racist. Then Rodman thought about Bokchito, and he wondered what people would say if they knew that the family he had lived with for three years before the Pistons drafted him, the family he was hurrying home to spend the summer with, is white. He also wondered how people would react if they knew that his girlfriend—now his fianc�e—is white, too.
Rodman's real mother and father had separated when he was three, leaving Shirley Rodman with three babies to raise alone in Dallas. "He just disappeared one day," Dennis says of his father, Phil Rodman. "Haven't seen him since." Shirley worked at two jobs and spent whatever time was left over playing piano and singing at the Church of the Living God. "It was a female family, and I think we just overwhelmed Dennis," Shirley says. Dennis became so attached to his mother that when she tried to send him to a nursery when he was four, he jammed himself into the doorway of the bus and refused to move.
"I felt shut out not having a father, always having to look out for myself," Dennis says. "And my mother just didn't have enough time to be with me. She was always more interested in my sisters."
By the time Dennis was in high school, everyone was more interested in his two younger sisters than in him. Debra grew to 6'3" and would go on to be an All-America forward for national champion Louisiana Tech, while Kim, 6'1�", became an All-America at Stephen F. Austin.
Dennis tried out for the South Oak Cliff High School football team and was cut because he was too small. "He was devastated by that," says Shirley. "He went to pieces, stayed in his room for days." When he got out of high school, he was still only 5'9" and was frequently taunted by his friends for constantly tagging along after his sisters.
Rodman had wanted to play basketball in high school, but the closest he came was sitting on the bench for half a season before he quit. "I couldn't even make a layup right," he says.
After he graduated from school, he took a job as a janitor at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, "mopping, sweeping, cleaning up," he says. One night he noticed that by sticking a broom handle through a gate enclosing one of the airport's shops, he could reach a display case full of watches. He scooped up nearly 50 watches, gave most of them out to his friends and was arrested. He survived that, survived the 18 hours he spent in jail, even survived asking for the watches back from his friends, which eventually led to the case against him being dropped.
By the time Rodman was 19, practically every hormone in his body had begun to explode. In the next two years he shot up from 5'9" to 6'8", a growth spurt so convulsive that for a long time he refused to leave the house because he felt so odd. "It was weird," he says. "My clothes wouldn't fit me at all." So he began showing up for his evenings out in the coveralls he wore to work at Henry Butts Oldsmobile, where he made $3.50 an hour cleaning cars.