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The word bounces off Dennis Rodman like a three-point clanger off the rim. Nothing about Rodman—nicknamed the Worm years ago by his hometown Dallas friends because of the way he squirmed while playing pinball—is normal. His background is so bizarre that it could never work as fiction. And his on-court accomplishments defy logic.
He helped the Pistons win back-to-back NBA championships, in 1988-89 and 1989-90, even though he was little more than a bench warmer during only half a season of high school basketball. He has been-named to the NBA All-Defensive first team five straight years, and he routinely guards centers, power forwards, small forwards and shooting guards even though his grounding in the game was limited to stints at a J.C. and an NAIA school. He has led the league in rebounding the last two seasons, averaging an incredible 18.5 per game during that stretch, four boards a game better than his closest challenger. He has led the league in offensive rebounds the last three seasons, averaging a persistent 5.5 per game over that period, and yet he almost has to be pistol-whipped into shooting the rock. "There were times when he'd get an offensive rebound right under the basket," says the Pistons' Isiah Thomas, marveling at the image, "and he'd come all the way out to the three-point line and hand me the ball."
In a league where scoring is everything and flash is worshiped, Rodman is a star who does not score or flash. Who does not want to score or flash. "I have become a superstar from doing stupid, crazy——," he says. "I have the job nobody wants." Once, at the Silverdome, he flew into the stands after a loose ball with such recklessness—unnecessarily so, as a court would later rule—that he injured a female spectator near courtside; she was subsequently awarded a reported $60,000 for her injuries, which included the loss of several teeth.
His career scoring average is a lowly 8.8 points per game. "He's brought back the concept of 'garbage player,' " then teammate Scott Hastings said in 1991. "But he's made it an art form."
The Worm has done garbage so well that when things blew up with the Pistons last season—when he was trying in vain to explain why he kept missing practices, when he was telling anyone who would listen that he wanted to play somewhere else (it was never clear where), when he was seeing a psychiatrist, when he was found by the police sleeping in his truck in the parking lot at The Palace of Auburn Hills at 5 a.m. with a loaded rifle under his front seat, when he kept adding more and more tattoos to his body, when he took his shoes off in the middle of games, when he shaved slogans into his scalp—even then there were half a dozen other teams clamoring for his services.
"There's never been an NBA player like him," says former Piston coach Chuck Daly, now with the New Jersey Nets. "I love him. I'll endorse him anywhere. As a coach you go to the wall for a guy like that. He'll win you six to 10 games a year without even scoring."
Rodman has shown that he can play the game, however askew his proficiencies might be. (There was a 15-game stretch in 1989, for instance, in which he shot 37% from the free throw line, and yet he is a two-time All-Star.) But more than that, what happens on the floor is, to Rodman, a sacred thing. There was the night in 1990 when he even cried on the court while playing the Houston Rockets. Hakeem Olajuwon was going to dunk on him, had him beat to the basket in the late moments of a tied game, and the Worm knew he was whipped by the much taller and stronger man, but he spun to the hoop anyway, as hard as he could, never giving up, and leaped, and blocked the dunk. It was transcendent. It was rebirth. His eyes filled with tears.
Crying at such moments is nothing for this most unrefined and delicate of men. There was also the night in 1992 when Rodman grabbed 34 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers, breaking Bob Lanier's 20-year-old Piston single-game record, and he cried like a baby. Broke a record held by a 6'11", 265-pound center. "This is not my greatest achievement," the Worm said later. "The greatest achievement of my life was turning my life around."
Which was true. But where is that life headed now?