Dennis Rodman was sitting on his bed with a few friends watching television and counting the minutes to his new life. It was 8 p.m. He had one hour left as a Piston. That’s what he figured. That’s what he wanted.
“I been traded yet?” he asked a visitor.
“Not yet,” came the answer.
“Damn,” he said.
He was dressed like a teenager, gray T-shirt, sweat pants cut at the knee, brown suede hiking boots, a backwards baseball cap. He looked as if he was going to a Nirvana concert. Instead, he was sitting in his lakefront home with a white baby grand piano in the glass and wood foyer. This is the paradox of Dennis Rodman, half-kid, half-adult.
“I coulda been traded to Miami a half-hour ago,” he said, grabbing the remote control. “They wanted me. But I said no.”
“Why you think? I wanna go to Phoenix.”
He flipped the channels and found “The Simpsons.” He walked to another room. He lay down on a bean bag. The phone rang. He answered. Talked softly. Walked to another room.
This was the night it was all supposed to end, Rodman’s life as a Piston. And he was ready. Quite ready. Understand this: Dennis Rodman was gone. In his mind. In his heart. He wanted out. And most of the organization wanted him out, too — even those who consider him a friend. Never mind that the Pistons were the only NBA team he had ever played for. Never mind that he had won two championship rings in this city. Never mind that he had became this legendary rebounder, this leaping gnome of a defender, this crowd favorite who shaved messages in the back of his hair.
Never mind. Those days were gone. He had grown unhappy, sullen, depressed, stopped coming to practices, exchanged nasty words with the new coach and the front office. Everyone figured it would be best if Dennis went somewhere else and by now Dennis figured maybe everyone was right.
“I want Phoenix to come through,” he said, walking through his massive kitchen.
“Will you still live in this house?” a friend asked.
“Nuh-uh, I’ll sell it.”
The phone rang. He went to another room.Loneliness is Rodman’s true enemy
“Those bleeps!” he came back saying. “They just traded Orlando Woolridge for Alvin Robertson.”
“The Milwaukee guard?”
“Now they’re saying they won’t trade me to Phoenix.”
He pulled off the cap and rubbed his eyes. It was starting again, in his mind, this feeling he was getting the shaft. It is not necessarily true, of course. The Pistons have been plenty tolerant of Rodman’s behavior. They sigh when he misses practice. They shrug when he walks in late. They even returned the money he’d been fined for leaving the team earlier this season. Gave it back. A good-faith gesture. Nobody knows this. And it doesn’t matter. It’s not the money. It’s not the team.
On a wall in Rodman’s house is a charcoal portrait of him and his daughter, Alexis. It is a lovely drawing, her arm resting on his shoulder. Rodman almost burst into tears when he saw it for the first time. The artist drew it from separate photos, one of the child, one of the father. In reality, they haven’t touched in months. The child is in California with Rodman’s estranged wife. Dennis is here.
This — not Chuck Daly, not Ron Rothstein — is the constant source of Rodman’s pain and depression. And no trade was going to fix it. The fact is, Rodman would have taken his personal troubles with him, and in the middle of the night, in some new zip code, the demons would have returned. For now, however, he needed a dream. The dream was Phoenix, a championship-caliber team. And if that didn’t come through, he needed an enemy. The enemy was the Pistons’ front office.
“They’re trying to bleep me,” he said, hanging up the phone. He took a rubber basketball and tossed it down the hardwood floor.
“Damn it!” he said. Both sides refused to budge
When the clock read 8:51, Rodman was once again on the phone. A deal with Seattle, he said. It died. And at 8:59, he was again on the phone. Another shot at Miami. Dead. At 9:03, three minutes after the trading deadline, he put the phone down, and bit his lip.
“Bleep that! They wanted me to take $400,000 off my salary to go to Miami. Can you believe that?”
And then, as if it hit him all at once, he slumped. He took his cap off. He wiped away a tear. He was still a Piston, which was once all he ever wanted to be. Now he was miserable.
You can come down any way you like on Dennis Rodman sympathy, anger. In the end, you realize only this: He is a tortured soul. And business is business. The Pistons wanted Rodman out, but they wanted good value or else no deal. Rodman wanted out, but not enough to take a pay cut, or to go somewhere that wasn’t first or second choice.
And so the Pistons held firm, Rodman held firm, and for now, they are stuck with each other. Marriages are like that. Maybe this one survives. Maybe it’s already dead.
On Thursday at 9:17 p.m., all anyone knew was that very little had changed. Rodman went to the closet and handed his guest his coat.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, and you only wish there were more joy in those words.