By Stephen Rodrick
The New York Times Magazine, June 1, 2003
Dennis Rodman, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, lounges in a chair on the patio of his oceanfront home in Newport Beach, Calif. After multiple hues and shades, Rodman’s hair is back to its original black, although it’s now permanently brittle. Jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt advertising Josh Slocum’s, a restaurant and nightclub nearby that he co-owns, obscure the tattoos. For his entire adult life, Rodman has vacillated between sweet child and self-destructive adolescent. At the moment, the teenager seems to be dominating. The seven-time National Basketball Association rebounding champion and onetime Jean-Claude Van Damme co-star seems giddy and a little incoherent.
“Welcome to Rodman’s Reef,” he shouts. “Welcome to my crazy world. Put your tape recorder away, have a beer and write anything you want. One rule: you gotta match me drink for drink.” He pauses, then adds seriously, “Just please don’t say I’m an idiot.”
Michelle Moyer, a 36-year-old blonde and the mother of Rodman’s two youngest children, ages 2 and 1, reclines nearby in a black bikini. Their relationship is unorthodox. Moyer and the kids live a couple of miles away. Rodman, a chronic insomniac, often stops by in the wee hours after making a Pampers run or picking up roses for Moyer. They were married on May 13, Rodman’s 42nd birthday, just four months after Rodman was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. The marriage is Rodman’s third. His first ended after 82 days; the second, to the model-actress Carmen Electra, lasted five months.
Already it is hard to remember how famous Dennis Rodman was. But just six years ago, the president of the United States actually answered a question about Rodman, who had kicked a photographer during a game. “I’m sure in his heart of hearts he regrets doing that,” Bill Clinton said, adding, “I’m a big Rodman fan.”
All of that seems far, far away. Like an aging sitcom that keeps getting moved to a worse and worse time slot, Dennis Rodman’s celebrity is near cancellation.
This was a year after Rodman announced his refusal to perform oral sex on Madonna, a revelation made public in Bad as I Wanna Be, his 1996 memoir, which became a New York Times best-seller.
All of that seems far, far away. Like an aging sitcom that keeps getting moved to a worse and worse time slot, Dennis Rodman’s celebrity is near cancellation. Rodman, by 1998 second to his teammate Michael Jordan in name recognition among basketball players, has no endorsements, no public appearances and few prospects. Rodman’s collapse is classic American overexposure. Call it the Action Figure Syndrome. From William Shatner to Mr. T, few survive being molded into 11 inches of plastic. It’s a sign that America has made your acquaintance, fallen in love and gorged on your image. And we all know what happens next in romance and marketing: boredom followed by contempt. Today, it’s a short road from the cover of GQ to a throwaway line in Conan’s monologue.
Rodman is in an even deeper hole than Captain Kirk and T, who enjoyed second acts in the wink-wink world of postmodern America, mocking their own cornball images in commercials. Unfortunately, Rodman morphed through so many decidedly noncornball configurations his first time around that there are few acts left.
On Rodman’s patio, two men in their late 20’s sit shirtless, their ample white guts basting in the spring sun. They sip cocktails from plastic cups. One of them, who gives his name as Todd, exchanges smooches with his pit bull and laughs loudly at everything Rodman says.
Rodman’s pink house opens onto a public beach peppered with surfers, pot-smoking teens and the sporadic gawker. Two girls shyly approach with a camera. “Hey, how old are you?” Rodman asks politely. A pretty brunette answers that she is 17. “Whoa, hold it right there,” Rodman says. “I’m losing all my money through lawsuits. I can’t afford any more.” He steps onto the beach and poses on public property.
A little later, Brandi Brandt, the former wife of the Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx, arrives with her three children. Simultaneously, a fast-talking, dreadlocked Hawaiian named Sabian appears. His eyes are red, and his body is covered with a tattoo of a human skeleton. Sabian starts filling water balloons and hurling them at the kids with a malice that unnerves Rodman. Sabian plasters one of the kids, maybe 8, on the head, and the child’s eyes well with tears. Rodman gently hugs the boy, wrapping him in his massive arms, and whispers: “It’s all love. Nothing gonna happen to you.” Pacified, the kid heads back to the sand.
I ask Rodman how he’s enjoying retirement. “Don’t you wish you had my life?” he asks, a hangdog smile spreading across his chapped lips. “I hang out and just chill. You wanna go surfing? There’s a board in there. Then I go to my bar.” He says he doesn’t need the celebrity life. “Wouldn’t you love to be me?” he asks.
Then Rodman goes quiet. “What I’d really love to do is play one more year,” he says, or coach in the W.N.B.A. “But I’ve been blackballed. I opened all the doors, and now they don’t want me. Even all the boring white guys got tattoos now.”
Eventually, all the guests depart. Rodman looks confused. “Who were those guys?” Moyer asks. Rodman stands up, and for the first time it’s clear that his chiseled body has gone a bit to seed; a tiny potbelly pokes out. “I have never seen them before in my life,” he says.
For most of his life, Dennis Rodman’s story was more Disney than E! Rodman was reared in the Dallas projects, and his father dropped out of his life when he was three. He played almost no basketball in high school. Following graduation, he worked as a janitor at Dallas-Fort Worth airport and grew nine inches. He flunked out of junior college after one semester and landed at Southeastern Oklahoma State on a basketball scholarship, where he averaged 24 points and nearly 18 rebounds his senior year.
Drafted in 1986 by the Detroit Pistons, Rodman played basketball counterintuitively, focusing on the defensive aspects of the game. “He had no fear of guarding anybody; Bird, Jordan,” says Chuck Daly, Rodman’s coach in Detroit.
The Pistons made it to the N.B.A. finals in Rodman’s second year, winning titles in his third and fourth. While the stars were Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars, it was Rodman’s defensive tenacity that personified the team.
Rodman, who unlike most in the pros hadn’t been told since the age of 3 that he would be an N.B.A. star, was a humble sweetheart. He gave Waterford crystal to Daly’s wife on Christmas and a Rolex watch to the Pistons’ public-relations director. He bought his mother and two sisters their own homes. His innocence was touching; he broke down crying after being named the N.B.A. Defensive Player of the Year.
Rodman’s career began its left turn after Daly was forced out by the Pistons in 1992. “It was like they got rid of my dad,” Rodman says. “I couldn’t forgive them.”
Having never known his real father, who emerged at the height of Rodman’s fame claiming to have sired 27 children, and separated from his surrogate father, Daly, Rodman changed drastically. “Before that he thought drinking was disgusting,” says Shirley Rodman, his mother.
“I met Dennis at a craps table in Vegas in 1993,” Manley recalls. “He said he was leaving the next day. I came back to Vegas a week later and he was still there.”
Rodman played another year for the Pistons, averaging a league-leading 18.3 rebounds a game, but Daly’s absence and a heated custody battle with his first wife left him depressed. In February 1993, two police officers found Rodman asleep in his truck outside the Pistons’ arena. A shotgun lay on the seat next to him. According to his autobiography, that was the night that instead of killing himself, “I killed the Dennis Rodman that had tried to conform to what everybody wanted him to be.”
That off-season, he was traded to San Antonio, where he started dyeing his hair a variety of colors and warred with Spurs management. The untalented Jack Haley was kept on the team as Rodman’s caddy and liaison to the organization. He withdrew from his teammates, refusing to join them for huddles during time-outs. But he’d also lash out. In one incident, Rodman angrily confronted the Spurs’ center, David Robinson, cursing at him to show some heart. The following season, 1995-96, Rodman was traded to the Chicago Bulls for a nonentity named Will Perdue.
About 10 minutes from Rodman’s Newport Beach home is the office of Dwight Manley, the architect of Rodman’s supersize media saturation. In the reception area hang the framed jerseys of two of Manley’s notoriously unmanageable former N.B.A. players, the late Bison Dele and Vernon (Mad Max) Maxwell. Curiously, the jersey of Dennis Rodman, Manley’s first and most important client, has been relegated to the kitchen.
“I met Dennis at a craps table in Vegas in 1993,” Manley recalls. “He said he was leaving the next day. I came back to Vegas a week later and he was still there.”
Manley didn’t urge him to go home. Instead, he took Rodman to a concert and then to a bachelor party in Laughlin, Nev. An unlikely-looking Colonel Parker figure, Manley has a pale face and the soft features of a kindergarten teacher. Manley was happy to spend 24 hours a day with his new friend. “I handled the day and Dennis handled the night,” Manley says with a wan smile.
Any line between business adviser and friend quickly blurred. Manley filled the role vacant since Daly’s departure. But where Daly earned his trust with discipline, Manley would gain it by becoming Rodman’s personal Barnum. In 1995, Rodman confided to Manley that he was nearly broke. That summer, Manley, recently separated, moved Rodman into his Orange County home and arranged some lucrative autograph sessions. Soon, he was handling Rodman’s business affairs. During that season, when Rodman was playing with the Chicago Bulls, Daly ran into the player two nights in a row at Gibson’s, a famed Chicago steak joint. “I was present at the creation of the new Dennis Rodman,” Daly claims. “Dennis kept saying: ‘I’m making $2 million and it’s just not enough. I have to create a new image.’”
Rodman quickly exploded from basketball circus freak to pop-culture diva, benefiting from his presence on the dynastic, jet-setting Bulls. He loved being the ham, but like an ignored adolescent, he never distinguished between positive and self-damaging attention. Rodman threw his jersey into the Chicago crowd after home victories. He palled around with Pearl Jam. His frank love for gay bars and profession of having had a transsexual lover made him a crossover star in the alternative community. (He had an AIDS ribbon dyed into his hair in 1995.) But then Rodman would do something destructively outrageous; fly to Vegas on an off-day, head-butt a ref or slur the Mormon population of Utah. That all just fed the legend. It was a bit like sketch comedy. Rodman would act out, and Jordan would roll his eyes and helplessly shrug, as if to say, “That’s Dennis being Dennis.”
The Rodman phenomenon hit its apex with the publication of Bad as I Wanna Be. For publicity, Manley orchestrated a book signing on Fifth Avenue in which Rodman arrived in a carriage wearing a wedding dress, trailed by a court of tuxedo-clad women. His makeup was done by the legendary Kevyn Aucoin. In the end, Rodman made a reference to masturbation and married himself.
“That was our idea,” Manley says. “Dennis was totally on board.”
There were endless Howard Stern appearances, world publicity tours and Simon Sez, one of the worst films of all time, starring Rodman as an Interpol agent. In 1997, Manley estimates Rodman made $10 million in off-court revenue.
Not surprisingly, Rodman hit the celeb tipping point. Unrelenting, Manley negotiated a seven-figure advance for Rodman’s second literary effort, Walk on the Wild Side. By now, Rodman’s ability to shock was no longer shocking. His proclamation that he wanted to change his name to Orgasm was met with indifference. By Manley’s account, the book was horrible and sold poorly.
During the 1997-’98 season, his last with the Bulls, Rodman’s behavior became more erratic—including an 11-game suspension for kicking the photographer in the incident that made Clinton take notice. At this time, he was losing Manley, who moved in with his girlfriend and was no longer available at a moment’s notice. Rodman again acted out like an abandoned child. In November 1998, he married Carmen Electra, a Baywatch fixture, at the Las Vegas Little Chapel of the Flowers. Manley urged Rodman to have the marriage annulled on the grounds that Rodman was too looped to understand what he was doing. Soon thereafter, Manley tried to work out a trade of Rodman to the Los Angeles Lakers that would have earned him a $7 million contract. But Rodman stopped returning his phone calls and wouldn’t give his approval. Manley resigned as his agent. In the end, Rodman became a free agent, and he signed, albeit briefly, with the Lakers for the league minimum. A year later, his career was over.
Shortly after the departure of the unknown guests, Rodman and Michelle Moyer pile into his black Hummer. Moyer drives—since a 2000 D.U.I. conviction, Rodman rarely gets behind the wheel—to Josh Slocum’s, a pleasantly lighted upscale club. Rodman orders half the menu. He requests a Red-Headed Slut made with Jägermeister, triple sec and a touch of cranberry juice. He then rhapsodizes at great length and graphic detail about the sexual prowess of Moyer. Rodman proclaims, “I’ve slept with so many women, it doesn’t matter anymore.” He ducks into the bathroom. Moyer rolls her eyes and remarks to the female bartender, “Any relationship with Dennis is in a state of constant rebuilding.”
Upon his return, Rodman drags me into the kitchen. Rodman grabs tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, a piece of fish and a flour tortilla. He shapes it on a plate; delicately rearranging the proportions of the ingredients. He takes a bite and says, “Damn, this should go on the menu.” Jose, the chef, smiles and says, somewhat unconvincingly: “Dennis helps me with a lot of things. He is so creative.”
Back at the bar, Rodman downs three more shots. He polishes off 19 in four hours before I lose count. Some early diners trickle in, and Rodman commandeers the sound system. He turns it up to ear-bleeding levels.
Like a charismatic 5-year-old in a sandbox, Rodman builds friendships instantly. For a few hours, he treats me like his best buddy; nothing matters to him except my happiness. The Counting Crows song “Mr. Jones” comes on. He puts me in a headlock and sings all the verses into my ear. “Man, you’re all right, you’re not going to screw me?” Rodman asks. “I can’t even trust my family. I don’t talk to any of them.”
The song changes to the A-Ha classic “Take On Me.” Rodman starts wildly dancing, kicking his massive legs into the air, sometimes just a yard or so from middle-aged patrons. By the end of the song, more than a dozen guests abandon dinner and leave the restaurant.
“He’s lost himself; he can’t see where one starts and the other ends. He’s convinced he has to play up to that. I know that’s not him. The shy kid I met is who he is.”
We sit down at a table. According to Experian Business Reports, a financial risk-assessment service, Josh Slocum’s has become “increasingly late” in paying creditors. I ask him how he’s doing financially. “Man, all these lawyers are bleeding me. It can’t go on much longer, ’cause I ain’t got much left.” It’s not surprising; in addition to his arrests, Rodman has settled several lawsuits for alleged sexual assault out of court and come up against the City of Newport Beach over more than 80 noise complaints made against his home. “I’ve lost almost everything,” he says. “But the only person I have to blame is Dennis Rodman. That’s O.K. by me. Money doesn’t mean a lot.”
Rodman shouts for more booze. I ask if his drinking is out of control. He fires off a string of expletives. But then he says matter-of-factly, “I like it; it makes me feel good, so what the hell.”
By 1 a.m., his speech is nearly indecipherable. Sitting with some friends, he mumbles, “All I wanna do is go home and have sex with my wife.” Moyer says: “O.K., baby, that can happen. Let’s go.” Rodman smiles crazily, “Yeah, like that is really gonna happen.” Moyer and a manager load him into the Hummer. He dreamily looks out the window, and then he is gone.
At one point, while we sat at his nightclub, Dennis Rodman brought up Mike Tyson. “That dude can’t tell the difference between image and reality,” Rodman said. “He thinks he’s a tough guy, when he’s just a guy. I can’t change my image, because Dennis is my image.”
When I mention these remarks to Chuck Daly, he chuckles sadly. “That’s Dennis’s problem,” he says. “He’s lost himself; he can’t see where one starts and the other ends. He’s convinced he has to play up to that. I know that’s not him. The shy kid I met is who he is.”
Two days later, I get a call from his former image maker. “If you see Dennis, please bring him over to my office,” Dwight Manley says. “I want to try and set up an intervention. I’ve talked to Michael Jordan. He said he’d do anything to help, and I’m trying to reach Chuck Daly.”
According to Manley, he stopped into Josh Slocum’s three weeks earlier. When Rodman saw Manley, he burst into tears. “We went into the back and he told me, ‘I’m going to lose everything—please, please help me.’ He was crying so hard, the snot was pouring out his nose. I told him to make the first step, to call me, but he never did. He’s just a shadow of what he was. It breaks my heart.”
While it is clear that Manley has genuine affection for his former client, I ask him if he feels any sense of responsibility for Rodman’s current predicament through his endless promotions and sideshows. “Not at all,” Manley says. “He would be in the same place he is now, but at least he had some great experiences and made some money. Dennis could earn $200,000 a year just being Dennis Rodman, making personal appearances and doing events. He’d have to lose the limos and the entourage, but he could have a nice life.”
Over the next four days, I look for Rodman with no luck. I run into Moyer at Josh Slocum’s. She doesn’t know where he is. There are rumors he’s in Los Angeles or that he has entered one of his dark periods and refuses to see anyone. Manley calls again. “If you see Dennis,” he says, “tell him I got a call about a TV show that wants him. I can’t say what it is. But it sounds promising.”
[Featured Illustration: Jim Cooke]