Dennis Rodman's jersey retirement will be my biggest Pistons highlight other than their championships

The first jersey retirement I vividly remember as a Pistons fan was Bill Laimbeer’s.

The reason it sticks out, however, is not because of Laimbeer. That’s not a shot at Laimbeer — he was a fantastic player, loved off the court and certainly deserving of the honor. But I remember it specifically because of a recorded message from former teammate Dennis Rodman that played during the ceremony. Rodman said, and I’m paraphrasing slightly because the video is not out there, that he’d be honored to have his number up there next to Laimbeer’s some day, but added that he didn’t think that would ever happen.

It was weird coming from Rodman, who at that phase in his career was full-on into his piercings/hair dye/partying/kicking photographers phase that turned off many of his fans post-Pistons. Rodman, although I’m sure he was certainly different on the inside, was never outwardly vulnerable during this part of his career, and this admission, that he’d like to be remembered as a Pistons icon just like his former Bad Boys teammates, was nothing if not vulnerable. I may have been reading too much into it, but I got the sense that there was a deep sadness in Rodman, a feeling that he probably wouldn’t be welcome back at the place he called home and became a Hall of Fame-level NBA player because of how poorly things ended between he and the organization.

The comments by Rodman’s agent last week basically confirmed my hunch, that since leaving Detroit, Rodman hasn’t had a “home” in the sense that nearly all NBA legends are associated with the city of their greatest successes. Retiring his No. 10 in April will hopefully rectify this and put his career in proper perspective. It also will hopefully be a nice precursor to a Hall of Fame induction.

The Passion of the Worm

A lot of people admire Rodman’s game and understand the huge impact he had on some of the best teams in NBA history. But when I say he’s my favorite player of all-time, I usually get bewildered responses. “You like Rodman more than Isiah? Or Dumars? You grew up in the Jordan era, right? And you like Rodman better than anyone who ever played? I mean, he couldn’t even score!”

I don’t have a good response. There are plenty of reasons to love Dumars or Thomas or, although it pains me to say because I spent so much of my youth hating him and the Bulls, Jordan. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Rodman for his off the court behavior and sometimes, his on-court behavior, which may have directly cost a very good San Antonio team a shot at a title. But Rodman is the first player I remember noticing on a basketball court.

As a more mature watcher of the game now, there are other things that I pay attention to and appreciate in players. But my first connection with the NBA was through style, and Rodman’s style was undeniable. In the Vanilla Ice/M.C. Hammer of ridiculous designs shaved into your head, Rodman was the king. I’ve never seen so many lines shaved in someone’s head going in different directions and I’ve never been more frustrated at a barber shop when no one was able to recreate it in my hair.

He wore Reebok pumps, which seemed like the most fantastic footwear technology around in the late 1980s/early 90s. And on the court, he ran around, had more energy and had more spontaneous celebrations after hustle plays than anyone the Pistons ever faced.

I was too young to understand the circumstances surrounding his trade, other than the fact that he seemed really unhappy, he wasn’t his exuberant self in that final season and the players they received in return for him seemed really terrible. Looking back on what happened, it’s easy to see Rodman became a malcontent and it was necessary for the team to part with him. They still were absolutely ripped off in the trade, but I understand why they did it. Twelve-year-old me was really depressed that his favorite player wouldn’t be a Piston anymore though.

Seeing him on the Spurs wasn’t all bad. David Robinson was my favorite non-Piston player, and I enjoyed Demolition Man, so I was excited to see Rodman with a blond Wesley Snipes-inspired haircut upon arriving in San Antonio. My basketball knowledge was evolving some, and I could see and understand that Rodman’s presence made things easier on Robinson. Rodman, at his best anyway, took the toughest defensive assignments, he gave the Spurs, a finesse team, a little nastiness, and he still played the game with the intensity that everyone loved in Detroit.

I didn’t care so much that he took off his shoes when he was on the bench (his feet hurt from all that rebounding, after all) or that he didn’t seem to have much respect for coach Bob Hill (who would?). And when the Spurs cut ties with him, I thought their acquisition of Will Perdue for Rodman was even worse than the uninspiring package the Pistons received for him.

A converted Bulls fan

Pre-Rodman in Chicago, there was never a scenario where I could’ve imagined myself rooting for the Bulls. I hated Jordan, I naively thought that Pippen was overrated (he wasn’t) and I found the endless stream of nondescript role players who made big plays as a result of the attention paid to Jordan and Pippen thoroughly annoying.

But what do you do when your favorite player joins your least favorite team?

Rodman’s behavior had grown increasingly bizarre by this point, and I was well into the awkward teenage phase. My dad was a very conventional basketball fan. He loved players like Dumars and Grant Hill, gentlemen who were never flashy and absolutely never made themselves bigger than the game. I was at the opposite end of the spectrum to say the least. My dad constantly loved the fact that, in his words, Dumars could dunk whenever he wanted but just chose to do layups instead so he wouldn’t draw attention to himself. I couldn’t think of anything more stupid.

So my dad, who loved the way Rodman played for Detroit, had undoubtedly become disenfranchised by his escalating weirdness in San Antonio and later Chicago. I think this was a pretty common way Pistons fans looked at Rodman — loved his contributions to the championships, but thought he was an ass. And seeing him on the Bulls made it even easier for Pistons fans to hate him.

My response? I bought my one and only Bulls jersey and the book Bad as I Wanna Be. I didn’t learn much from the book, other than vivid details about the voracious sexual appetite of Madonna which was admittedly intriguing to a teenager, but I couldn’t waver in my support for Rodman, even if it meant cheering for my least favorite team and cheering for two players I despised in Jordan and Pippen. I also couldn’t stop making excuses for Rodman’s behavior.

Post-Bulls

Rodman was a major factor in Chicago winning three titles. But he nearly killed the last two teams he played for. In a handful of games for the Lakers and Dallas his final two seasons, Rodman wasn’t the intelligent albeit eccentric player he was in Detroit and Chicago. He was a sideshow.

Both teams lacked the veteran presence that Detroit and Chicago offered, with more focused players who Rodman respected in place to reel him in before he imploded. Both teams also lacked strong, father-like coaches who earned Rodman’s respect like Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson did. In L.A. and Dallas, Rodman was expected to be the champion, the veteran who lended his knowledge of winning to young teams in need of his toughness. Instead, he chased rebounds to pad his stats while eschewing other responsibilities. He was constantly in the ear of officials, picking up ill-advised technicals. His defensive effort came and went. Never an offensive player, Rodman would occasionally take inexplicable shots at inopportune times. Overall, the passion that made him such a lovable player despite his warts was gone. And minus that passion or any semblance of discipline, those warts were not worth it for those teams and both quickly parted ways with him.

It was a disappointing end to his NBA career, and not just because the ending overshadowed the brilliant beginning for a while. I’d invested in Rodman. I’d believed in him and defended him passionately against growing criticism for all of his off-court stuff. I believed him when he said he was in control of his life even when it clearly looked like he had serious issues influencing his behavior. The way it ended hurt a lot. Not only was the undisciplined way Rodman played unwatchable, his actions were increasingly indefensible.

Time heals

The 35 games Rodman played his final two seasons should have zero bearing on his greater body of work, and that greater body of work is Hall of Fame worthy.

As readers of this blog know, there are great debates about the value of stats in the NBA blogosphere (the backlash against Henry Abbott’s recent piece on Kobe Bryant’s clutch numbers is a good illustration of the divide). Rodman is a player loved by fans and writers on both extremes of the debate, those who love advanced metrics and the people who don’t need pesky numbers to evaluate what happens on a basketball court.

The so-called stat-lovers will point to Rodman’s unreal rebounding percentage (first in NBA history) even though he was never the biggest or strongest player on the court. The so-called purists who have no use for calculators will point to the fact that Rodman could guard all five positions on the court and successfully frustrated everyone from Michael Jordan to Shaquille O’Neal with his defensive intelligence.

The interesting thing to me, both with the knowledge that Rodman is Hall of Fame eligible for the second straight year and the later announcement that the Pistons plan to retire his number this season, has been the almost universal support he’s received from writers and fans in comments sections. Just last year I was arguing with uninformed newspaper columnists about the merits of Rodman’s HOF candidacy. I haven’t seen the anti-Rodman position taken in a quite a while (and never seen it taken smartly), and with his name in the news because of the HOF candidacy and the jersey retirement lately, it would seem like a time for those to pop up if people have feelings that Rodman isn’t deserving. It’s really remarkable the turnaround and the healing that has occurred over the years. There was a time when it felt like there was significantly more vitriol among Pistons fans towards Rodman, and I’m really glad that that seems to be gone.

Momentum is extremely important for Hall of Fame candidates that aren’t shoe-ins. Rodman is certainly no shoe-in, but unlike last year, when his name was virtually ignored on the ballot, he has some momentum forming. His jersey will be retired. People online have taken up a campaign on his behalf. But the Hall of Fame is secondary. As Rodman’s agent alluded, he has personal demons that have affected his quality of life, a life that has undoubtedly been a tragic one dating back to his childhood and improbable journey to the NBA.

I don’t know if the ceremony for Rodman is enough to aid in his recovery from alcoholism that his agent referenced. But I do know it will be good to have him home.

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