I’ve written at length, for different publications, about my fondness for Dennis Rodman. He was my favorite Piston of the Bad Boys era. He temporarily made me a secret Spurs and Bulls fan after he was no longer a Piston. More importantly, he changed the way I thought about basketball for the better. Most kids my age grew up idolizing Michael Jordan. The names are different now, but the concept is the same with kids who wanted to be the next Allen Iverson or Vince Carter or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Basically, when picking out a basketball hero, points matter. The guys who can score at will are always going to stand out.
Rodman was the first player who became a star without any discernible offensive game, and that helped kids like me with no discernible offensive game realize you can still make meaningful contributions as basketball players without scoring. In fact, he was downright hostile to the concept of offense at times during his playing days, freely passing up shots that he probably should’ve taken. His job was to shut down opponents defensively regardless of position (guarding everyone from Jordan to Shaq at different times in his career) and dominate the glass. He did those two things so well that, even though he wasn’t an offensive threat, he was still one of the most valuable players in the league and, eventually, a Hall of Famer. Those accomplishments for his playing days are incredibly well-deserved.
I stand by everything I’ve ever written about Rodman’s incredible game, his impact and his legacy as a basketball player. But because I’ve written so positively about him over the past several years, I think it’s also important to acknowledge the other story — he’s shameless and destructive.
His high profile demons are nothing new, so I won’t bother recounting them. Rodman, based on his own autobiography, had an incredibly difficult upbringing and a harder start to his life than most could imagine. In adulthood, he’s had struggles with addiction and, based on his emotional Hall of Fame speech, still has immense sadness in his life that is certainly serious and paints a complex picture of what Rodman is coping with.
Rodman’s seeming self-destructiveness, his neverending … uh … unique? I guess? … self-promotion endeavors, his making Gary Busey appear to be the coherent one on a crappy reality TV show … all of those things are mostly harmless to everyone but him (and likely his family, but who knows?). The rock and roll lifestyle, Dennis being Dennis, etc. The defenses (some of which I’ve used too, admittedly) are as familiar as the actions.
But here’s the thing … Dennis Rodman’s recent embrace of a murderous regime in North Korea is unforgivable. Rodman’s worst offense, among many, in an insane interview with CNN that I’m sure most have seen by now, was insinuating that imprisoned American Kenneth Bae, being held without charges in North Korea, was guilty of … something:
“Are you going to take an opportunity, if you get it, to speak up for the family of Kenneth Bae and say, Let us know why this man is being held?’ If you can help them, will you take the opportunity?” Cuomo asked.
“The one thing about politics, Kenneth Bae did one thing. If you understand — if you understand what Kenneth Bae did,” Rodman said with a pause, then added “Do you understand what he did? In this country?”
“What did he do?” Cuomo said. “You tell me.”
“You tell me,” Rodman shouted. “You tell me. Why is he held captive?”
“They haven’t released any charges,” Cuomo said. “They haven’t released any reason.”
“I would love to speak on this,” Rodman said, again waving Smith off.
“Go ahead,” Cuomo urged.
Instead, Rodman went off on Cuomo for the remainder of the interview, screaming at him to recognize the sacrifice being made by his fellow players.
First, to that last point about the ‘sacrifice’ of his fellow players — they didn’t sacrifice anything. They got paid by a rich dictator to perform for his own personal pleasure. That’s nothing new — entertainers have a history of taking money from dictators for private performances. But most have the sense not to compound a questionable decision probably driven by greed by launching into vague, incoherent defenses of human rights violations. And most certainly don’t try to explain away those vague assertions by essentially saying, “Totally sorry, I was drunk.”
Rodman getting involved with North Korea in the first place, even if Kim Jong Un is really his “friend,” was a horrible idea, as Matt Ufford of SB Nation eloquently wrote last year. Whatever Rodman’s intentions (and I have no idea if they he was motivated purely by money/attention here or if he truly wanted to be a peaceful diplomat who could help the people of North Korea), his tendency to get defensive and emotional, to drink heavily and to just in general be about the last person you’d pick to lead international diplomacy efforts for a long list of reasons, made this always seem to be bordering on the verge of a disaster. His comments to CNN were harmful to Bae’s family as they work to free him, his “apology” was needlessly insulting and his general involvement in North Korea is a completely unnecessary international relations distraction that was completely avoidable.
There’s no defending Dennis Rodman anymore. It’s possible to live with and explain away destructive behavior that does harm only to the individual him or herself. This is not that though. When Rodman’s jersey was retired, I wrote about how happy I was to see it among other Pistons legends. Now, when you see it next to players who have truly been humanitarian-minded, positive influences in their communities like Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dave Bing, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Bob Lanier, it clearly doesn’t belong. Rodman’s basketball accomplishments can and should never be taken away from him. He’s truly one of the unique, innovative and best players of his era. But that’s all he is. He’s out of his league among those other Pistons greats and is not deserving of the efforts the organization made to honor him. Greg Monroe can keep that No. 10 forever.