Dennis Rodman's tragic real-life story

When you're strange, no one remembers your name. When you're Dennis Rodman, no one forgets you're strange. A star who has constantly eclipsed his own brightness, Rodman was an outstanding NBA player who stood out for his tattoos, multihued hair, and harrowing behavior. He dated Madonna, "married" himself, and marred his marriages to others. He has broken laws, broken his man rod three times, and broken bread with a brutal dictator. He has also broken down on live television and broken his bank account when no one was looking.

People called Rodman "a rebel without a pause." But when you pause to think about it, he seems more like a troubled soul on a mission to find acceptance. Since childhood Rodman has felt like the odd man out, which might explain why he acted out in adulthood. Though he overcame hapless beginnings, he underwent unhappy endings and teetered on the edge of self-destruction. He may have been one the greatest to play the game of basketball, but Rodman has repeatedly defeated himself in the game of life.

The tree flies far from the apple

Much like his name implies, Philander Rodman Jr. used his man rod for philandering. When he spoke with the Associated Press in 2012, Philander, then 71, claimed to have fathered 29 kids with 16 women. (He once said he wanted 30 kids.) He wasn't a father to all of them, though. When he saw his son Dennis Rodman that year, it was the first time in 42 years. By then Rodman was 51 years old and had children of his own.

A former Air Force staff sergeant, Philander went overseas when Rodman was three. Rodman later related to Sports Illustrated, "He just disappeared one day." Philander saw it differently, explaining to the Washington Post that he "couldn't take [Rodman] to Vietnam." But that doesn't explain why he didn't return. Philander moved to the Philippines, remarried, re-divorced, and sowed more oats than a Quaker Oats seamstress.

Philander must have realized he had condemned his son to bitterness — his own father abandoned him when Philander was 6. Philander despised his dad for years but quickly sympathized when he ditched his wife Shirley, forcing her to raise Dennis and his two sisters unassisted. Shirley sought to shield her son by letting him think Philander "was a great man who simply chose to abandon him." But Rodman grew up feeling "shut out" by his father and outshined by his siblings.

Home is where the street is

Rodman's family went to Dallas after Philander went AWOL from their lives. Money and mothering were scarce. Shirley Rodman mainly divided her time between two jobs and church and apparently "rarely" gave hugs. So Rodman embraced the streets. Sometimes he even went under the streets. In his autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be, Rodman recalled crawling 5 miles through a putrid sewage tunnel to sneak into the Texas State Fair because he and his buddies couldn't buy tickets.

Rodman struggled to see a light at the end of the tunnel. He lacked height and athleticism in high school. Per Sports Illustrated he got benched playing basketball and punted off the football team, which devastated him. Rodman found work as an airport janitor after graduation. There he saw the wrong opportunity: a chance to clean out a watch display case. Using a broom handle, he lifted roughly 50 watches, which he mostly distributed among friends. Rodman was arrested and almost faced criminal prosecution, but his buddies gave back the watches in the nick of time.

Although Rodman didn't do hard time, he had hard times. At age 19 he was homeless for six months after his mom kicked him out. Luckily, his basketball ability kicked in when he hit a huge growth spurt. He later received a scholarship to shoot hoops at a junior college, but when schoolwork got tough, he quit going. Fed up, his mom kicked him out and kept him out.

The early Worm trashes the Bird

After squandering a scholarship, Rodman returned to the streets. Luckily, a basketball coach at Southeastern Oklahoma offered him a second shot. Rodman was determined to turn his life around. Thankfully, help was around the corner. At a basketball camp he bonded with 13-year-old Bryne Rich. Like Rodman, Rich had a painful past. He fatally shot his best friend in a traumatic accident and hoped hoops would help him heal. Rodman, a gooofy 22-year-old man who "walked around with quarters in his ears," was the best medicine. Soon Rich's family invited him to live at their farm. Rodman drove tractors, milked cows, and avoided violence.

Rich knew Rodman as "Worm," alluding to the latter's lanky frame and propensity to wriggle while playing pinball. Others reviled Rodman like a worm for racial reasons. Living with the white Rich family, he stuck out like coal on a snowman. Matriarch Pat Rich acknowledged that whites in their area treated blacks like "outcasts." Passersby hurled racial slurs. One of the Riches' in-laws called it a "disgrace" to accommodate a "colored boy." Even Pat, who grew to see Rodman as family, called him the N-word once.

Rodman said he learned to ignore such ignorance. But as an NBA rookie he badmouthed the legendary Larry Bird, a player the Riches adored partly because he was white. Rodman was labeled a racist for saying Bird's status stemmed from his whiteness. Maybe his statements stemmed from facing racism.

Like fatherless, like son

A lot can change in three years. In a three-year span Rodman went from watch-thieving janitor to NBA-bound college athlete. In the three years he lived with Bryne Rich, they grew to see each other as brothers, and Bryne's parents learned to see past Rodman's skin color. But the first three years of Rodman's life may have shown that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

When Rodman's father left, it left a void in his life that the Riches partly filled. In fact, Rodman called them "one of the major reasons" he attained success. But he gradually distanced himself from the family that enriched his existence. In 2011 Pat Rich told Tulsa World she felt like she "lost two sons," her biological son Michael (who had just died) and Dennis Rodman, who was about to be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Rodman had purportedly promised to attend the funeral but later reneged.

Rodman voiced confusion through his manager, who explained the ex-athlete was "contractually obligated" to appear on the Tonight Show on the day of Michael's funeral. But Michael's father, James, who also mentored Rodman, lamented that the soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer didn't even send flowers. Apparently, Rodman had stopped visiting them a decade earlier. Maybe fame constrained him. Or perhaps he was repeating a pattern passed down from his grandfather. Philander Rodman Sr. abandoned Philander Jr., who abandoned Rodman. According to the Riches, Rodman abandoned them.

The hole of fame

In 1993 Rodman briefly abandoned hope. As he recounted in Bad As I Wanna Be, he had two NBA championships, had earned multiple accolades for defensive excellence, and was "a made-for-TV special in the living flesh" — but instead of feeling special, Rodman wanted it all to end.

On an April night he sat in his truck with a gun in his lap. Luxury had lost its luster. Now a father, Rodman seldom saw his daughter. He blamed his absence on an ex-wife. His father Philander, who later blamed Vietnam for his absence from Rodman's life, also accused Rodman's mother of making it too hard to commit to her, just a few more similarities between the two.

Sadly, basketball didn't help. Though Rodman would go on to win three more NBA championships, his professional forecast wasn't sunny back then. His days of dominance as a Detroit Piston had entered dusk. Everybody seemed to be leaving the team, even him. He also felt suffocated by fame. He "wanted to be normal" and "stay true to" himself. Rodman opted not to pull the trigger. He settled for imaginary oblivion, mentally shooting a version of himself he didn't want to be. Then he fell asleep.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Spare the Rodman, spoil the child planning

While Rodman wanted to be normal in 1993, in 1994 he dated Madonna, which normal people don't do. However, when describing their relationship, he normally focused on Madonna doing him. In 1995 Rodman boasted to Jet Magazine: "She wanted to get married. She wanted to have my baby." Madonna made him "feel like King Tut," he said.

Dennis Tut felt entitled to call Madonna "Tita," the nickname he made up, according to his 1996 autobiography. He also critiqued her lovemaking, depicting it as good but not great. That was okay, though, because they were a "perfect match" until Rodman allegedly dumped her to prevent "being perceived as piggybacking off her fame."

In 1995 Rodman became a Chicago Bull, so maybe he was full of bull. Madonna denied his assertions in a biography, but she refused to kiss and tell. Others said there wasn't much to tell. One of Rodman's other exes, for example, claimed the NBA star admitted Madonna stopped touching him after the very first time. She considered him an inconsiderate selfish mate.

If Rodman told lies, they were telling. He portrayed himself as desirable mate and dad candidate. Given that he grew up without a father and felt unwanted by his mother, one might suspect that Rodman used Bad As I Wanna Be to look as good as he wanted to feel.

Ball and change

Rodman and Madonna might have been a match made in Rodman's mind, but his real-life marriages seemed like awful ideas. His first wife, Anicka "Annie" Bakes sued him several years before they married. Per the Associated Press, in 1989 Annie accused Rodman of failing to pay child support. She also demanded half his earnings, alleging he convinced her to quit modeling and promised to pay her way. The pair parted ways 82 days after tying the knot in 1992.

Annie eventually wrote a tell-all called Worse Than He Says He Is. Discussing its contents with the LA Times, she characterized Rodman as a domestic abuser who made her miscarry by shoving her down stairs. Abuse allegations also arose during Rodman's engagement to third wife Michelle Moyer. Reuters reported that in 2003 police charged him with striking Moyer's mouth. The New York Times noted that when they married four months later, they resided in separate houses, despite having two kids together. During their divorce proceedings, Moyer asserted that Roman "had a history of domestic abuse."

Rodman and second wife Carmen Electra wed in 1998, but the sparks fizzled quickly and they divorced in five months. Electra told ABC she got involved with Rodman after losing her mother to a brain tumor. Their relationship was a passionate distraction from grief that combined heavenly emotional highs with hellish lows. The Independent reported that in 1999 both Electra and Rodman were arrested for assaulting each other in public.

Defendant player of the year

Old-school NBA fans may remember Rodman as a Detroit Pistons "Bad Boy." Bleacher Report described him as "an absolute menace to opposing teams and completely tenacious in his pursuit of the basketball." Across his career, that doggedness often resembled rabies. While pursuing a loose ball, he once dove into the stands and injured a woman.

According to Sports Illustrated, she lost "several teeth." Rodman often butted heads with refs, and as the New York Times detailed, he once physically head-butted a ref mid-game. He also infamously kicked a cameraman in his manhood, scoring a million-dollar fine.

Over the years Rodman has frequented many non-basketball courts. In 1998 a cocktail waitress sued Rodman for groping her while shoving money down her blouse. He settled out of court and was sued seven other times for misconduct at casinos. Per ESPN, Rodman reached an out-of-court settlement with a former Playboy model who sued him for sexual assault. In 2003 a woman unsuccessfully sued Rodman alleging that he drugged, imprisoned, and raped her.

In 2008 the New York Daily News reported that police apprehended Rodman for assaulting girlfriend Gina Peterson and "dissuading a witness." He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery, which Rodman's manager attributed to heartbreak and heavy drinking. Rodman was still in the middle of a lengthy on-and-off divorce from Michelle Moyer and couldn't see his kids. Then again, maybe Rodman couldn't visit his kids because of heavy drinking and abusive behavior.

Vodka shot-blocker

According to Dennis' mom, he couldn't stand booze until his father popped up out of the blue. The timing wasn't exactly random. Philander Rodman spoke with the Washington Post in 1996 right after Rodman's autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be became a bestseller. Moreover, Rodman had just joined forces with Michael Jordan and helped the Chicago Bulls finish the best season in NBA history. As if intent on stealing his son's thunder, Philander bragged to journalists, "They think Dennis is bad. … They ain't seen nothin.' I'm the bad one." He also sought to absolve himself for abandoning Rodman, which must have reopened old wounds.

Whether or not Philander inspired Rodman's drinking, 1996 marked the start of an endless bender. Rodman purchased what the LA Times called his "Newport Party Pad" and launched an eight-year onslaught of raucous shindigs that prompted 80 police visits. The Washington Post pointed out that once Rodman stopped playing pro basketball, he started drinking uncontrollably.

In 2000, the same year he retired, a court ordered him to enter an alcohol program due to a DUI. In 2013 he started selling Bad Boy Vodka, calling it "a perfect representation" of what he's "all about." In 2018 Rodman re-entered rehab after another DUI. Though he previously acknowledged seeing his adult daughter "a total of five days of her life," he told Page Six he wanted to get sober in order to "see [his] kids grow up."

Rodman's rebound-less generosity

In 2003 the New York Times described Rodman's life story as "more Disney than E!" But given his often beastly behavior, it's easy to overlook his inner beauty. Amid his suspensions and arrests, the NBA's baddest Bad Boy has done a fair amount of good.

Perhaps because of past hardships, Rodman has a soft spot for the homeless. ESPN contributor Dan Feldman observed that while playing in Detroit, Rodman "used to pick up homeless people on his way to games, give them tickets, then take them shopping and give them money afterward." Sports Illustrated related that he used to drive through rough neighborhoods doling out cash like a mobile ATM. He took homeless people into his home so he could bathe and feed them.

At times he has attempted to atone for bad behavior. Per the Chicago Tribune, when Rodman kicked that innocent cameraman, he received an 11-day suspension. As a mea culpa, he voluntarily donated $576,829.22 to 11 charities, in addition to paying a million-dollar fine. Doing the right thing doesn't suddenly overwrite wrongdoing, but it suggests that the Bad Boy doesn't always want to be bad. According to former teammate John Salley, Rodman's occasional generosity reflects his childlike desire to change the world. That almost makes his bad moments seem worse, as if each transgression represents the slow-motion destruction of Rodman's innocence.

Basket-bawl diplomacy

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In Rodman's case, hell is North Korea. A country suffocating in the grip of dictatorship, North Korea has a hideous history of human rights abuses, including terrible prisons and forced marriages. Rodman, however, has tried to see the bright side of a pitch-black situation. When asked if he knew about the gulags and government oppression, Rodman responded, "Yeah, but I haven't seen it."

Instead, he sees Kim Jong-un. Most people consider Kim a callous killer who executes people with anti-aircraft guns. But Rodman described the chubby-cheeked despot as "more like a big kid" who "loves to have a good time." Kim also loves basketball, which has Rodman convinced that the path to peace with North Korea lies in "basketball diplomacy." The Chicago Tribute attributed that perception to a juvenile view of politics and positive change. But what if Rodman sees himself in Kim Jong-un?

It seems significant that Rodman, an explosive mixture of insidious whims and childish innocence, detected childishness in Kim. Perhaps that's the product of a devious dictator deceiving a naive man-child. Regardless, it speaks volumes about Rodman. Rodman's tears, meanwhile, speak oceans. While extolling Kim to CNN in 2018, he weepily recalled receiving death threats for defending North Korea and feeling ignored by President Obama. Maybe when he tries to show how misunderstood and secretly good Kim is, he's secretly talking about himself.