How Can We Learn From Dennis Rodman in “The Last Dance”?

A couple of years ago, I was interested in one question. How did Michael Jordan (MJ) became the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT)? Specifically, how did one individual dominated a team-oriented game? Aside from the referees, coaches and bench members, there are 10 players on the court who have direct contact with the ball. Even if MJ was able to account up to 60% of the team’s total ball scored (which he did with grace), there has to be other factors that influenced the pendulum to swing in the team’s favour. Perhaps some of us would argue that one championship is a fluke, but six championships out of six finals appearance meant that there was a winning formula to be replicated over and over again. The question led me to open a can of worms. There was the coach, Phil Jackson. There was the triangle offence. There was Scottie Pippen, MJ’s right hand man and easily one of the best players at that point in time.

Then, there was The Worm, Dennis Rodman.

He earned the slimy moniker for constantly being able to squeeze through tight and congested group of players and gain possession of the ball. Basically, when he was instructed to defend a particular player, he will just be stuck onto him at all times. What excites me isn’t that he has 5 NBA Championships and a truckload of defensive accolades to his name. If you watch him play and stick onto players like rice, you’ll probably be equally amazed at his boundless energy to average 20 rebounds per game for almost a decade. 20 rebounds meant more scoring opportunity for MJ and Scottie.

20 rebounds may not secure the success for the team, but it certainly paved the way for the Chicago Bulls.

The art of rebounding is not rocket science. However, the craft requires a delicate balance of innate talent, bodily dexterity and an unquestionable amount of mental rehearsal of repeated action. Given his body frame, especially in comparison to other centers like Shaq, Rodman’s performance was beyond impressive. However, he is ironically more well known for things such as being good friends with North Korea supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.

As one of the more quirky and extravagant figures in NBA history, I’ve always felt that Rodman, commonly labelled as a misfit, an outsider and just flat-out weird, is greatly misunderstood.

MJ described Rodman as one of the smartest teammates he has ever had. With that compliment coming from the GOAT, it is safe to say that Rodman has conquered the game of basketball with up to seven seasons of league-leading rebounding totals. However, he has always faced media scrutiny when it comes to his personal life. In Episode 4 of “The Last Dance”, the docuseries details the story of Rodman asking Phil Jackson for a vacation break from the 1998 Chicago Bulls. The backstory was simple. Scottie was delaying treatment to his injury, so he wasn’t playing. MJ needed to have someone he can trust on court, and Rodman was a suitable candidate given his psychological fortitude to win. Soon, Scottie returned to play. Even sooner, Rodman felt that he was irrelevant, like a third-party in a loving relationship. So, he had to break away. With a 48-hour timeline, he partied his soul away in Vegas. “It is all about getting your groove on, right?”, Rodman said.

As skeptical and against the idea that MJ was, Phil Jackson granted permission for Rodman as he knew that Rodman needed some space to be himself.

Rodman needed his personal space to recharge and finish out the ’98 season. When was the last time we identified our personal space and recharge ourselves? “He don’t look at me as a basketball player. He look at me as a great friend.”, Rodman proclaimed his love for Phil Jackson. In a world where he has always been questioned as to why he constantly has different hair colour or dresses up as a weirdo, I’m sure this relationship meant much more of a win than a couple of championship titles for Rodman. With the core, foundational principles being mutual respect in the team, we would like to think that Rodman would return promptly after 48 hours of kamikaze time with his Vegas buddies. No, he didn’t. Of course, he didn’t. Who is he? Dennis Rodman. After all, he was one of the Bad Boys from Pistons. MJ had to fly to Vegas to drag Rodman back to practice.

Best part? Rodman showed up to practice late in pajamas.

Number one — Rodman requested for a vacation in the middle of a NBA season. Number two — Rodman stayed longer than the allotted 48 hours in Vegas. Number three — Rodman had to be man-handled back to practice. Number 4 — Rodman showed up to practice late in pajamas. At this point in time, they had to do their usual drill routines. The team was instructed to do an “Indian Drill” / “Caterpillar”, where teammates run together in a line and the person in the back is required to sprint to the front upon a blow of the whistle by the coach. The first person essentially controls the pace of the run. MJ told his teammates that they needed to slow it down for Rodman to gradually get back in shape. However, the biggest flex from Rodman wasn’t item number one to four, but he actually became the pace maker. Despite what seemed like an endless streak of hardcore partying in Vegas, it took four laps for the team to catch up to Rodman.

In MJ’s words, “It was, like, in his psyche. He needed to get away. In all honesty, Dennis was always there. He was always on point.”

Phil Jackson described Rodman as a maverick. The media saw Rodman as a quirky personality. MJ and the rest of the team acknowledged Rodman as a consistent teammate for his preparation and on-court efforts. I view him as someone who is immensely brave in being the best version of himself. Sure, he isn’t perfect. The truth is nobody is. Look at MJ, he has his gambling tendencies too. But the similarity between these two spectacular individuals is that they developed high levels of self-awareness. They know themselves well. MJ gambled and played golf to let loose. Rodman partied with his Vegas buddies. More than that, MJ understands his own competitive nature and leverages a lot on it to gain an edge over his competitors. As for Rodman, he understands that he leans a lot on his emotions. He is not afraid to be unapologetically himself. He dyes his hair. He dresses up, sometimes in a wedding gown to a basketball game. He parties hard. People sees this side of him, not knowing the full picture. “I want to go out there and get my nose broke. I want to go out there and get cut. I want to do something that will bring out the hurt, bring out the pain. I want to feel that.”, Rodman revealed in the docuseries. I see a brave kid trying to explore different parts of his identity with each next move criticised more than before. He isn’t our friendly neighbourhood Spiderman. He certainly isn’t the Superman that we all know. But he is Rodman — the one and only Dennis Rodman.

There is a fine line between fishing and doing nothing. We would like to think that we’re fishing, but the truth is we don’t have the line.