One on One

If you’ve been paying even the slightest amount of attention to the basketball world over the past week or so, you should know that Dennis Rodman was inducted into the Hall of Fame last Friday, when he gave this emotional speech at the ceremony. Almost 17 years ago, in SLAM’s second issue (October ’94), we paired Rodman up with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, and after the two hung out for a few days, Ament penned a feature that summed up the then-Spurs forward incredibly well. Enjoy it in its entirety below.—Ed.

by Jeff Ament

I hated the Detroit Pistons. Self-proclaimed bad boys who played the half-court game, they won playing defense, won ugly and beat my Lakers in the process.  I was young and liked the up-tempo game—crossover dribbles, sky-hooks, no-look passes, slam-dunks. Kareem (he’ll always be Lew to me), Magic, “Tiny” Archibald, Bobby Dandridge, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the Big “O”, players that added pizzazz to their knowledge and finesse. I worked for ours in my driveway, on my Nerf hoop, and in my sleep to look like them, not the Pistons—and certainly not Dennis Rodman.

But as I got older, I learned to appreciate some of the finer points of the game. Chuck Daly’s ties. Joe Dumar’s quiet style. Rick Mahorn’s good manners. I heard that Bill Lambier was the best golfer in the NBA, which, considering the importance of golf to most players, seemed humorously unfair. And then there was Dennis Rodman, a poster child for the misunderstood, just as Pearl Jam has been labeled misunderstood’s soundtrack. Beneath Rodman’s “crazy” exterior—the tattoos, the colored hair, the piercings—there was a hard working guy I could relate to. He seemed to be saying something different in this day of media, marketing, and manipulation and “different” is rare in the NBA. So I convinced SLAM to let me hang out with him for a couple of days and see what makes him tick.

I first met him in early January before a Nuggets game in Denver. Perhaps my biggest surprise was his love of Pearl Jam. “Dennis brings a tunebox on the road and cranks it in the dressing room after every game,” warned his gravely-voiced coach John Lucas. “I don’t think he listens to anything else. He might actually be your biggest fan.”

And he is big. 6’8”, 210 pounds covered with random tattoos and, at that time, a dark blue mop. He travels light, just his tunebox and a small duffel bag. He doesn’t own a suit. In fact, he wore the same clothes the entire five days that we were to hang.

After getting taped up and changed into his uniform, he pulled his usual disappearing act during warm ups, emerging just in time for the tip-off. Later the San Antonio Spurs PR guy explained that Rodman does a last minute workout, hard pushups and situps, “an eye-of-the-tiger psyche-up thing.” And then he burst into the game in typical Rodman fashion, rocking the boards and fighting for every rebound. In the third quarter, Rodman grabbed an offensive rebound, stood completely alone under the hoop and still refused to shoot, passing it back out to the top of the key.

Later on in his hotel room, after the Spurs won 84-76, he explained. “It’s not that I can’t shoot,” he said. “It’s that I don’t want to. Shooting’s all an ego thing and I don’t want to be part of all that.”

And that’s his burden. He wants to be Dennis Rodman when much of the basketball world wants him to be “normal.” Like most rock stars, “the Worm” is perceived as anything but normal. The media has a “basketball player” stereotype and Rodman doesn’t fit it, so they don’t know what to do with him. Most players believe their own hype. They start to believe that they are the world’s most gifted athletes and don’t strive to be anything else. Rodman, however, presents himself. And pays the price.

“I hate people looking at me like an object,” he says. “they put you on a pedestal and then try to screw you. You do something nice for them..” He shakes his head. “Man, I hate that.”

From Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan, players have painted themselves into a corner with their ultra-positive, inhuman, role-model posturing, only to fall hard from the perfect world the media has allowed them to invent. On the other end of the spectrum is Charles Barkley, the over-promoted “anti-hero” of the NBA. And he openly aspires to being a politician! Give me a break.

“If you are portrayed as the good guy,” says Rodman, “someone is always trying to knock you down and make you look like a bad guy. That’s where the League office comes into play. When you fall from your pedestal, they’re there to clean up the mess. They want us all to be role models, the cupids. The hell with that. I’m not going to be a role model for anybody.”

As if on cue, David Robinson ducks under the doorway, introducing himself and the red bass guitar he travels with. “I came down to talk bass,” he says with a wide smile.

Mr. Robinson likes being a role model. “It’s an amazing thing to talk to a group of kids and have them respond to what you’re saying,” he says. “You really make a difference.”

“Naw, I dunno,” says Rodman. “I’ve talked to kids, about drugs or whatever. Why are those kids there? To. See. Me. Do they care about what I’m really talking about? Maybe ten out of a thousand.”

These two guys are like North and South.  A priest and a pagan. Siskel and Ebert. You couldn’t pick two more different players, but the Spus did, and it seems to be working. On the court, they play like lifelong teammates. Rodman to Robinson for an alley-oop dunk. High fiving. Smiling at each other. Hugging! “Dennis brings an element to the team we’ve need,” says Robinson. “As different as we may seem, we both want to win. I respect him a lot for his desire to win.”

I traveled with the team to Los Angeles, watching game films on the Spurs chartered jet and marveling at how tight this team has become. Robinson seems to be playing harder. Dale Ellis is playing defense, even diving for balls (something I never saw him do as a SuperSonic). Vinny Del Negro looks like an All-Star. Lloyd Daniels and “Sleepy” Floyd are like convicts with new leases on life. Even J.R. Reid is playing well. They are a team of misfits coached by someone who’s been “there” and done “that,” Lucas. The Spurs are in the perfect position to be the spoiler in the playoffs this year, due largely to the influence of two-time champion, Dennis Rodman.

In L.A., we ate with some posh North Hollywood restaurant. He squirmed and ate his pork chop as fast as he could. Afterwards, we hung at the Viper Room, you know, Johnny Depp’s club now infamous for River Phoenix’s overdose fiasco. I’m not one to try to make an impression, especially on the Southern Californians; but I would be blown away if I saw one of my friends walk in with Dennis Rodman. I might as well French kiss Tonya Harding at a Knicks game. But it was clearly not Rodman’s scene. If anything he is a private person, perplexed by the public’s interest in him.

“People always wanna know what I’m going to do next,” he says in disbelief. “It’s amazing. I’m no Michael Jordan. I don’t score. I can’t do the things Magic Johnson did but for some reason people wanna know what Dennis Rodman is doing.”

He’d be more anonymous if he’d just tow the League’s company line; strong, smiling and silent. But that would preclude being Dennis Rodman. “I’m not gonna be anybody’s puppet, “ he says. “They think hey can pay is a lot of money and remind us of where we came from, and then tell us what to do. But I’m gonna o what I gotta do, and be the same person I’ve always been.”

The next day at the L.A. Forum, I’m suddenly down 9-5 in a “friendly” game of one-on-one. “Everybody says I can’t shoot,” says Rodman, promptly drilling another 28-footer.

He elbows me in the back to remind me that I’m not dreaming. “Everybody else needs to shoot. I like to do the things everybody else hates to do.” I make a run, nailing a couple of long distance prayers, and got cocky, begging him to play that Rodman “D.” Game over, 11-7.

“I hate that this game is not letting people be who they wanna be,” he says. “All the things I do are for a reason—dyeing my hair, getting tattoos, kicking the basketball, throwin’ bags at the refs. People say, ‘That motherfucker’s got some guts. Nobody else does that. How does Dennis Rodman get away with all the shit he does? I can do it because I want to.”

Rodman’s biggest struggle isn’t getting rebounds. He does that with ease almost every night, probably better than anyone who ever played. No, Rodman’s is a struggle for self in a fantasy world. He’d fit nicely into a rock scene: a child in an adult’s body. A down home Texas boy stuck in a world of glitz and bullshit. Square peg.

Round hole.