The legend of Dennis Rodman is proven out in ‘The Last Dance’

The legend of Dennis Rodman is proven out in ‘The Last Dance’

ESPN spent all week branding Sunday’s episodes of “The Last Dance” as Dennis Rodman night, and the peek into his life is as fascinating as one would imagine.

Twenty years before he was palling around with Kim Jong Un, Rodman was a key figure of the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat. Those with only a limited knowledge of the ’90s Bulls likely recognize Jordan and Pippen as the frontmen, but Rodman was the tenacious defender and rebounder – the guy who did all the dirty work.

“If you take me away from this team, do they still win a championship?” Rodman asks. “I don’t think so.” (Chicago did win three championships before Rodman arrived, but that’s entirely beside the point.)

The episode picks back up at the beginning of the 1997-98 season, where Rodman’s basketball focus was initially questionable. Pippen was out with a foot injury, and Rodman got out of the gate slowly. It culminated with him getting kicked out of a game, which made Jordan furious.

That night, Rodman went to Jordan’s room and asked if he had an extra cigar. He didn’t apologize, but Jordan got the message. “By him coming to my room, it was his way of saying, I f–ked up,” Jordan says. “From that point on, Dennis was straight as an arrow. And we started to win.”

“Dennis was what held us together when Scottie was out,” Phil Jackson said.

Rodman had come from the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, the Bulls’ primary rival and one of the most controversial teams in NBA history. Detroit played with a physicality and viciousness that would never fly in today’s NBA. To say they played dirty was an understatement, and Rodman fit right in with Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn.

“We’re like a hockey team. Everyone wants to see us fight,” Rodman said.

With Rodman, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, they reigned over the East. But with new coach Doug Collins, the Bulls were ascending too. The show documents the 1989 postseason, when the Bulls beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs to get to Detroit. Game 5 of that series featured one of Jordan’s most famous moments: “The Shot,” a buzzer-beating series winner over the Cavaliers’ Craig Ehlo. (Cavaliers guard Ron Harper’s reaction when he heard Ehlo would guard Jordan on that play, instead of him? “I was like, yeah, okay, f–k this bulls–t.”)

Michael Jordan hits "The Shot" over Craig Ehlo
Michael Jordan hits “The Shot” over Craig EhloGetty Images

When Jordan hit that shot, the script was written: He was next on the NBA’s throne, following in the footsteps of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But the Pistons stood in the way. The “Jordan Rules” strategy that the Pistons employed called for their players to foul Jordan almost every time he had the ball, and it worked. They eliminated Chicago from the playoffs.

The show flashes forward to the mid-90s, where Rodman becomes an increasingly polarizing figure. He was traded to San Antonio, where he acted out, drastically changed his appearance and even dated Madonna. Bulls GM Jerry Krause pulled the trigger on a trade with the Spurs, but would Chicago accept a member of the team they so furiously despised?

“He was at the center of the most hated team in the history of Chicago,” said ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. But he brought an edge with him that made him an instant fit.

When Pippen returned to the team in 1998 after eventually caving on his trade request, Rodman went back to being the third wheel – which he did not like.

“He became dramatic, drinking, partying, losing his connection with reality,” said Bulls writer Sam Smith.

At one point, Rodman told Jordan and Phil Jackson he needed a vacation, and wanted to go to Las Vegas. Jackson was on board with the request, but Jordan was skeptical. “You let him go on vacation, we’re not going to see him,” Jordan said. “You let him go to Vegas, and we’re definitely not going to see him.”

Lo and behold, the Bulls let him go to Vegas for what was supposed to be two days. He ended up staying for almost four. Carmen Electra, who he was dating at the time, documents those wild few days: “It was definitely an occupational hazard to be his girlfriend.”

Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra
Dennis Rodman and Carmen ElectraGetty Images

Jordan ended up having literally drag Rodman out of bed. And he returned to practice without incident, in fine shape, ready to go. He was “different,” as Phil Jackson said, able to party all night and snap to attention the next morning.

Jackson deserved some of the credit for holding the team together, and understanding Rodman for the complicated human being he was. They were alike in many ways: as a player, Jackson’s bullying style was similar to Rodman’s, helping the Knicks win two championships in the early 1970s. He was also a bit of a “hippie,” and was always different from the NBA fraternity. In his book, “Maverick,” Jackson documented his use of LSD.

Jackson was famous for implementing the “triangle offense,” which he learned from former Bulls assistant Tex Winter. Doug Collins had no interest in the triangle – in fact, he banned Winter from coaching on the bench. Krause ended up firing Collins in 1989 and replacing him with Jackson, despite Collins having just led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Jordan was, originally, “not a Phil Jackson fan.”

“Phil was taking the ball out of my hands, while Doug was putting it in my hands,” Jordan says.

But the triangle offense was designed to maximize the strengths of the other players. If Jordan always had the ball, teams like the Pistons could devise a plan to shut him down, as they did in 1989. With the triangle, other threats developed on the team – notably Pippen, who made his first All-Star appearance in 1990. With the triangle, they finally felt they had a plan to beat Detroit.

They took the Pistons to Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, but Pippen got a migraine. Not only was he “seeing double,” he had to play against Rodman, the best defender in the NBA, and was eventually taken out of the game. For the second year in a row, they couldn’t get past Detroit.

Instead of going on vacation, the Bulls immediately hit the gym. Jordan focused on pushing his teammates to become better, notably Pippen. They bonded, and when the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals came around, they were ready for the Pistons.

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