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Dennis Rodman’s Life Less Ordinary

ESPN’s 30 for 30 tells the story of an iconoclast who lived according to his own rules

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Against all the odds—I mean, like, literally all of them—there is a sound journalistic reason to make a documentary about Dennis Rodman in 2019. I’m referring to his friendship with, and frequent visits to be photographed near, Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea. In the course of this humanly mystifying and tactically opaque bromance, Rodman may have, just slightly, changed the course of human history by jolting American diplomatic relations with the Hermit Kingdom into a state of unprecedented openness. Or, you know, not. Either way, it would be both useful and entirely responsible for a journalist to get a camera crew together and ask: What’s going on with that?

Unfortunately, asking what’s going on with North Korea is not the goal of Rodman: For Better or Worse, ESPN’s new 30 for 30 documentary about the former NBA star. Like many latter-day 30 for 30s (30s for 30?), For Better or Worse cleaves to the familiar “Remember this thing from a while ago? Here’s a piano vamping over B-roll footage of it” documentary playbook. It stops to touch all the most fondled mile markers from Rodman’s singular life—only Michael Jordan could control him; one time he wore a wedding dress—but without breaking much new ground along the way. Themes (about race in America, about sexual identity) are raised and then dropped without any real analysis. None of this might be a problem if the portrait of Rodman that For Better or Worse developed were particularly nuanced or revealing. But the most vivid psychological insight to be found here is that three or four talking heads had some free time before lunch.

The good news is that Rodman’s life is so fascinating and so unsettling that even the usual-suspects approach to telling it manages to be pretty compelling TV. Even edited to fit the mold of a two-hour cable documentary, Rodman’s biography has the makings of a definitive late-20th-century American trash-epic, dizzily encompassing the manifold weirdnesses of its time and place.

If you’re a basketball fan, chances are you already know the outlines of Rodman’s story: his childhood as a sensitive, fatherless boy in Texas, bullied by his classmates and dressed as a girl by his sisters; his directionless adolescence; his astounding late growth spurt, which saw him shoot up almost a foot after he’d already graduated from high school; his college career at out-of-the-way little Southeastern Oklahoma State University, in the not-exactly racially progressive town of Durant, Oklahoma; his close friendship in said town with a white family, which saw him spend most of his non-basketball time hanging out on their 600-acre farm; his title-winning early NBA career with the Bad Boy Pistons; the obsessive late-night film sessions that fed his study of the craft of rebounding; his unhappy stint with the David Robinson–led Spurs, during which he first embraced a role as a public provocateur, dyeing his hair, hanging out in gay bars, and dating Madonna, all acts that seemed daring in the ’90s; and most famously, his legendary run with the late-Jordan Bulls dynasty, during which he won three titles and assumed his final form as a bourgeoisie-terrifying superfreak, tattooed, pierced, and wasp-eyed behind giant sunglasses. Also during which, of course, he fell into the habits of partying too hard and spending too much that saw him wash up as a bankrupt cautionary tale in the 2000s, at least before he became—maybe, who knows—the world’s best hope of averting nuclear war.

Yeah, it’s a lot. This is not a story for an ESPN documentary; it’s a story for a 900-page Rachel Kushner novel. (Or, failing that, for Rodman’s autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be, which crushed another book by a far-out American freak—The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams—to become a no. 1 New York Times bestseller in 1996.) If there’s one surprising theme hidden in For Better or Worse, it might be that the parts of Rodman’s life that initially seemed most scandalous now seem like some of the most bland, while the parts that failed to melt the media 25 years ago now seem almost supernaturally strange and resonant. In 2019, the idea of an athlete with tattoos and a healthy interest in LGBTQ culture is so G-rated I’m pretty sure it owns a brownstone in Park Slope. Compare that with the idea of a 22-year-old Dennis Rodman being best friends with a 13-year-old Oklahoma farm boy, and, well, let’s just say that if one of these ideas calls for further clarification, it’s not the body art. One thing that stood out to me in the documentary was just how often Rodman sheds tears; maybe I’m being contrarian for no reason, but Dennis Rodman, Athlete Who Freely Weeps struck me, this many years on, as a more profound challenge to conventional sports norms than Dennis Rodman, Athlete Who Looks Like He Loves the Red Hot Chili Peppers a Little Too Much.

It’s so hard to know how to take Rodman, in the end. Something about him—the color, the noise, the carnival atmosphere he seemed to conjure around himself—suggested he was doing it all in fun. But fun was never really the word for him, was it? As was the case with a lot of ’90s nonconformists, the sheer effort of being outrageous seemed to leech some of the joy from the spectacle. Being an iconoclast in this decade meant standing on a lonely cliff, without an online hive, without even an emoji to rally an online hive around, and the cold wind off Barbara Walters could cut you to the bone.

And then, too, with Rodman, there was always a sense that you were looking at someone who was in pain. To enjoy the over-the-top performance of a self-conscious oddball athlete was one thing; to gawk at a player who was definitely not OK was something else. Rodman occupied a kind of murky middle ground between those two alternatives. You couldn’t doubt that he was engaged in a bravura performance of the person he’d decided to be, but he was also someone who, near the end of his time in Detroit, had suicidal thoughts as he drove to the Palace of Auburn Hills with a rifle in his truck. After that, the way he tells the story, he told his barber to make him look like Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man. He decided to start being himself. But watching him, then and now, sometimes gave you the impression of a person who was not waving but drowning, even as he yelled “I’m not drowning but waving!” at the shore.

A major weakness of For Better or Worse, and of our ability to decipher the enigma of Rodman generally, is that he seldom says anything very interesting about himself. Provocative, sure; vulgar, definitely; truly insightful, rarely. That’s not to impugn his intelligence—it is not possible to play basketball the way Rodman played basketball without being highly intelligent—but to be intelligent and to be reflective are two different things, and to suffer the way Rodman has obviously suffered sometimes means (as his daughter points out in the movie) not wanting to confront certain painful facts about oneself. And so we’re left with the sense of a brilliant but unhappy man who’s tragically a mystery to himself, someone whose genius for self-expression is always outrunning his willingness to understand the self he’s trying to express. (The drinking—he’s been open about his struggles with substance use, and his agent says he was drunk during several of his North Korea interviews—presumably doesn’t help.)

All this being the case, there may be no better way to see Rodman’s mind at work than to look back to his game. It’s probably an understatement to say that no one has ever played basketball the way he did. He didn’t so much reinvent the game, or the power forward position, as find an entirely different sport in its margins. It was as if he were a writer who’d discovered a legible, but hitherto unnoticed, language in the white space at the end of every line. Players specialized in rebounding before him, but they got rebounds by being tall and boxing out; Rodman was 6-foot-7, and he got rebounds by having an eerily perfect sense of where the ball was going after it didn’t go in the basket.

To me, a missed basketball shot looks like haha, whoops, boing. To Rodman, a missed shot presented itself as a comprehensible set of information: the speed, angle, and spin of the ball, the point of contact on the rim or the backboard, the tendencies of the shooter. He had an elite baseball pitcher’s understanding of the aerodynamics of a ball in flight, only instead of throwing the pitch, his job was to materialize at the end of it. And in reversing that process, he reversed the whole emotional dynamic of the game. He made it seem kind of gloriously selfish not to score points. (On a team led by Michael Jordan!) Playing maybe the most archetypally humble, utility-mode role in the history of basketball, Rodman looked as if he were starring in an opera no one else could hear. What he was doing made no sense, but everyone who watched him immediately understood what he was doing. In sports, that’s a kind of greatness.

So I don’t know. Watch the ESPN doc if you want to see Isiah Thomas tear up when he talks about how someone should have been there to help him. If you want to find out the truth about North Korea and the fate of humanity, maybe write a letter to The New York Times. If you just want to spend some time with Dennis Rodman, though, maybe fire up an old Bulls game from ’96 or so. You’ll see him simultaneously at his weirdest and least troubled—tunneling through the chaos, calculating arcs and vectors, showing up at the ends of angles you’d never have noticed yourself, but that almost make sense if you’re watching him see them.