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9 takeaways from ESPN’s Dennis Rodman documentary, including how Michael Jordan thought Rodman wouldn’t see age 40

Technical
Dennis Rodman reacts after getting called for a technical foul for taunting Vlade Divac in 1998.
(Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune)

Former Bulls star Dennis Rodman’s first trip to North Korea resulted from his agent thinking Rodman was going instead to South Korea — the Korea that isn’t a global pariah known for human rights abuses, nuclear ambitions and threats to the United States.

Cozying up to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and not making iffy U.S. relations worse despite drunken antics somehow is depicted as almost heroic and perhaps even amusing in “Dennis Rodman: For Better or Worse,” set for 8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.

Chalk that up under the “Worse” heading in this “30 for 30” look at Rodman, 58, a troubled Basketball Hall of Famer and cross-cultural lightning rod for attention whose fame outstripped his ability to handle it.

Rodman’s rebounding figured in five NBA titles, two with Isiah Thomas’ Pistons and the last three for the Michael Jordan Bulls in the 1990s.

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But the aspects of Rodman’s story that have little to do with how he played the game are what make it interesting: his literal rise (growing 11 inches after graduating from high school) to the pros and many falls before, during and since his playing days.

The misguided trips to North Korea to see his dictator friend are just one detour among them. The sweep of the Rodman saga is Dickensian — but with more sex, partying and publicity stunts.

“I’m one of the top 10 people on the planet that people recognize,” Rodman said. “I should be happy, right?”

Rodman is a willing participant for director Todd Kapostasy, often seen speaking from the stage of what appears to be an empty theater.

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Yet it’s Jordan’s uncharacteristic willingness to be interviewed — whetting appetites for the multipart documentary, “The Last Dance,” on the Bulls’ 1990s run set for next year — that’s unusual enough to make “For Better or Worse” worth checking out, even if it’s sometimes as problematic and self-sabotaging as the man at its center.

Here are nine takeaways:

1. Record it rather than watch it live.

You can watch it in real time, of course, but don’t be surprised if the meta narration, numerous re-creations and other overwrought cinematic embellishments wear on you.

Then again, maybe you’ll enjoy the staged rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” from the musical “Oklahoma!”

Perhaps you’ll be amused by shtick such as when the narrator calls an abrupt halt to a scene depicting Rodman’s youth, saying: “Sorry. Can I stop this here? I know Dennis was bullied, but this music is a bit much. Can I get something a little lighter?”

But if not, you’ll appreciate the ability to fast-forward to the more substantial stuff.

2. Things get very dark at times.

Rodman is asked if he suffers from depression in an archival clip from his Pistons days.

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“I would say no, but a lot of other people say yes,” he says. “Doctors would say yes.”

Teammate John Salley, who pops up from time to time to lend the program a much-needed no-nonsense perspective, recalls an incident with Rodman in the arena parking lot with a rifle as a suicide attempt. Others won’t quite go there.

3. David Robinson was not a Rodman fan.

Robinson, the Spurs’ straitlaced center, put on a happy face when Rodman arrived late to an introductory event with the team, sporting an attention-grabbing blond ‘do. Beneath the surface, Robinson was underwhelmed.

“I remember thinking we need to build a team, we need to build a culture here,” Robinson recalls. “And I just felt like that wasn’t the way we were going to do it — by being rock stars, dropping the mic and walking off.”

4. Madonna’s influence is acknowledged.

It would be great to hear Madonna’s take on her time with Rodman, who claims they broke up because he didn’t want to father a child with her. There aren’t even clips of her talking about him in the day. But Salley sheds light on her role in Rodman’s evolution.

“Without Madonna, there’s no Dennis Rodman the way we know him, period,” Salley says. “Dennis got to watch firsthand how you become a superstar.”

Much is made of her visit in the Spurs locker room after their 1994 season finale. Amusingly unmentioned, except for a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it newspaper clip, is that Robinson scored 71 points that night to overtake Shaquille O’Neal for the NBA scoring title, and news accounts at the time suggested she visited the team to congratulate Robinson rather than to hang out with Rodman.

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Robinson must have loved that. He has this historic night, and Rodman’s inamorata winds up in his headline.

5. Here’s the single least convincing statement from Rodman.

Of his embrace of multicolored hair, tattoos and piercings, Rodman says: “I wasn’t trying to be this individual or try to stand out. No, it just happened.”

6. Phil Jackson had a list of five players the Bulls could add to become more physical in 1995-96, and we’re told Rodman was No. 5.

Jordan says Jackson called him and Scottie Pippen in to discuss adding Rodman.

“Scottie was totally against it, which I understood because when we played Detroit, he and Scottie had some really heated battles,” Jordan says. “Scottie didn’t like him. My biggest concern (was): ‘Well, OK, Phil, who’s going to control this guy when he gets a little bit out of control?’ Phil said, ‘I got it.’ ”

Jackson says he told Jordan and Pippen there would have to be allowances for some of Rodman’s behavior.

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a problem with him,’ ” Jordan says, “and Scottie reluctantly accepted him.”

Pippen does not participate in the documentary.

7. Some believe Rodman idolized Jordan.

“That’s funny as hell,” Rodman says.

Jordan is diplomatic.

“I wouldn’t say ‘idolize,’ ” Jordan says. “He viewed it as my team, and if things needed to be said, I could easily say it and Dennis would respect that.”

But former Tribune writer Sam Smith doesn’t mince words, asserting Rodman was “almost like a fan” and was eager for Jordan’s approval.

“That part Dennis is lying to you about,” Salley says. “Dennis Rodman loves Michael Jordan’s … drawers.”

8. Jordan was impressed with how Rodman could party and show up for practice the next morning “and run like a gazelle,” yet it also concerned him.

“In all honesty, playing with Dennis and (seeing) the lifestyle he lived, I never thought he’d see 40 because he burned the candle at both ends,” Jordan says.

9. Not everyone is so stoic.

Thomas tears up when he recalls Rodman acting out after leaving the Pistons’ so-called Bad Boys.

“The Dennis that we were watching, I knew that the places he was at weren’t giving him the unconditional love that he was looking for,” Thomas says, “and you could see there was a crying out for help. I just felt like nobody helped him.”


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