It’s not difficult to understand why the Bulls wouldn’t have wanted Dennis Rodman.
As a member of the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s, he fit right in with the rest of the Bad Boys, regularly getting under the Bulls players’ skin, employing a tough, physical style that took years for Chicago to overcome, even managing to throw Scottie Pippen off the court and into the stands during the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals.
As if that wasn’t enough, in San Antonio, Rodman’s next stop, he clashed with teammates and the Spurs front office, head butted opponents on more than one occasion, dated Madonna in what became a major distraction, and missed part of his second season due to a motorcycle accident.
So why would the Bulls—who with Michael Jordan back from retirement were hungry for a fourth world championship—be interested?
Primarily, because with the departure of Horace Grant, who left during the 1994 offseason as a free agent for the Orlando Magic, created a void at power forward the team needed to fill. Rodman was clearly the best candidate in terms of what he could do on the court. But with Rodman came antics and issues, intangibles that a championship team may not want to voluntarily inherit.
According to John Paxson, an assistant coach for Chicago during the 1995-96 season who also played against Rodman during the height of the Bulls-Pistons rivalry, it was head coach Phil Jackson who played a big part in making the call to bring Rodman in.
“It wasn’t cut and dry,” Paxson said of the decision to acquire Rodman on Oct. 2, 1995 in exchange for Will Perdue. “It was really put in Phil’s hands and whether or not he could coach Dennis. Phil took a day or two and really let it sink in, as that’s often how he made decisions. He came in and said he thought he could coach him.”
At the not so tender age of 34, Rodman was in the midst of four consecutive seasons in which he led the NBA in rebounding. It was clear he could still play and help the Bulls on the court, but did the aforementioned other elements justify taking a chance?
“It seemed like a low risk, high reward situation,” Paxson said in a recent interview at the Berto Center. “That’s obviously how it paid out, with very high rewards.”
Whereas Grant shouldered a portion of the scoring load on the teams which claimed the NBA title in 1991, 1992 and 1993, finding an offensive player at power forward wasn’t a priority in 1995 with Toni Kukoc in the mix. The Bulls just needed someone to rebound. Enter Rodman, whose talents helped Chicago round out its roster.
“When you contrast the two teams that won three championships, the first teams had a tough, physical presence on the inside in Bill Cartwright,” noted Paxson. “While Luc Longley was a big, strong guy, he wasn’t necessarily a physical player. Dennis was a physical player and he would get under the skin of a lot of people. The makeup of both teams, which is always underrated and maybe not appreciated as much as it should be, was perfect.”
It wasn’t long before it was evident that Rodman’s unusually high level of defensive intensity, his rebounding and his ability to gain a mental advantage against countless opponents would pay big dividends for the Bulls.
“Everything that Dennis brought was what we didn’t have,” said Paxson. “And what he didn’t have, we had already covered.”
The timing for Rodman to join the Bulls couldn’t have been any better. In Jackson, the team had a coach who directed his team to three championships earlier in the decade. Also by that time, Jordan and Pippen had matured as players and gained years of professional experience. Perhaps most importantly, the Bulls believed their leadership was strong enough to take Rodman on.
“We didn’t necessarily like Dennis as a player here in Chicago,” recalled an understated Paxson of Rodman’s seasons in Detroit. “But circumstances can always change.”
While Jordan and Pippen were determined to keep Rodman on track and not allow him to be a distraction, it was Jackson who also played a crucial part in connecting with Rodman, allowing him to be himself while each stuck to his own style.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that Phil’s personality was unique in dealing with Dennis,” said Paxson. “There always seemed to be some issue that would surround Dennis, but one of Phil’s great strengths was that he was always an even-keeled person and coach. A lot of coaches will react to what a player does and, for lack of a better term, get bent out of shape when a guy does something that is outside their understanding. Phil wasn’t like that. He was able to, at least outwardly, look and remain calm and not necessarily react in the moment. He had a unique gift that allowed us to bring Dennis on.”
“The success of any relationship, whether it’s individually or with the team, requires respect and trust,” added Paxson. “I don’t know when, but at some point, the respect and trust that Dennis had for Phil, and vice versa, happened, and that’s what the organization needed for it to be a success.”
At first, Jordan, Pippen and the rest of his new teammates didn’t know what to expect from Rodman, who claimed NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1990 and 1991.
Paxson acknowledged that upon Rodman’s arrival, “guys were tiptoeing around the issue a little bit.” But coaches and teammates alike would soon get a feel for what the real Rodman was like when it came time to get between the lines.
“To Dennis’ credit, he was very quiet and reserved initially,” said Paxson. “In practice, he’d watch and observe and try to learn the triangle. But he didn’t come in trying to be a talker or use his personality in any way. He was respectful of the organization and what we had accomplished.”
Paxson spent only one season as an assistant coach on the Bulls bench, but it gave him an opportunity to gain a new perspective on the game and the team that set an NBA record for most wins en route to the organization’s fourth world championship.
In Rodman, he realized that aside from the flamboyant behavior, outrageous rebounds and all-out effort was a player with a particularly high basketball IQ and a knack for the game.
“When he was on the floor and the lights came on, everything he did was to draw attention to something other than that,” Paxson said of Rodman. “He wasn’t a scorer and often times he’d run away from shots in the offense, but he was able to grasp things. He understood when he caught the ball in the post where the cutters were going and he was a very good passer.”
For all of the on the court success he enjoyed, as the Bulls anticipated, Rodman did come as advertized, which meant the occasional kicking of the cameraman, misunderstandings with officials and a highly publicized relationship with Carmen Electra.
How much of that was expected by Rodman’s coaches and teammates, thus tolerated, before his behavior was deemed as too much? As Paxson explains it, there was a level of understanding, but at times, it did inevitably cause a distraction.
“Any time a player puts his team or the organization in a bad position, those are the situations that are difficult to deal with,” said Paxson. “But I do know—and I speak from the perspective as an assistant coach [in 1995-96] and radio announcer [1997-98]—that the players loved Dennis. And the off the court parties, they liked very much. He definitely provided entertainment for a lot of guys.
“But there is always heat that an organization takes when a player does something that publically looks like it’s not in a team’s best interests,” Paxson added. “I’m sure Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had to deal with issues that were uncomfortable, but it was part of the package and we knew going in that there was the potential for those things.”
As Rodman’s career is celebrated, it’s easy to look back and say it was a small price to pay given his level of play. Considered one of basketball’s best ever rebounders and defenders, Paxson says it was Rodman’s effort and instincts that separated him from the pack.
“If you’re going to have longevity in this league, you have to make your mark in some way,” said Paxson of Rodman. “He did it at such a high level by rebounding and defending. He took pride in the fact that he could rebound the basketball. And when he’d chase down the ball or be in a crowd and tip it and tip and tip it until he came up with the ball, those were plays that energized our fans and our team.”
While Rodman may now be known more for his personality and figure in the pop culture world, when he entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Aug. 12, 2011, you can be certain his defensive and rebounding abilities were recalled. Well, maybe his wardrobe, too.
“It’s a wonderful tribute for Dennis and what he did in his career,” said Paxson of Rodman’s Hall of Fame enshrinement. “I’m not sure we’ve ever encountered as unique of a personality in our game. He was someone who did it for a couple different teams and did it successfully. Dennis, in some ways, is a shy guy, even though there are so many times he doesn’t appear to be. I’m sure he’s humbled by this type of honor, but he’s earned it, and it’s a wonderful thing for him.”