Dennis Rodman’s path to superstardom was ahead of its time

He was a hero of nothing. He had no cause. He had nothing at all. Except fame.

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Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan has words for Dennis Rodman after a Rodman foul in a game from 1998


You might have noticed sports channels have nothing new to show us.

Thus, amid the wreckage of the coronavirus circling the world, we addicted sports fans watch reruns and gossip and, so help me God, antique ‘‘Curling Night in America’’ episodes.

I admit I watched some of that the other night. Forgive me.

But I also found time to dial up ESPN’s ‘‘30 for 30’’ documentary ‘‘Rodman: For Better or Worse’’ from last year.

I had been meaning to view it for some time — I’m interviewed in the film — but hadn’t, largely because I know the story so well.

You see, I was with Rodman, the NBA rebounding genius and Basketball Hall of Famer, when he was traded from the Pistons to the Spurs in 1993 and had just begun his rapid descent — ascent? — into tabloid fame and lunacy.

I was writing a profile about him for Sports Illustrated, and we cruised through San Antonio in his monster van, going to, among other places, a hairdresser, a movie theater to see Wesley Snipes in ‘‘Demolition Man,’’ hangouts along the River Walk and actual shootarounds, as well as the season opener at the Alamodome.

Watch the old Bulls championship-era games being replayed randomly on NBC Sports Chicago, if you can. There’s Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper and Phil Jackson. But your eye constantly will be drawn to an odd, frenetic, neon-haired creature running the floor, grabbing rebounds and defending maniacally, and you will shake your head in awe or disgust. Or both.

That was Rodman in the mid- to late 1990s, shortly after I had spent my time with him and he blew things up in San Antonio and was acquired in a trade by Bulls general manager Jerry Krause to fill the team’s desperate need for a power forward, for somebody to do the dirty work silky sixth man Toni Kukoc couldn’t.

I was with Dennis when he got that first dyed-hair look, going for Snipes’ futuristic blond mohawk, which soon would evolve — devolve? — into green, pink, polka dot, camouflage and logo-signage coifs that stood out like sparklers in the night.

But the hair was only a manifestation of so much that was wrong, crazy, pleading and attention-needing in Rodman. When I met up with him, he had only nine tattoos (most of which were somewhat hidden) and was suffering from the separation from his beloved Yoda-like coach, Chuck Daly. In time, he would become a billboard of inkage, with piercings everywhere, including, as he put it, his ‘‘gun.’’

He acted out in a way perhaps only an unloved, fatherless (actually, his dad, the aptly named Philander Rodman, had 24 other children), unique man-child could. How many boys grow from 5-9 to 6-8 after high school?

The story of Rodman and the Bulls’ dynasty is well-documented. Things such as his wedding dress, his ‘‘marriage’’ to himself, his kicking a Chicago cameraman in the groin, his head-butting a referee, his affair with Madonna, his near-suicide outside the Palace of Auburn Hills, his penchant for cigars, partying and drinking nonstop — it’s all out there.

But I saw him just after he returned from Las Vegas, where he had gone to lose — yes, lose — $35,000. Which he did.

This, he tried to explain, was an act of purging, of penance and cleansing, of . . . something. He couldn’t fully explain or even comprehend his own life.

But what he was doing through all those years was becoming, consciously or not, a new kind of American hero. Not an anti-hero, mind you, because we had those. He was a hero of nothing. He had no cause. He had nothing at all.

Except fame. And fame, in and of itself, now has become a goal for so many.

Oh, it always has been out there, murky, shallow and stupid. But Rodman showed you could ride fame, even in a staid, proscribed world such as sports, to something bigger, something that social media — which barely existed then — could propel into the stratosphere.

Outrageous? Demented? Those tattoos? Hey, 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 now have at least one.

Fame for nothing? The Kardashian family rode Kim’s sex tape to billionaire status.

Then there’s Donald Trump. Our president became famous for reality TV and his big talk. For nothing, really.

I’ll never forget a woman saying before the 2016 election that she would be voting for Trump because, ‘‘I love the way he says, ‘You’re fired!’ ’’

Indeed, Rodman and Trump have visited and made friends with perhaps the worst dictator on the planet, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Because he’s famous. Trump even recently sent him a happy-birthday message.

So don’t just think of Rodman as a strange athlete. Think of him as a gateway.

A gateway to a brave new world.

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