Commentary

Bulls had right chemistry for Rodman

Dennis Rodman and the Bulls crossed paths at the perfect time

Updated: August 12, 2011, 1:20 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- There was no question the Bulls had a void to fill in the mid-'90s.

Michael Jordan had returned to the team in the spring of 1995 but the Bulls still lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and in postseason staff meetings, Phil Jackson made it clear what he thought they needed.

"Phil said, 'If we're going to win a championship, we have to have someone who can fetch the ball.' That was the expression he used," recalled Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

And after exploring every other opportunity, the Bulls' brain trust kept coming back to Dennis Rodman.

"We knew Dennis had worn out his welcome in San Antonio. He took off his shoes while he was on the bench and all that," Reinsdorf said. "But we said he'd be the perfect guy if our players would accept him."

The team went so far as to consult with a psychologist on how to handle the eccentric veteran. "And we concluded that how you handle Dennis is don't worry about the other stuff," said Reinsdorf. "If he wants to take off his shoes, let him take off his shoes. Who cares?

[+] EnlargeScottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty ImagesDennis Rodman was the perfect piece to complement the stars the Bulls had in place.

"But the question was, could the other players, particularly Michael and Scottie [Pippen], accept him. He did a crappy thing to Scottie and could have hurt him [when he pushed him into the first row of seats during a Bulls-Pistons playoff game in 1991] and he was a member of the Pistons, who we hated. But we talked with them and they said unequivocally, 'Go get him. He can help us.'"

With the further addition of Rodman's pal Jack Haley to help babysit him off the court, the team felt Rodman could succeed.

The Bulls would not have won three more championships without him.

And Rodman would not have been elected into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame without them. A somewhat controversial selection, Rodman nonetheless enters the Hall officially on Friday as one of the game's greatest rebounders and toughest defenders, a five-time NBA champion, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and seven-time NBA rebounding leader.

"Getting the chance to see him every day, you really came to realize how good he was," Reinsdorf said. "And we went 72-10 that year [winning the first of three NBA titles], so we did something right."

But Rodman also averaged more than 10 points a game just once in his career, never shot 50 percent as a Bull and heaved up 3-pointers (23 percent in his career) with all the flair of a shot-putter. At the same time, the Bulls had scorers and Rodman, while not disrupting the offense, did what he was asked to do -- rebound on both ends of the court, play furious, in-your-jersey defense, take care of the dirty work, if you will. Routinely, he guarded the best opposing big man and routinely got the better of the matchup.

"There were [Hall of Famers] known for doing certain things exceptionally like Paul Silas," said Bill Cartwright, who guarded Rodman when the two were opponents and later served as an assistant coach on the Bulls' sixth NBA title team with Rodman. "That's what they do and they do it better than anyone else.

"Even though Bill Russell scored some, what he's known for? Defense. So I can't see that's an issue at all."

Besides, said former Bulls teammate Steve Kerr, though Rodman was not a scorer, that did not mean he was necessarily a liability on offense.

"I think it's unfair to call him one-dimensional because he had a really good feel offensively and he picked up [Tex Winter's] triangle [offense] a lot quicker than anybody anticipated," Kerr said. "That was one of the most interesting things upon his arrival, how was he going to fit into the triangle. Guys either pick it up or they don't, and you could tell right away that he got it even though he wasn't a big scorer.

"I think a lot of times he purposely didn't shoot and didn't want to score because he probably could have more often. I think his favorite stat line was 21 rebounds and two points. He loved that because he wanted to be different. He wanted to separate himself from everyone else."

Even as a hated member of the "Bad Boys," Rodman's brand of athleticism and long-legged grace drew your eyes to him as he loped up and down the court. But if he blended in with Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Joe Dumars -- "He had regular hair color then," said Reinsdorf -- Rodman's true colors emerged in Chicago.

"Detroit had a lot of big guys who could rebound well and were rough and tough," said former Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach. "He was starting to exhibit some of that showmanship with Detroit, but it came out in full bloom with Jordan and Pippen and the team with which he won three championships."

Sometimes, however, those true colors, exhibited in all their rainbow-hued glory in his ever-changing hairstyles, appeared to be a disruption to a team that some might think wouldn't tolerate that well.

"Once the decision was made to get Dennis, there was a certain expectation of everything not going perfectly," Cartwright said. "So when things did happen like he would miss a practice; or maybe he was out late at night and wasn't very good the next day; or was a little outlandish with his dress; or some of the things he did like when we were in Seattle and he chartered a plane to Vegas, it was like [there we go].

"But Phil always handled it really well and just disciplined him and then we moved off of it. The main thing with Dennis was even though he had his other life off the court, when it was game time he would always perform. … Once he came to the building, he knew what his job was and he was great at playing his role.

"He did have an occasional hiccup like when he kicked the cameraman in Minnesota [in '97], but basically the dude always came ready to play."

Kerr called Jackson, whom Rodman has selected to present him Friday to the Hall of Fame, "the perfect coach" for the flamboyant player and it's hard to disagree.

"A lot of coaches couldn't have handled him and didn't want him," Bach said. "I was surprised when he came to the Bulls [Bach was no longer coaching in Chicago by then], but if you knew Phil, you knew he was strange off the floor himself as a player, riding his motorcycle into hotel lobbies, so why shouldn't he understand this guy?"

Reinsdorf said he never regretted signing Rodman, who accepted his Hall of Fame blazer Thursday wearing dark glasses, brown silk warm-up pants, a scarf and a rhinestone-encrusted tank top.

"One on one, he was actually very shy, a nice fella," Reinsdorf said. "He would hardly make contact with anybody. But when he did do stupid things like kick the photographer and a couple other things, by and large he was always contrite and he'd admit he did wrong. We had players with bigger problems than Dennis gave us."

On top of that, said Kerr, "With Michael and Scottie, we already had an established pecking order with good leadership and a veteran team. So the rest of us were not really concerned. …

"We had very little inner turmoil until the very end of our playoff run in '98 when [Rodman] left the team and did that wrestling thing [with Hulk Hogan prior to Game 4 of the '98 Finals] and started missing practice. I think it ran its course by the end. That was the thing with Dennis. He had a shelf life."

Interestingly, however, it never made for any major confrontations with Jordan, who normally would not hesitate to jump on a teammate if he thought it was merited.

"For three years, our team really dealt with it well," Kerr said. "Michael had this sort of quiet respect for Dennis. They rarely communicated but Michael respected Dennis for the way he competed and rebounded. He knew how important he was to the team and left Dennis to his own."

Cartwright went so far as to say that Rodman's career in Chicago broadened the team's appeal.

"He brought an element of fan to the game with some different interests," he said. "It was almost like having Happy Gilmore on your team. Now bikers and people with tattoos were attracted to the game."

Even Rodman himself expressed surprise last May that he was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But he seemed just as surprised with the permanent company he was about to keep.

"It's funny," he said, "you have Michael Jordan, then you had Scottie and now I'm going in. I think that's the first time that's ever been done, three guys from the same team in three different years. It's a shock to me I'm even in there. The fact that I've won five championships, it's hard to just imagine that."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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