Sport lends itself to the romantic. That much is true, and it was true long before legendary talents turned sportswriters into scribes of myths, before Robert Redford ever swung a bat, and before the imagination of a daydreaming kid allowed him to fill the gaps in the life of his favorite athlete. We sports fans find allegory or create it. We delve into meaning or fabricate it. We believe that there is something within this field of play, within these lines and these stadiums, that makes the game a deserving vessel of greater purpose.
Sometimes, those romantic inclinations are right on the money. There really are grand tales of triumph and redemption in this sport and all others. There are heroes, in a sense, and there is real emotion that floods from the movement of a bouncing ball. But other times, we’re let down by what is trumpeted as real. The white knights of the NBA are often only so because of the lighting in the room; bright bulbs, after all, can make a legend out of what is only a man. Everything isn’t always perfect, and more importantly, everything isn’t always a nesting doll for some greater, hidden meaning. Sometimes it’s just about basketball. It’s a man with a job that may or may not also be his passion. It’s a victory of self-contained value, rather than the climax of a much larger plot line. Or, in the case of one of the greatest teams of all time, it’s a business venture between colleagues, rather than a story of shared experience, collective ascendence, and fellowship.
Dennis Rodman sat down for an interview on “In Depth with Graham Bensinger,” and discussed his relationships with the stars, the core, and the entire roster of the fabled Chicago Bulls teams he was a part of in the mid-90s:
HESINGER: Your then teammate when you were with the Bulls, Scottie Pippen, was quoted as saying “I’ve never had a conversation with Dennis. I’ve never had a conversation with Dennis in my life, so I don’t think it’s anything new.” Why not speak to your teammates then?
RODMAN: Well, I think it was important for me to go in there and win. I don’t have a job to speak to people. My job is to collate and understand how people work and make people believe in the fact that [I] belong there. Talking to people will come. Relating to people will come. If they see you performing and doing your job and being with the group, that’s all I want. Me and Scottie — we’re cool today. We’re a little older, a little wiser. We’re cool today. And me and Scottie never had a conversation. Me and Scottie and Michael never had a conversation in three years in Chicago. Only time we had a conversation was on the court, and that was it.
Rodman, he of the ever-shifting hair color and endless theatrics, has never been the image of simplicity. Yet here, a meaningful bond is reduced to a workplace arrangement. His job wasn’t to talk to Scottie or Michael, so he didn’t. Their relationship didn’t go beyond the limits of the game, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s no rule that mandates core players to swap Christmas cards, much less share a few words.
But it’s the restraint of Rodman’s relationship with his most notable teammates that sticks out. It’s not that they weren’t friends. They didn’t have a conversation. Rodman was so committed to the limits of his interactions with MJ and Pippen that he didn’t bother to stop by their locker for a chat in three years.
There are teams in which the players form an infrastructure by way of their relationships (the Thunder are perhaps the best contemporary example of a squad defined by something akin to brotherhood, though similar dynamics can be traced through plenty of squads), but the Bulls were not one of them. Jordan’s aloofness has since been pointed out in several books and many a piece online. Pippen’s complex as a second fiddle has become a part of his lore. And Rodman, always a bit of an oddball, is now the man who wouldn’t speak to those whom he shared the court and three titles with, regardless of their stature on the Bulls or in the NBA.
Collectively, they accomplished things other players and teams could only dream of. Yet the lines that connected one Bulls player to another were not quite as vibrant as immortal photos, television broadcasts, and rosy reflections would lead us to believe. The 90s were not, it seems, an age for the romantics; it was a time of greatness in sport that understood its boundaries, and tremendous talents that reinvigorated the game with piles of wins, big personalities, and in some cases, few words between them.