‘The Last Dance’ highlights Michael Jordan’s special bond with Dennis Rodman
MJ snatches Rodman away from Carmen Electra after an impromptu Vegas vacation
Imagine, if you can, Draymond Green going to Steve Kerr one night in the middle of a season, say, before a Warriors trip to Los Angeles to play the Lakers and Clippers, and saying, “Coach, I need some time off.”
Kerr, of course, would say incredulously, “WHAT?! What the hell are you talking about? We’re chasing LeBron and Kawhi for the top seed in the West and you want time off? To go to Las Vegas? Seriously?”
And Green would say, “I need to blow off some steam. Give me 48 hours and I’ll make it work.”
With apologies to my man Draymond for even inserting him hypothetically into such madness, this is a situation that simply would not play out today (though I remember something about LeBron James going down to Miami to fight burnout a few seasons ago). But a star, a guy with four championship rings already, going off to “blow off some steam” with somebody as visible as actress Carmen Electra would set off an unimaginably loud controversy in the world of global sports.
The retelling of Dennis Rodman’s trip to Las Vegas during episode three of The Last Dance is unlikely to be topped in the final six episodes of the documentary series. It speaks to a different time in the culture, which in 1998 barely included cellphones, certainly not Twitter and Instagram or, for that matter, selfies. Can you imagine the reaction in 2020 to seeing an NBA player as easily identifiable as Rodman, in whatever hair color, boarding a commercial flight to Vegas in midseason? We’re not talking, remember, about a bereavement or paternity leave, or an excused absence to take care of some delicate private matter the team would try its best to keep private. Dude was going on a weekend bender in Vegas and didn’t care who saw him!
Yet, this is what the Chicago Bulls were faced with 22 years ago in a season everybody suspected would be their final go-round together. And to think it played out almost quietly outside of Chicago, with maybe a headline or two in the New York Post. Today, the coach would have to involve his owner, who would have to make a call to the commissioner’s office, and there would quickly be a call to the player’s representative about how he was threatening to engage in conduct detrimental to the league.
Yet, in this now-infamous case, coach Phil Jackson told Michael Jordan, who got Rodman out of bed with Electra after the player had returned to Chicago to extend his vacation. And the season, miraculously, went on without really missing a beat.
This speaks to the hold Jordan had on the league, on his teammates and even on Rodman. It wasn’t enough for Jordan to function at that point as the five-time champion of a team struggling (at the time) toward a sixth and final championship; he had to take on management duties as well. As we’ve seen, not every superstar is adept at managing every dynamic.
Jordan’s retelling of the caper is priceless, and there are other untold jaw-dropping Rodman episodes in his three Bulls seasons, trust me. But of course, it was easier for Jordan and Jackson to embrace Rodman, selfish as he was, because his unselfish behavior on the court was by then legendary. Rodman took 4.8 shots per game in his three seasons with the Bulls, yet led the league in rebounding in each of those seasons with an average of 15.3 rebounds per season. His energy and willingness to expend all of it rebounding and playing defense were (and probably still are) unmatched in the league.
It’s difficult to imagine two teammates being more polar opposites than Jordan and Rodman. Jordan grew up entirely middle class under the watchful eye of fairly strict parents. Rodman recounted during episode three how he went from one backyard to another looking for a place to sleep after his mother kicked him out. Jordan apprenticed under the great Dean Smith in one of the famous basketball laboratories on earth, while Rodman seems unsure how he landed at Southeastern Oklahoma State before the NBA called. But what they had in common — a blast furnace level of energy and motivation and an extraordinary basketball IQ — was enough to forge an unmistakable respect that proved more than enough.
Rodman had already gone to Jordan’s hotel room on the road to simply pay homage, as it were, and apologize for being less than great without actually apologizing. The great NBA teams are almost always led by a singular star as much as, if not more than, the head coach. Jordan wasn’t going to need the permission of Jackson, owner Jerry Reinsdorf or the quarrelsome general manager Jerry Krause to go and snatch Rodman out of bed or do whatever was necessary to keep Rodman from wrecking the season.
Rodman, as it turns out, more than adequately replaced the departed Horace Grant, a very different and absurdly underrated player. He wasn’t the rebounding force Rodman was, but was superior to Rodman offensively and the picture of reliability during the Bulls’ first three title runs and infamous battles with the Detroit Pistons. Jordan never had to retrieve Grant from an in-season vacation.