Dennis Rodman is one of the most polarizing figures in NBA history. As a five-time champion and arguably the greatest rebounder of all time, Rodman was a unique athlete whose crossover appeal transformed him into a global icon.
His life and his career are now the subject of the new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Rodman: For Better or Worse. The film chronicles his early struggles as a homeless teen, to his life in the NBA and all the on and off-court exploits that came with it, to his post-retirement and his controversial relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
We spoke to Rodman recently about all of this and more in a raw and wide-ranging interview in anticipation of the film’s premier, which airs Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
I found the new documentary incredibly moving. I thought they did a fantastic job on it. Why did you feel like now was the time to tell your story?
Well, I believe the fact that I give people something to let them know that what you saw early in my career, my basketball career, that you never saw the real me. I think that people would see the fact that what they perceive me as is not who I am.
I’m a very kind-hearted person. I’m a very loving person. I’m very giving and caring all at the same time, but people look at me, and say that guy does this, he does that. And they think most of the things I do is bad. Fifty-eight years of my lifestyle that people can’t accept. But, it’s like, what people don’t get, I think, because they don’t see [is] that this guy is loved by more people in the world, that he just wants to be loved by people. He doesn’t want to do anything to hurt people, he just wants to be loved by people. Just looking to be reached out, and for people to accept him.
And what you’re going to get out of that documentary is that I just want to be accepted as loved. But, that never happened all my life.
Speaking of that, the documentary doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
No, it does not. It does not sugarcoat.
It gets into some pretty painful personal stuff. What did it take to help establish that level of trust and vulnerability on your part, that they were going to treat your story with respect?
I think since I’ve been in the NBA, all my interviews I’ve done in the last 15-20 years, I … put my life on the line and spread my life around the world. I don’t sugarcoat my life at all. I give you the ugly, I give you the bad, I give you everything that you want to see and hear. And, I want you to accept that. If you can’t accept that, I got to deal with that everyday in life myself. But I think people are going to see the documentary and say, “Wow, that is insane.”
And still functional at a high level and keep that sanity. And, I went to the lowest with the gun [ed. note: the documentary covers a situation when Rodman was suicidal]. I went to the lowest with this, I went to the lowest with that, and still maintain the fact that wow, he still has the capability to keep moving forward, keep moving forward, and I know a lot of people that’s been in my situation. I know athletes, or anyone that’s on planet Earth, to go through the trials and tribulations and fight through it, and try to fight through it.
And, for me, I didn’t have anybody to lash out to, or to reach out to. I tried to deal with it myself. And, I think, you hear people say, he never lets anybody in. You can try to deal with that alone, and sometimes he gets in trouble, and he losing his way and he just needs someone to help him, and be loved by.
And, I think you’ll see it in the documentary a lot because I fight that all the time. I don’t know who to love, who to trust, or where should I turn. And I have to turn to somebody, and luckily the fact that I have good common sense, the people allow me to deal with that.
Back in the ’90s, you were one of the few athletes to ever embrace the LGBTQ community.
Were you conscious that you were doing something that might be considered groundbreaking at the time? Or, was it something that came more naturally to you?
I think I have the two sides of being a human being, as far as a male and a female. I think that I was shown a lot of a female my whole life, because I was such an introverted child, or the fact that I didn’t know the difference between male and female back then. Then, I got to turn to my sisters, and my mother, and all the women that was around them. I never really had any kids my age, or male figures to even just hang or cling to, or even clamp to. I was always around females, and I always hung around my sisters. We used to play dress up and they used to dress me in women’s clothes and put makeup on me all the time, and I accepted it. At the time point in my life, back then when I was living in the projects and 13, 14, 15, I thought I was gay.
Then, when I was around women, I shied around women when they would try and get pictures, and waved and stuff like that, I always embrace women. But when it comes to love, that’s just where I disconnected with them.
And, as far as being for the gay community, I didn’t know anything about the gay community growing up, or even say when I was 25, I think I got involved in the community when I got into the NBA and I started going to these all gay clubs, and hanging out, and even then I didn’t realize that they was gay, or bisexual, or whatever. I just thought they were normal people to me.
As far as the gay community, I just embrace, because I think they need to be loved, just like I need to be loved. And now that the gay community is so represented in such a great way and a great light, people accept the fact that it’s not bad to be gay, it’s loved to be loved by gay people and all generations of sexual contents.
So, I just said, “Embrace the gay community because they just don’t care about what people think about them, and they just worry about how to live, and be normal people, and they’re just like us.” And no one’s different with any one of them, that’s how I look at it.
You became a global icon, on the fashion level, well before it was a thing like it is in today’s NBA. So, what do you think about, from your perspective, the evolution of fashion in the NBA from then until now?
I think a lot of guys today, everyone wants to try to dress a different way. Players today will understand, you ain’t dressing any different than we did back then, late ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. They got to take a little risk, they got to take a course in fashion. You gotta go back to the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s. Those guys were dressing way extreme, way exotic. They was like, whatever they wore was cool as hell. It was cool as hell back then. They weren’t trying to out fashion anybody. They were just dressing how they thought they look good and they didn’t think about looking good, that’s how it was.
And now today, it’s more like everybody’s trying to do this, trying to give this type of fashion. This type of line, that type of line, which I don’t care. It looks good. But it’s like, whatever man, I’ve been doing that for years, and guess what, it’s very easy to be fashionable, if you got the right material, the right clothes, the right people to run behind you to give you those options. But anyway, it’s not that difficult to look good these days because you got a lot of outlets.
I wanted to circle back to some of the things around your family covered in the documentary. It deals with a lot of your relationships. Whether it be to your mother, your father, your daughter, or grandchildren. And you’ve always been really open about your struggles with that. So, where do you see that you are today in terms of those relationships?
Well, I think my biggest battle now, because I think I was following a lot of demons over the last 20 years, as far as like, am I famous? Am I too famous? Am I that famous? Am I not enough famous? I got enough money. This is just … I put this in my head where I really don’t care about anybody but myself. And it’s sad because, I say it all the time, I should be more open to what I got now. I should have learned from my mistakes, as far as like, oh sh*t, I didn’t have that much love when I was a young child. I never heard the word love at all back in the day. I never heard love. And the NBA, in the beginning of my career, and now I’m not in the NBA, I’m trying to work on myself, and say, “You know what, now it’s your time, Dennis, to f*cking figure this f*cking sh*t out. You got all the time in the world to put what you say on the table now and quit talking about it and go f*cking do it.”
I thought of that every f*cking day. I say, “Okay great, it’s time for me to go love my kids. It’s time for me to go love the people that actually love me when I’m going through the world.” But I have a hard time to know how to do that, because I’ve never had it before, and I just don’t know how to do it. And then when I get around the situation with my kids, or grandkids, stuff like that, I don’t know how to talk to them. My kids always say, “Aren’t you going to hug me now?” I’m like, oh, okay. So, it’s like that’s fine, that’s how I am these days. I’m to that point where I can see my kids and laugh with them, but I’m trying to touch them now. Because, it’s like am I allowed to? Am I able to touch you guys? Because I don’t know how to act, because I’m not around them as much.
So, I used to think that I’m working that demon out to try to figure out how to love people now without the time, do I have the time to love? And quit worrying about myself, and to quit being so like, me, me, me, all the goddamn time.
You’ve taken criticism over the years for your relationship with Kim Jong-un. What is it that you think people misunderstand about your intentions there?
I’ve been trying to tell people, I hate talking about it a lot. But, these people like to do that, because I’m going back either way [to North Korea]. When I go back, people ask about it again, and this time it’s a different Kim. The next time I go back, I’m going to sit down with Kim Jong-un and we’re going to write a book together, and he said we can do that next time I come over. We’re going to write a book together about North Korea and the Dennis Rodman experience in North Korea. So, I’m going to spend a couple of weeks over there with him talking to him about this book. So, people should look out for that.
What do you say to people who say it’s irresponsible and that it ignores all the human rights violations and the dangers he poses to the world?
So, I just said people are just narrow-minded at the time. They just think that I was really foolish and really stupid, and didn’t know what I was doing over there, and stuff like that. And I tried to just embrace people to the fact that I’m not a politician, I wasn’t a politician. I went to try to put sports in North Korea. That was it. That’s what I keep saying that to people all the time. I’m not there to represent America, get something and come together as far as like make a peacemaker. No, I just want to bring sports over there. If I could bring a sports team to North Korea twice a year, and show the world that the fact that we are allowed, and we are loved over there in North Korea, that’s all I was trying to do. That was it.
He likes the fact that I love his people. He loves the fact that I’m not afraid to go over there. He loves the fact that I’m not afraid to say what I got to say, as far as anything that goes on. I speak my mind with him. He just loves it. He says, “I love the way you speak to us. You’re not afraid.” I said, “No, I’m not afraid.” What’s the worst that can happen to me? Dying? Okay, great, I’m going to do that no matter what in the end. So, what the hell? But, while I’m here, let’s just try to create something that’s loving and caring about people.
The documentary talks a lot about the sort of competing internal forces with you, in terms of being so painfully shy, but then also having this other personality that’s really outgoing and really bombastic. From your perspective, how do you try to find the balance between the two?
Well, they always said about Michael Jackson and all the other people that’s been famous and died and stuff like that is that, there’s one side of him that’s so entertaining, so energetic, so electric. And then when you get him off the stage or whatever, or off the pedestal, it’s a whole different person. And I think a lot of people in the world, they all like that. When you don’t have the opportunity to be on center stage always, you say, “Okay, great, I got a chance to go on stage, and then do my two-hour gig.” Then when you get on stage it’s, “Oh, he’s on when he’s on stage.”
I think when you get to that point, people don’t really realize that you have to have those two sides of yourself. You have to have those two sides. If you don’t have those two sides, and you’re going a hundred miles an hour, you’re going to die soon. I think a lot of people have to have that in this industry. You look at Amy Winehouse and stuff like that, all these young people dying at 27. They’re going so hard, so hard, so hard. They never took time out to really realize, what are they there for? What’s the purpose? Why am I here? I don’t need to do this.
But, for me, it’s more like, while I was playing basketball, I said to all my friends, “I got three hours to play basketball. I got three hours to make people in the world happy. Great, that’s my livelihood right there. And after that, I’m going to be me after that.”
So, I separate those two things. Once I got into it, I say I got three hours to entertain, I’m loving it, great, I’m free. Let’s see if I can get off the basketball court, if I can live my life now. I can be Dennis Rodman now, free to be the flamboyant this and that. It’s okay, this is the real Dennis. When you’re on the court, I’m going to make people happy, I want people to win, I want people to enjoy themselves. But outside of that, I just like being Dennis and then doing all that shit.
What is your relationship to the NBA today? How do you see yourself in terms of that relationship?
I think the NBA really don’t think that I really want to be involved with them. Because no one’s ever asked me to be involved with the NBA, and that’s kind of shocking. No one’s ever asked me to be involved in the NBA, even though people call me a smart guy. A lot of people call me a genius. I don’t know what the f*ck that means. But, it’s like, “You’re a f*cking genius, Dennis.” I’ll say, “I don’t know.” But the NBA’s never contacted me for anything, ever in my life, besides playing basketball.
And I don’t really care either way. I mean, if they want my help, or a team want me to be a consultant, I’m all about it. I’m pretty smart with these young kids today. I know what they want. I know how they feel. And, they got people now in the NBA, they got analysts, what they call analysts. People that preach down from your head to your f*cking toes how you live, how you breathe, how you take your medicine. They got people like that in the NBA for these teams and stuff like that. I’m like, okay, great.
All it is to is consult people about what you want and what you need, as far as like, living life. I can teach you that. That’s easy. Sh*t, that’s the easy part. It’s up to you to listen. But the NBA won’t come at me for something like that because they got other people that they entrust in.
What’s next for Dennis Rodman? What can we expect to see from you?
What people don’t realize, is that I do have a lot of things I want to accomplish and stuff like that. I’m not planning it. When I think of something pretty cool, I just want to achieve it.
I had this vision one time to do this little 15-minute video where I was going to go on a plane and jump off a plane without a parachute. And I want people to see the fact that I was going to jump out of a plane without a parachute, and I want to see my life in front of my eyes. I wanted to see my life in front of my eyes. That’s how I was going to jump out of a plane because I know it’s going to flash before me. What did I miss in my life that I should achieve before I die? That’s what I want.
That’s one thing I was thinking about doing, that I still think about doing, but in the end, there’s going to be someone before I fall to save my life to come tell me, “You’re not done Dennis. You got something left in the tank for people to listen and to understand why you’re here living on planet Earth.” So, that’s probably one of my things I’m going to probably do in the near future.
That’ll certainly get people’s attention.
So, I’m going to add something else. So anyway, I have something coming out right now, I got my new podcast, my Instagram is blowing up, and I want to pay attention to that. I got my social media that’s on and doing well. And I got these shirts I’m coming out with right now that’s one-of-a-kind, if anyone wants to log in and want to buy these shirts, man. One-of-a-kind, limited edition if anyone wants to join in. So, put that in the interview so you can go to my website and my podcast.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.