I was 11 when I first decided to give the game of basketball a chance. I wasn’t very inspired and wasn’t very good. I played mostly in the Ridgewood Dorm basketball court in my boarding school, a court that had some of the most unique dimensions I have ever experienced: two nine-and-half-feet high baskets, separated on a not-so-straight open court, barely two-thirds the size of a real court. The basket on one of the ends was on a tree. Yes!
But it was here that I first tried out my very limited hand in the game, and I did what every bumbling, struggling, out-of-sync newcomer does: find out that one thing that I was comfortable with, and then specialise in it. Some of the guys were great at outside shots from their hot-spots. Some were aspiring Jason Williams’, focusing more on how beautiful their dribble looked than their actual shot. Some had become so familiar with the backboards that they had an uncanny and unstoppable skill of Dwyane-Wade-esque difficult layups, a skills that came especially handy when playing Air-21.
I had an awkward shot, the worst handles known to man, and little to no court vision. But I did have incredibly long arms, giving me a wingspan longer than even the boys who were taller than me. During shoot-around, we played the simple ‘make it – take it’ system: if you make it, you get the ball back. Otherwise, the dozen or so people standing below the basket hustle and fight for the rebound to get a chance at their own shot.
And so, my longer-than-average-arms, and the challenge to win a rebound against a dozen others against low odds, combined to gave me my first real basketball skills: rebounding. And it was during my rebounding dominant moments that some NBA-affluent friend called me a ‘Worm’.
“A Worm. The Worm. Like Dennis Rodman.”
I didn’t know squat about the NBA beyond Magic & Michael when I first heard the name Rodman, but it wasn’t going to be easy to forget him once I dug a little deeper. I found out that this cross-dressing, cameraman-kicking, hair-bleaching, strange man was also the man synonomous with rebounds. As a matter of fact, I will be shocked if Oxford made an Official Basketball Dictionary and a photograph of Dennis Rodman didn’t take up the full page next to the definition of ‘rebounds’.
Because Dennis Rodman, or ‘The Worm’ as he was nicknamed, is the greatest rebounder of the basketball in history. And now I’m going to tell you why.
A week ago, Dennis Rodman was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, a moment he capped off with one of the most emotional speeches ever given at the Hall. At only 6-foot-7 inches, Rodman constantly played bigger than his size, defending both the forward positions and the Center with ease, and playing power forward for most of his career on the offensive end. The post-merger NBA has never seen a more tenacious rebounder: Rodman led the league in rebounding an unbelievable SEVEN times, from 1992-1998! And this was in an era where he regularly went up against the likes of Hakeem Olajuwan, Charles Barkley, Shaq, Charles Oakley, Kevin Garnett, and Karl Malone.
Here was a man who averaged just 7.3 points per game during the course of his career and now finds himself in the Hall of Fame. It was his rebounding and defense that got him enshrined in the Hall, and the rebound stats in particular tell more than their share of the tale. Since 1973, no player has had a better rebounding average than Rodman, at 13.1 a game. Since 1973, Rodman owns five out of the top eight single season rebounding records, with a top two of 18.7 rpg and 18.3 rpg in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Take a look at those dates again: these otherworldy stats weren’t achieved in the ‘black-and-white’ era of Chamberlain-Russell NBA, where the NBA only had a few taller athletic players and a fast paced to the game meant that the likes of Chamberlain and Russell got most of the rebounds available. These stats are from relatively recent years – the 90s, an era that Rodman dominated.
And as the old adage says, “Defense and Rebounding wins championships” – and Rodman did his fair share of winning too, getting five rings. He was the defensive heart and soul of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys teams that won two rings in 1989 and 1990, and part of his responsibility was shutting down Michael Jordan. He spent a couple of seasons with the Spurs, where he began to stake his claim as the most dominant rebounder in the league. And as most recent history will remember him, he joined Jordan and Pippen in the legendary Chicago Bulls team for their second three-peat, winning three more championships from 1996-98.
And on a sidenote: how damn great was that Bulls team? They had the greatest player of all time, the greatest wingman/do-it-all player of all time, and the greatest rebounder of all time. The best part of the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman trio was that not only were they the teams three biggest stars, but they were the three best defenders, perhaps three of the top six or seven defenders in the league at their time.
During the course of his career, Rodman was named Defensive Player of the Year twice while with the Pistons, was an all star twice (few players not named Ben Wallace become all stars by averaging below 10 points a game), and seven times into the NBA All Defensive first team.
He did some time with the Lakers and the Mavs before calling it a day, but one of the most amusing things for me to now check up Rodman’s career are the names of the teams he played for AFTER his NBA career: these include the Long Beach Jam, Orange County Crush, and Tijuana Dragons of the ABA, a team in Finland (Torpan Pojat) and in England (Brigton Bears).
On the course of his journey, Rodman did a lot of crazy shit too, and it is perhaps his extracurricular activities that made him so unpredictable off the court. Out of the large number of these activities, here are my top 3:
1) He wore a wedding dress to promote his autobiography.
2) He was a part time pro-wrestler, and fought alongside Hulk Hogan
3) He was in a movie with Jean Claude Van Damme, called Double Team. Find it: it’s great! (ok, keep your expectations low)
And now, here is perhaps the greatest part of the Rodman story: how he fought against all the odds to become what he did. Dennis Rodman was never supposed to be the greatest ever rebounder, never supposed to be a hall of famer. He suffered an unhappy childhood, struggled through poverty and tragedy, and somehow made the NBA despite having outstanding offensive skills, and even then was a rookie at the advanced age of 25. He kept persisting, kept improving, won the rings, the DPOY accolades, the rebounding titles, and became a part of one of the greatest teams ever. And by his last title, he was already 37 years old, still reading the NBA in boards!
I didn’t know these things when I was 11, when I was falling in love with the art of the rebound, when someone called me a ‘worm’ and I failed to realise that it was a compliment and not an insult. I added several more arsenals to my game since then, but that love for the boards never changed, and neither did my respect for Dennis Rodman. What I see now is that, ‘The Worm’ stood for more than just the ability to get rebounds. ‘The Worm’ stood for perseverance, hustle, an undying love for the game.
His career, and his life, mirror his rebounding skill. Without having the size to do it, he had the uncanny skill to break the odds and position himself for success. He jumped higher than anyone else, even those bigger and more skilled than him, to either grab the ball, or tip it away, back to himself, just like in life, he was able to tip the favours towards himself, to grab the NBA’s biggest challenges by its horns. And then he would secure the rebound, just like he would secure success, and then he would do it over and over again, becoming the best at one of the most beautiful arts in basketball.