The Last Dance : Dennis Rodman Agonistes Episode 3
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At the risk of spending too much time away from the most famous and popular and well-known athlete of his era, consider this very different life. A man grows up jug-eared and awkward and bullied in a housing project in Dallas; his father disappears when he’s three and will not return to his life again until the man is rich and famous. At 18, when the man is done with high school and unable or unready to get started on anything else, his mother kicks him out of the house with a garbage bag of his clothes and he spends the two years with no fixed address, more or less but never quite on the streets. All around him, he sees people selling drugs to make money, but he never goes that route himself, for reasons he later professes not to understand. He handles baggage at the airport and does odd jobs at the 7-Eleven, as he recalled in 2019 when ESPN aired a documentary about his hall of fame basketball career, “for five bucks a day.”
He also plays basketball every day, and during his two years on the margins grows from five-foot-six to six-foot-eight, bursting out of those old clothes like a lanky, defensive-minded version of the Incredible Hulk. The man winds up at a Division II school, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, at the age of 20.
He’s fanatically committed to improving his craft, but still not anything like a polished player even by the standards of Division II college basketball. And yet from the beginning he’s got something that even those a tier or two above him don’t. He’s irritating. He pushes and pesters and tips and contests and contests and contests. There’s some footage of him from this era, in an ill-fitting uniform with the word SAVAGES on the front of the jersey, outworking and outplaying and generally annoying the shit out of everyone else in the frame. He runs like he’s got snowshoes on, and his gait will stay weird even as he becomes a second-round draft pick who plays his rookie season for the Detroit Pistons at the age of 25 (same as centerpiece star Isiah Thomas, who was then in his sixth season), and then a defensive standout and ace rebounder on a team that wins two NBA titles and become the iconic bully-boy champion of their era, and then the consensus best defensive player in the NBA, and finally just Dennis Rodman, who was a star.
After what might have been an abortive suicide attempt in the parking lot of Detroit’s home arena, Rodman is traded away, dyes his hair after being inspired by Wesley Snipes’s look in Demolition Man, and winds up dating Madonna. She encourages him to build his brand and he keeps dying his hair and starts collecting tattoos and becomes an avatar of an ineffably ‘90s style of x-treme outrageousness. There are a lot of large goofy velvet hats involved, and sunglasses that rarely come off.
This all happens before Dennis Rodman winds up getting dealt again, for virtually no return, to a Chicago Bulls team that is already a dynasty and gearing up to become something unprecedented. Before his last season with Bulls, Rodman appeared in a Tsui Hark action film called Double Team, alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mickey Rourke. At the end of the film, a tiger pounces onto Rourke at the precise moment that he explodes; this happens in the Coliseum, in Rome. A shirtless Rodman saves his compatriots by shielding them from the flames behind a Coca-Cola vending machine.
A teetotaler when he won his first NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1990—Dennis Rodman was so overcome with emotion at the award ceremony that he could only sob—he’d later become an alcoholic, a self-destructive wanderer, an absent but conflicted father to his own kids, and a personal friend of Kim Jong-Un. He’s still famous, in a sad, life-sentence kind of way. That is the story of Dennis Rodman’s life, although admittedly not all of the events depicted in Double Team are based in fact. (“A grenade thrown into a swimming pool will not produce a 30-foot flame when it explodes,” a helpful reader notes in the “goofs” section of the film’s IMDb page.)
It would seem impossible that any version of that story could come off as rote or dull, and yet somehow the third episode of The Last Dance, which begins as The Dennis Rodman One, manages to pull it off.
Dennis Rodman has spoken about all this in alternately agonized and self-pitying ways for years, but while the filmmakers elicit nothing new from Rodman here, the bigger problem—as has been the case in each of the first episodes—is director Jason Hehir’s determination to bring all things back to the most famous and popular and well-known athlete of his era. It makes sense, both as a business proposition and a storytelling one, to make Michael Jordan the center of The Last Dance: It’s his show, and not just because the never-before-seen footage that’s the series’s ostensible hook was kept locked up for decades at Jordan’s request. But while it’s understandable that Hehir would make Jordan as central to the story as he was to his great Bulls teams, there’s something warped and stunting about telling the stories of that team’s other stars exclusively through how they related to Jordan himself.
In “Episode III,” every story winds up being a Jordan story. This enfolds the brawling Bad Boys Pistons on which Rodman got his start, and which kept Jordan out of the NBA Finals well into his prime by defending him both brutally and well. (“Every time he goes to the basket,” Rodman says, “put him on the fucking ground.”) In the hero’s journey that Hehir is recounting, they are another enemy for Jordan to vanquish. Every story winds up being a Michael Jordan story.
This may well be an accurate rendering of how Jordan himself experienced it all, and it would stand to reason that this is how Jordan might tell these very familiar stories. The problem is not just that Jordan isn’t a reliable narrator—he’s a pathologically competitive egomaniac, if you’re just joining us—but that he isn’t an especially insightful or curious one. Instead of making Jordan’s version of the story part of a broader whole, Hehir seems dedicated to reverse-engineering a broader and universally agreed-upon truth onto Jordan’s version of things.
This is how we get an extended re-telling of what seems like a very humdrum moment — Dennis Rodman had been struggling with his focus early in the ‘97-98 season, went to Jordan’s room to bum a cigar, and then started playing better after what Jordan understood as an implicit apology. It’s not really a very good story, and Rodman himself seems not to remember it especially well, but it’s the story Jordan wants to tell. “From then on, Dennis was straight as an arrow,” Jordan says. Again, it’s clear why Jordan might tell this story in this way: He works a feat of leadership magic without seeming to actually do anything, and so makes a story about someone else’s struggles into one about his singular strength. It’s less clear why a filmmaker would give as much time and attention to it, or to the one that ends the episode, in which Jordan negotiates with Coach Phil Jackson to secure the stressed-out Rodman a 48-hour Las Vegas party furlough.
This dedication to presenting every aspect of the story in a Jordanized For Your Protection way is doubly frustrating because this episode, like previous installments, quickens into something galvanic and fun when it goes from showing to telling. The insistence on hewing to Jordan’s stilted and salty perspective doesn’t add much either to what is already known about Jordan’s career—he was forever finding or inventing haters to smash and was one of the great grudge-cultivators in sports history—or to the story The Last Dance sets out to tell. Learning that Jordan was sticking it to Chicago sportswriters he believed had written the team off when he stuck his iconic game-winner against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the ‘89 playoffs adds some context, but it’s hard to say that it makes the moment—it’s in here, and it still absolutely pops—any more resonant. Sticking to Jordan’s Rodman stories instead of letting Rodman or people that care about him offer more depth is even worse—sprinting through Rodman’s improbably eventful life in order to get back to Jordan’s various feuds and disappointments is borderline malpractice.
All these stories have been told before — Dennis Rodman was the subject of an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary just last year—but splitting the difference between skipping them entirely or looking for a new angle on them leaves things feeling rushed and unsatisfying. There’s just no reason to rush through a life as interesting as Rodman’s to get to some fizzling Jordan anecdote. I’ll cop to being frustrated that Hehir didn’t even bother to include Double Team—it’s like he didn’t even see the Tiger Pouncing on Exploding Mickey Rourke Scene—but at some point it just becomes frustrating to so reliably get the narrowest and least interesting perspective on these exceptional and momentous and objectively cool things.
The best moments in the episode, as in the previous two, feature very little in the way of talking whatsoever. For a couple of minutes each hour, Hehir cuts together some footage of the episode’s major players and flips them over a contemporaneous piece of music; Jordan’s highlight reel in this one is set, delightfully, to Prince’s “Partyman” from the Batman soundtrack. The footage of Rodman in action—he gets the Beastie Boys’ “The Maestro”—is uncanny and great. There have been very few players like Rodman, before or since, and hearing him speak about his process is fascinating—he would go to the gym “until three, four in the morning,” not to shoot but to have his friends miss jumpers so that he could master reacting to various rebounding angles. When his peers talk about him, it’s just as good. “Dennis Rodman was the ‘fuck up person,’” Gary Payton says. “He just fucks everything up. He’s a pest!” Shuffling his feet and blithely bothering the shit out of Charles Barkley, Rodman looks like the most interesting basketball player in the world. It’s hard not to wonder how much more fun this all might be if Hehir would let these moments stand on their own, instead of forever bending them back towards his grim and grudgeful star. Michael Jordan deserves better than being made into Poochie.
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