30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse

Release: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (ESPN)

→ESPN 

Directed by: Todd Kapostasy

Love him, hate him or indifferent to him you can’t really get away with saying you don’t know who Dennis Rodman is. Few American athletes have received the attention that the former so-called “Bad Boy” has. How much of that has been self-inflicted and how much of it has been healthy is the big question driving this documentary from Emmy-winning director Todd Kapostasy. Rodman’s lived so large and tabloid-friendly he may not even really need a documentary on his life but here goes this anyway.

Rodman: For Better or Worse assumes the shape of a typical cause-and-effect narrative, but it’s also a trip down memory lane by way of rockstar Keith Richards. How Rodman managed to survive his partying days, much less talk to us now coherently, is something of a miracle. Living in the fast lane has taken a toll, and that’s no revelation. Yet there are details about his most unlikely journey from scrawny, un-athletic teen to homeless person to NBA superstar and eventual teammate of Michael Jordan you can’t help but be wowed by.

Because the subject is so colorful, passionate, annoying, impulsive, repulsive — in a word, iconoclastic — Kapostasy feels compelled to spice up the presentation style. Unfortunately a lot of that is to a detrimental effect. He brings in Jamie Foxx to do some seriously distracting fourth-wall-breaking narration and the director further embellishes with a number of cheesy tableaus, all of which is meant to complement and reflect the Rodman persona. What’s more effective is the core interview which takes place in an empty auditorium, which feels something more than an accident in terms of the symbolism.

Rodman, now 58, is seated in a lonely chair center-stage, back turned to where a crowd would be sitting. As he fiddles with his lip ring and utters a series of “umm”s and “uh”s there’s often a heavy silence, like he’s still trying to figure out what went wrong. The crowds and groupies and good times are gone and have been for some time, and so has his considerable wealth. He gave away a lot of his money to people he knew weren’t real friends, doing so in order to keep that part of his identity (“Generous Dennis”) alive for as long as possible. Yet his greatest debt owed is time — to his ex-wives, to his children he’s never really known. Rodman comes across most honest when addressing how he’s not been a good dad. Still, it’s weird hearing the words “it kinda sucked” when describing the experience of becoming a father.

Kapostasy could have scaled down the saga as merely another example of just how unhealthy and fleeting fame is but he recognizes that there is far more to the story than just his tumultuous years in the NBA spotlight. For Better or Worse is divided into three major movements: his childhood, the rise to fame and then the falling away from it and his post-retirement shenanigans, like the time he befriended North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, an episode that Rodman kind of waves away as being “in the past,” and is as cringe-inducing now as it was when his drunken rantings abroad made him the target of vicious (and deserved) criticism.

The documentary is arguably at its most bizarre and fascinating when it revisits a period of transience before he made himself eligible for the 1986 Draft. He spent some time in a small town in Oklahoma, pushing past the misery of his hometown of Oak Cliff (an impoverished suburb of Dallas) — a hell he vowed never to return to. That’s not entirely surprising. His childhood wasn’t exactly a happy time; his father (named Philander, no less) walked out on the family at an early stage. His relationship with his mama was strained, and only grew more so when she threw him out of the house in an attempt to get him to take responsibility for himself. His high school days were marked by bullying and un-athleticism. Team sports at that time did not have a great deal of love for him.

After barely surviving high school his pituitary went into overdrive, giving him a foot of vertical in about a year — thus making him feel like an alien in his own body. Yet as he physically grew he remained emotionally underdeveloped. He tells us how in his early twenties he met his first true friend in Byrne Rich, a 12-year-old from small-town Oklahoma, during a summer basketball camp who was struggling with extreme introversion himself after fatally shooting his best friend in a hunting accident. What he does not tell you however, is that as of 2013 he fell out of contact with the Rich’s — a farming family who took him in when he was struggling, a family Rodman came to call a surrogate — for reasons completely unknown to them and to us all.

The bulk of the middle section focuses on the rise of both the athlete and the “Bad Boy” alter ego. A wide range of guests contribute their experiences being around him, covering him as journalists, being his teammate, his coach, his bodyguard. Throughout the film it’s strange how the subject feels like a passenger and not the driver, but we nonetheless get some insight from a lot of well-qualified people. While Shirley, his mother, addresses what drove Rodman into his shell at a young age (and she doesn’t mince words when describing just how painfully shy and needy her son was), others provide context for the bigger picture, how his turbulent upbringing and emotional immaturity made him ill-equipped to deal with the harsher realities of the business of the NBA. His love of basketball gave birth to a unique court presence that created a fandom all its own, which in turn created a kind of confirmation bias for what little he valued about himself — his ability to entertain and make others happy.

Despite how the film swells with melancholy, especially as it dives into the retirement phase, the experience isn’t a four-quarter beatdown of his character. Interviewees speak just as often to Rodman’s “sweetness” as they do his foibles. Former Detroit Piston Isaiah Thomas in particular has nothing but fond memories of his time playing with a teammate who gave his heart and soul to the team and the game. Even Michael Jordan is impressed with his dedication to the team after nights of throwing down 30+ shots (of top-shelf tequila, that is). No matter how familiar some of the archived footage is, it serves to remind how much of a force Rodman was as a player. His hustle on the court was virtually unmatched. He came into his own not just as a vital cog in some big-time NBA machines (notably the “Bad Boy” Pistons who won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90 and the indomitable Chicago Bulls of the ’90s) but as one of the most effective defenders and rebounders in league history.

For Better or Worse is definitely more about the journey than the destination. The conclusion feels empty, almost incomplete, and that’s through no fault of Kapostasy. The expensive designer shades Rodman is flashing can’t mask the pain he is in. “You’d think one of the ten most recognizable people would be happy, right?” The silence that follows is indeed awkward. The question is painfully rhetorical. If he can’t answer it, expecting anyone else to do so — or asking a documentary crew who do a good job of sorting through facts and fiction to make something up — is even crazier than his own life story.

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Recommendation: Fandom is no barrier to entry for this 30 for 30. It’s important to note that Todd Kapostasy does a good job of suspending judgment in his approach, making sure all voices are heard — i.e. the women he left behind to raise his own children. The documentary proves how he’s a tough guy to sympathize with, yet at the same time he’s someone for whom you often do feel sympathy. That’s a crazy dichotomy, and even if you don’t like him at all there is no denying he is a fascinating, unique individual. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

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30-for-30: Bad Boys

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Release: Thursday, April 17, 2014

[ESPN]

Love ’em, hate ’em, you don’t even know ’em. And for most people who grew up following pro basketball in the 1980s, you didn’t give a damn about ’em, or their back-to-back championship titles in 1989 and 1990.

The circle of those who actually did care barely encompassed the city of Detroit, Michigan. The rest of the league not only didn’t care about the talented Isiah Thomas and his merry band of basketball punks, but they couldn’t stand them. In fact the general opinion of this team was so bitterly divided ‘Bad Boys of Detroit‘ actually became a galvanizing chant that could be heard echoing off the glass and concrete of this city. Elsewhere, the name was something to be cursed.

This time, confidence wasn’t building only to be dropped like a brick the next moment. Starting with the draft of Isiah Thomas from the University of Indiana in 1981, the team began a multi-year reconstruction process that would throw the door wide open for future criticisms, controversies and career-defining moments. Their environment embraced the storm of critics as if welcoming home a friend or family member at the airport. The attitude was growing and the games played against the Pistons were becoming “dirtier.” Everyone knew this, and not everyone loved it.

Detroit did, though.

Specifically what they loved was their team’s physicality on the court, as it represented a new, stronger gusto for winning. ‘Game face’ was now more like ‘maul-his-face.’ The Pistons of the day were most known for two players that particularly drew ire from opponents and their crowds: the big, physically dominant Rick Mahorn and the equally (if not more) controversial and clunky Bill Laimbeer, a goon who loved to taunt and be a general nuisance on the hardwood. Between the two of them, more fights and more player ejections occurred than with any other Piston.

Then there were quieter contributors like Vinnie Johnson, also known as ‘The Microwave’ for slowly but surely heating up as the games went on, becoming an incredibly clutch performer down the stretches of many a playoff series. The 1989 squad would emerge as one of the most competitive units Detroit had put on the court in years, one that would be willing to do anything to win. Anything on the court, that is. Fortunately the team’s reputation didn’t also include a propensity for hard-partying. (Or they at least avoided making the news while doing so.)

By comparison, off-court antics (read: distractions) might have been preferable for anyone not a fan of the Bad Boys. Then-head coach Chuck Daly emphasized a physical presence that bordered on UFC brawling with the opponent, a teeny little characteristic that separated them fairly efficiently from the rest of the league’s style of play. But oh buddy was it effective; they won 63 (of 82 total) games in the 1989 season, shattering their old season-best 54-28. This was due to the addition of more players who were keen on implementing Daly’s street-ball mentality. That year, they had the opportunity to use them against a team they had lost to in the finals the year before. And that year, they not only prevailed over the Lakers, they won four consecutive in the final seven-game series, effectively sweeping one of the most elite teams in the nation at the time.

Not only was Detroit aggravating in the sense they were so effective in riling up opponents — frequently becoming the source of multiple player brawls and ejections in those years — their completely frowned-upon game plan actually led to success. This was clearly a reality the other teams couldn’t handle. They even managed to piss off MJ, albeit for starkly different reasons.

When their cage-match-style approach to the game led to a second consecutive title only then it was official: the Bad Boys of Detroit were the ones to beat. Some to this day adamantly deny that they contend for ‘legacy’ status, however. They never quite reached it in the same way that teams like the Boston Celtics (a team that to this day holds the longest consecutive championship winning streak of any American professional sports team, with eight amassed from 1959 to 1966) or the Los Angeles Lakers (who’re only one championship ring shy of the Celtics’ total) had; and the Detroit Pistons lacked any sort of player who was likable outside of the city, even despite many personnel changes over the years.

Somewhat ironically, being the thorn in everyone’s side had given the dent in basketball history that Detroit had been needing to make; not necessarily the controversies so much as the back-to-back championship titles, with the win over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989 arguably being the more rewarding of the two. This documentary gives fascinating insight into the culture that sparked inside the Pistons locker room, with the backdrop of a city clinging to any hope of making championship runs in the 1980s. It is packed with footage of games gone awry, with several interviews clearly marked with still latent heat over certain memories of games long ago.

The Bad Boys represent something of a bygone era in professional basketball. The game of today is far more regulated, with players being kept more at an arm’s length rather than being allowed to get right up in each other’s faces; the Bill Laimbeer’s of today are certainly less aggressive even if they still are thorny little pricks. Some say the game has lost intensity, lost its edge. It has certainly done a decent job expelling the fever-pitch animosity like the one directed toward the Detroit locker room of the 1980s.

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4-0Recommendation: This most recent installment in the 30-for-30 film series is informative as it is revealing. It shows a different side of basketball, a more desperate and certainly more controversial side. For basketball fans, clearly, but specifically for those wanting to know more about this interesting period in Detroit Piston history. Why do I get the feeling that this is an extremely niched documentary, though. . .?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

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