Rodman and The Spurs

With the NBA in mostly dormant status, now is a good time to look back at some old NBA stories with some new perspective.  Thanks to Dennis Rodman, we have a perfect old story to review.  Last week, Rodman stated in an interview that he was dealt from the Spurs in 1995 because Gregg Popovich, who was then the GM the Spurs, “hated me.  He hated my guts because I wasn’t a Bible guy.  They looked at me like I was the devil.”

How true is this?  My memory of that time was that Rodman was a bit out of control and his troubles were more of his own doing.  Let’s take a look at the facts and see who is correct.

The Spurs Get Rodman For A Song

The Spurs acquired Rodman from the Pistons right before the 1993-94 season for Sean Elliott, a first round pick, and some other trinkets.  Rodman was a tough commodity at the time.  He had started out as a defensive specialist on the Pistons but had also turned into an incredible rebounder.  In 1992-93, Rodman grabbed 18.3 rpg to lead the NBA.  But Rodman had also become difficult to deal with after coach Chuck Daly left Detroit.

First, Rodman had demanded a trade when Daly left town.  Then he clashed with the Pistons and had some serious emotional issues.  The LA Times recounted these issues in a 1993 article: “[H]e wore out his welcome with his bizzare behavior.  Rodman left a suicide note last February, and police later found him sitting in the parking lot at the Palace of Auburn Hills with a loaded rifle in the back of his truck. Suspended twice for insubordination, Rodman removed his shoes and read a magazine after being taken out of a game at Washington last season.”

So, Rodman had emotional and behavioral issues and was an incredible talent but he was also already 32 at the time.  In short, Rodman had much more value on the court (if you could get him to play) than he did in a trade.  The Spurs had David Robinson and little other talent.  Getting a potential star for a reasonable price was worth the risk.  In fact, the 1992-93 Spurs were the worst offensive rebounding team in the NBA, with the article  quoting then Spurs GM Bob Bass describing the Spurs as a “marshmallow team” and thought Rodman would fix this.

When Rodman arrived in San Antonio he really started to stick out.  Rodman was the first NBA player to really cover himself in tattoos and he dyed his hair platinum blonde (in apparent homage to Wesley Snipes from the movie Demolition Man).  Naturally, Rodman’s new style got noticed and he became a star.  A Sports Illustrated profile from early in the 1993-94 season, described Rodman’s behavior as a Spur:  “Rodman finally joins his teammates, who have been warming up for the last half hour.  He has already missed the morning’s shootaround, just one of the functions he has blown off here in San Antonio….It is ironic and inexplicable that this difficult, seeming antisocial man becomes the perfect teammate once a basketball game begins.”

The Spurs improved from 49-33 in 1992-93 to 55-27 in 1993-94 with Rodman.  The Spurs offensive rebounds jumped to eighth in the NBA and second overall.  Rodman grabbed 17.3 rpg and was second on the team in BPM (3.5) and VORP (4.2).   The season, though, ended in disappointment.

The Spurs were knocked out in the first round of the 1993-94 playoffs by the Jazz 3-1.  Rodman was becoming a spectacle at the time because he was dating Madonna, who traveled with him to watch a game in Utah.  In addition, Rodman got into altercations with Karl Malone and Felton Spencer and the Desseret News wrote that “Rodman entertained himself –and his date [Madonna]—by woofing and mugging for the [hostile Utah] crowd.”  Rodman grabbed 16 rpg for the series but was eaten up by Malone (29.3 ppg, 12.3 rpg, .482 FG%).

Rodman started off the 1994-95 season with a suspension for violating team rules and then being granted a paid leave of absence for personal reasons by Popovich.  Pop didn’t explain why he agreed to pay Rodman but said “we thought that was the right thing to do.”  Rodman did come back and had his usual high rebound rate (16.8 rpg).  More incidents were coming.  Rodman separated his shoulder in a motorcycle accident.  In all, he played only 49 games that season but the Spurs were 62-20 and had the best record in the West.

Rodman’s relationship with the Spurs had deteriorated that season.  Popovich lamented that Rodman would not conform to team rules, telling the New York Times in April 1995 that “I have definitely not tamed the wild horse.  I’d love to tame him more, but I have absolutely no chance.”  The Times also described Popovich and coach Bob Hill attempting to get Rodman under control: “they were united to rein in Rodman, and, in the process, conspired to turn the team against the 6-foot-8-inch forward, too. It was a secret pact among all to tell Rodman to shape up.”  The article claimed that, by the end of the season, Rodman would not speak to any of his teammates except Jack Haley.   Assistant coach Dave Cowens (in the same article) said of Rodman: “He’s back and he’s a great player, but he’s a pain. I mean, we’re thinking, ‘Does he like us?’ It just brings that tension which to me is unnecessary.”

In a May 29, 1995 Sports Illustrated article, the relationship was summed up thusly: “Rodman has been in trouble all season with the Spurs. San Antonio general manager Gregg Popovich, a former Marine, and coach Bob Hill set rules for the team, and Rodman decides the rules are stupid and disregards them. Rodman refers to Hill as Boner and has nothing very positive to say about the hard-line Popovich.”

Despite these problems, the Spurs hoped that Rodman would play well in the playoffs and he and David Robinson would be enough to carry them to a title that year.  The Spurs blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs and were heavy favorites against the Rockets in the Conference Finals but lost 4-2, when Hakeem Olajuwon famously outplayed Robinson.  It is less remembered now but Rodman clashed with Hill during the series.

The Dessert News reported that during Game 1, Rodman fought with Hill about participating in huddles and that this issue had already happened in the prior series.   The paper also described the end of the game sequence, where Rodman seemed to be an issue: “With San Antonio leading 93-92 with 24 seconds left, Rodman sat away from the huddle despite being encouraged by teammate Doc Rivers to pay attention. As the Spurs returned to the court, David Robinson talked animatedly to Rodman.  After Houston’s Robert Horry scored to put the Rockets ahead, the Spurs called time. Rodman again removed himself from the huddle, and this time took off his shoes in apparent disgust at not being in the game for the final possession.”

The Spurs didn’t score on that final possession and Rodman was not happy.  Hill didn’t indicate that Rodman was a problem, saying: “Dennis was not a distraction tonight, in any way, shape or form.”  It seems likely that Hill pulled Rodman not because of bad attitude but for the simple reason that Rodman not an offensive threat.  If Rodman were in the game, his man could double the ball handler without much risk of giving up an easy basket.

Hill and Rodman did have problems later in the series. According to the New York Times, Hill benched Rodman for the start of Game 5 because Rodman had been late to a practice: “It took nerve for San Antonio Coach Bob Hill to replace Dennis Rodman with J. R. Reid in the starting lineup in a game of this magnitude. It took even more nerve for Hill to keep Rodman on the bench when the Rockets jumped to a 10-2 lead.”  The Spurs ended losing the game big and, later, the series.

After the season, Rodman was dealt to the Bulls in October 1995 for 30-year old backup center Will Perdue.  Why such a low return for Rodman?  The Washington Post reported that Popovich “said it was ‘difficult’ to find a team willing to trade for Rodman.  When asked if it were a relief to be rid of Rodman, he said: ‘A big relief?  We were without him for quite a bit last year, so it’s not any different in many respects.’”

A week later, NewsOK had further quotes from Pop: “It was addition by subtraction just to have him out of town.  We wouldn’t have had a chance to win a championship, in my opinion, with him in the mix, for a myriad of reasons.”  Popovich also said that Rodman planned a holdout for a raise in his contract, even though the CBA forbade a raise.  Even though Popovich agreed that Rodman had played well enough to earn a raise, based upon the holdout threat and other behavior, “I would have to have been a blithering idiot to give him more money or even talk to him about it.”

Rodman would go on to win three titles with the Bulls and continue to play well.  He did behave stupidly at time (e.g., he suspended more than 20 games for the Bulls, including an incident where he kicked a cameraman for no apparent reason and offended all Mormons) but the Bulls avoided major meltdowns and Rodman seemed to keep his sneakers on at all times.

So, after reviewing all the evidence, how true was Rodman’s recent assertion that Popovich hated him because he wasn’t a “Bible guy?”  It doesn’t seem right at all.   Popovich is not overtly a “Bible guy,” (though Robinson very much was).  The reason for Rodman’s departure is more obvious than that.  Rodman was reflexively anti-authority and Popovich and Hill felt strongly that Rodman had to follow team rules on some level to be effective.

The more interesting question is whether the Spurs should’ve been more lenient with Rodman and accepted his full package of non-conformity because he was so good on the court and because his response to discipline would be to lash out.  The Bulls and Phil Jackson seemed to understand Rodman’s quirks and just avoided making a big issue of them and got three very good seasons out of him.

Granted, it’s much easier to accept the quirks when you have Michael Jordan on your team as an authority figure.  Popovich, however, has since shown to be both tough and pragmatic.  Based upon these subsequent facts, Pop gets some benefit of the doubt that he tried to reason with Rodman and didn’t try to exacerbate the problems out of pure spite.   Rodman will go down as a unique figure in NBA history, as a player and a person, but if I were to apportion fault for how his time in San Antonio ended, I would give him at least 80% of the blame.



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