King of the Hipsters

Dennis Rodman’s counter-culture appeal is part of his case for the Hall of Fame.

Hipsters have long mined eBay and thrift store racks for hideous clothing meant to be ironic. Beginning in about 2010, a centerpiece of the hipster wardrobe became obscure jerseys of NBA players.

It was more than a trend. Deadspin ran a 75-photo spread of NBA jerseys at Lollapalooza. The Faster Times had a similar collage from the Pitchfork Music Festival. The Blowtorch created a theoretical conversation about the NBA between hipsters. The New York Times even wrote about the phenomenon.

The Times article speculated on possible reasons for the surge in jersey-wearing among the indie-loving crowd: perhaps it was simply reusing clothes that were worn in youth, trying to balance the femininity of things like skinny jeans with the masculinity of a sports jersey or even simply the fact that youth-sized jerseys now actually fit slender hipsters who finally filled out a little in the years since they had to give up skateboarding regularly.

I have a simpler explanation for the connection between hipsters and the NBA: Dennis Rodman.

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Rodman (and strippers, apparently) will be enshrined in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in August. Although his on-court accomplishments—he might be the greatest rebounder of the modern era and he was a key figure on five championship teams—make him a logical if somewhat strange choice given his lack of offensive numbers, his off-court contributions to the game put him over the top.

As FreeDarko famously described it, the NBA is a “League of Stars.” Basketball is a team game, but the popularity of the NBA is solely dependent on the popularity and personalities of individual players. Playing in an era (and on the same team) with the biggest star in league history (and, perhaps, in sports history) in Michael Jordan, with secondary stars like Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few, Rodman clearly separated himself and created his own niche despite possessing a non-traditional game.

The peculiarity of Rodman the player was that his talents—rebounding, defense and making hustle plays—are the types of things not typically appreciated by casual basketball watchers. His game is the type that sends coaches out of their way to point out his contributions in quotes to the media after games because most observers simply over-value or only notice spectacular offense. It’s prettier to watch and it’s easier to identify a player who dominates offensively rather than defensively. With Rodman, though, no one had to point him out because his flashy persona brought attention to his non-flashy game.

Rodman’s personality grew as his career progressed. In Detroit, he was mostly known for his shyness and shaving strange patterns into his hair. When he was traded to San Antonio, he debuted with a blonde Mohawk, a nod to Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man. Playing with the Spurs, Rodman’s reputation for being a “plays by his own rules” guy grew. He took off his shoes while on the bench, making it impossible for his coach, Bob Hill, to sub him back into the game if he was needed quickly. He began dating Madonna, making her a fixture at Spurs games, particularly during the playoffs. In his book, Bad As I Wanna Be, he not only goes into great detail about his sex life with Madonna, but he also suggests that Hill was in over his head as
coach of the Spurs and that MVP teammate David Robinson was a coward.

After he was traded to Chicago, Rodman’s personality grew to match the size of the new market he was in. His hair colors changed more often. He added more tattoos and piercings—Bulls coach Phil Jackson was allegedly intrigued by the process Rodman went through to put in and take out his dozens of earrings. He was suspended for kicking a courtside photographer. He embarked on a professional wrestling career, leaving the Bulls during the NBA Finals to participate in a match on an off day (earning a $20,000 fine), only to return in time for the next game to help Chicago to another title. He dressed in drag. He called himself “bi-sexual,” then married himself as a way to promote a book. He married Carmen Electra for 10 days.

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Rodman was the original hipster. He became a superstar despite actions that the NBA generally detested. He grew his fanbase not just from traditional basketball watchers, many of whom hated the off-court antics he was associated with while grudgingly respecting the defense and intangibles he brought to his teams, but from people Rodman pulled into following the league because they were Rodman fans before they were
basketball fans.

Hipster culture is all about trying to project a sense of individuality, breaking from the established norms that dictate what jeans are too tight, what body odors don’t smell good or what clothes look nice. Rodman epitomized hipsterism in the NBA, and as a result, you could commonly see “Rodman 91″ Bulls jerseys at music festivals or coffee shops or other places not associated with sports fans in the late 1990s.

The NBA has one of the most eclectic fanbases of any pro sports league, and the diversity views in the blogosphere covering the league reflects that. Rodman was a major influence in attracting non-traditional sports fans’ attention and generating interest in the game among people who may not have previously appreciated it.

—Photo AP/Duana Burleson

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About Patrick Hayes

Patrick Hayes is a senior writer for PistonPowered.com in ESPN's TrueHoop Network. He's contributed at SLAM, MLive, SB Nation and various other places. He's also an inconsistent tweeter. His first book, 'The HIGH-erarchy: Ranking the top 30 NBA talent producing high schools in history,' is available here.

Comments

  1. I’m not being critical of your column, because it is good, but I don’t get “hipster” from Dennis Rodman. I get “different”.

    Dennis was different because he was a late bloomer. Most NBAers, even during the 80s and early 90s, peak years are from age 19 to 26. Rodman wasn’t a star until his late 20s to early 30s. Dennis was different because his game wasn’t about scoring. His real irony is that he became a Hall of Famer for being GREAT at rebounding and defense. Two things most basketball “stars” ignore. Dennis was also different because he became an endorser because of his counterculture attitudes and actions. Michael Jordan became the man to the man. Dennis Rodman became rich and famous for sticking it to the man.

    Dennis Rodman was different.

    • Patrick Hayes says:

      Lance:

      I see what you’re saying re: the hipster thing. I didn’t mean so much that Rodman himself is a hipster. But the NBA undoubtedly has a hipster following, particularly in recent years, that those articles I linked to mentioned. I was more suggesting that Rodman was kind of the precursor to that simply because he was the first NBA star who drew non-traditional sports/basketball fans to the game.

  2. When I was getting into basketball I remember seeing Rodman kick that cameraman, and I really thought he was such a goon, such a “bad guy”.

    Now I’m older and I understand things a little better. I understand Rodman’s history before he became the out of control enemy.

    Now I just like him. It’s a shame a guy that is as intelligent as Rodman has made some of the wacked decisions he has.

    But I think overall he’s a good guy and treats his family well.

    Good read.

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