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.
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.
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
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