USA TODAY Sports’ Mackenzie Salmon talks to former Chicago Bull B.J. Armstrong about how Micheal Jordan found motivation to be great.
Lonn Reisman knows how it all sounds.
A kid from South Dallas — who didn’t even play high school basketball — winds up in small-town Oklahoma, dominates, and becomes a five-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer.
“If I were to really try to tell the story of how this happened,” Reisman said, “somebody would probably think it’s fictitious.”
Chapters of Dennis Rodman’s story have been retold over the last month thanks to ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” a 10-episode documentary that focuses on Michael Jordan’s last season with the Bulls in 1997-98. The final two episodes will air Sunday night.
Rodman was the star of Episode 3, but his time sporting blue and gold at Southeastern Oklahoma State University was only chronicled by a few seconds of grainy footage.
How Rodman arrived in Durant, Oklahoma, is what Reisman can only describe as a “fairy-tale story.”
FIRST TASK OF THE DAY? SPORTS: Get the latest news and information right in your inbox. Sign up here.
STILL A LEGEND: What Jordan has accomplished after ‘The Last Dance’ era
COVERING MJ: Ahmad Rashad reflects on Michael Jordan’s Bulls
As an assistant basketball coach at Southeastern from 1981-87, Reisman regularly recruited in Dallas — just a 90-minute drive but a world away down U.S. 75. That’s why he was so confused when he first saw Rodman practice at Cooke County College (now North Central Texas College) in Gainesville. Reisman, upon inquiring, was told Rodman attended South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas.
“I’m going back through my notes and I couldn’t find his name,” Reisman said.
That’s because Rodman, who was shy of 6-feet in high school, never played varsity basketball. He made it to Gainesville after someone saw him play at a rec center.
“I was amazed at where he was,” Reisman said.
The coach allowed himself to dream. Rodman oozed with potential. How good might he be in an organized situation? Then Reisman confronted the reality that a Division-I program would surely swoop in.
“That’s when I left,” Reisman said. “I wrote his name down, but I knew it would be a very, very long shot to recruit him.”
Reisman stood at the bedroom door for two, maybe three hours.
Rodman wouldn’t come out.
After returning to Cooke County College to see Rodman play, Reisman was told that Rodman had left. Reisman saw that as his opening.
He called Rodman’s mom, Shirley, to set up a Saturday morning visit at the Rodman’s home in Dallas.
Reisman arrived, but Rodman wasn’t ready.
“He finally opened that door,” Reisman said, “and we had an immediate connection.”
It’s a connection Reisman still can’t describe, but it was mutual. When Rodman was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, Reisman was the first person he thanked in his speech.
Rodman, on the same day of the visit, rode back to Durant with Reisman.
“To be honest with you,” Reisman said, “I never took him back home.”
Rodman was a three-time NAIA All-American at Southeastern from 1983-86. He averaged 25.7 points and 15.7 rebounds per game.
Rodman still holds the school’s career rebounding record by a margin of 477.
“Dennis came along, and superhuman is about the only way I can explain this guy’s ability,” said Kenny Chaffin, a forward at Southeastern from 1982-86. “He could just do some things that were not explainable. I mean, that’s why the crowds came.”
There weren’t many seats to fill at Bloomer Sullivan Gym, but Rodman filled all of them. The Savage Storm now play at the larger Bloomer Sullivan Arena that opened in 2008.
Philip Stephens, the starting point guard on those Southeastern teams, was always looking for Rodman. It wasn’t hard to find the 6-foot-7 center who outran everybody.
Stephens, Chaffin and Reisman all have the same play seared in their minds. It happened at Southwestern Oklahoma State.
Rodman secured a rebound and passed the ball to Stephens, who stood at the top of the key. Stephens took two dribbles and launched the ball toward the rim.
“What in the hell are you doing?” Reisman thought to himself.
Rodman emerged from nowhere, caught the ball and threw down a 180-degree dunk.
“He goes back down the floor and gets a standing ovation from their crowd,” Reisman said. “That’s how fast that guy was. Hell, I even got up. I’d never seen anything like it.”
“Philip and Worm just had this unspoken language,” Chaffin said.
Southeastern, then coached by Jack Hedden, went 74-22 in Rodman’s three seasons. The man they called Worm led Southeastern to a 30-4 record in his senior season.
In Rodman’s final game, Southeastern beat St. Thomas Aquinas (New York) 75-74 in the third-place game of the 1986 NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City.
Rodman scored 46 points and collected 32 rebounds in the comeback victory.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Rodman, in today’s age, going to Southeastern.
“It’s hard to find the golden gem under the rock anymore,” Reisman said, “with all the exposure camps they have in the summertime.”
Then he paused, which brought a second thought.
“But you know,” Reisman said, “I don’t think Dennis would’ve ever been in those camps. And that’s the kicker.”
Rodman was the 27th overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. He led the league in rebounding for seven seasons, including “The Last Dance” year in 1997-98. He was two-time Defensive Player of the Year and was named to eight All-Defense teams.
Stephens didn’t even know his alley-oop partner was a pro prospect until scouts started to show up on campus.
Stephens and most of Rodman’s teammates at Southeastern have since lost touch with him, but they marvel at what Rodman became — the champion and the character.
They remember when he dyed his hair, and when he went from the innocent kid who stuffed his dorm fridge with milk to the eccentric star known for wild parties.
They laugh about Rodman dating Madonna and befriending North Korea leader Kim Jong Un — the latter of which still sparks controversy.
“A guy we didn’t know here at Southeastern,” Stephens said of Rodman.
But their affection for Rodman remains.
“We understand he’s got a different life now,” Chaffin said, “but we still care about him.”
Reisman, who’s spent the last 27 years as athletic director at Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas, is one of the few who’s stayed in touch with Rodman.
As Reisman watched “The Last Dance,” he was reminded of a time when Rodman invited him into the Pistons locker room.
Rodman, sitting next to Bill Laimbeer, introduced Reisman as his college coach.
In quite colorful language, Laimbeer asked Reisman if he was the such-and-such who taught Rodman how to shoot free throws.
Reisman didn’t pause.
“No, Bill,” he said. “I’m the one who taught him how to rebound.”