Cover Story: The NBA and modern basketball as told through its most iconic magazine covers

Cover Story: The NBA and modern basketball as told through its most iconic magazine covers

Excerpt

Cover Story: The NBA and modern basketball as told through its most iconic magazine covers

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This excerpt from Cover Story by Alex Wong is reprinted with the permission of Triumph Books.  For more information and to order a copy, please visit AmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.org, or TriumphBooks.com/CoverStory.

EXCERPT FROM THE CHAPTER ‘RARE BIRD’

The only four-day, three-state reporting trip in Sports Illustrated history to include an impromptu last-minute trip to Las Vegas and a macaw parrot started on a Thursday night inside a popular hangout in the Beverly Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, called Sanctuary. A few hours earlier, the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs in Game 6 of the 1995 Western Conference semifinals. Spurs forward Dennis Rodman spotted Sports Illustrated writer Michael Silver as he walked off the court.

“Come on, bro,” he said. “Let’s fucking go.” After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1988, Silver joined Newsday as a summer intern. He covered the San Francisco 49ers at The Sacramento Union before joining the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “I was growing disenchanted with the older and more established writers,” Silver said. “I self-promoted a lot and wasn’t subtle about it. I was always trying to push for bigger and better things for myself. They were not vibing with me. I was reassessing whether I wanted to stay in the business when I got the miracle call from Sports Illustrated in 1994.”

A year later, the magazine needed someone who could keep up with the 34-year-old power forward with red-and-orange hair who dated Madonna, listened to Pearl Jam, wore Oakley sunglasses and plaid flannel pants to games, started the season serving a three-game suspension after throwing a bag of ice at his head coach’s face, and loved to party.

Their pro football writer seemed like the right choice. Silver regularly hung out with football players and coaches until the sun came up. “I would go out with guys until three in the morning,” he explained. “I wouldn’t get a single tangible thing for my story, but three years later, I would be able to walk into a locker room and talk to them after an important game.”

A 12-passenger limo whisked a group including Rodman and Silver from the Great Western Forum to Beverly Hills. Silver watched celebrities inside Sanctuary line up to greet Rodman. He was the center of attention. A Hollywood agent pitched Rodman the idea of becoming a movie villain in an upcoming Quentin Tarantino–directed picture. It was four in the morning when Silver found himself standing outside the club listening to the Spurs forward explain his breakup with Madonna to the bouncer.

“I thought I could party with this guy, but I had no idea what I was in for,” Silver said. “I was applying my ‘I’m in my 20s, I’m from Northern California, I drink a bunch of beers with the dudes’ standards. We got to the club and we’re immediately on the Goldschlager and Jagermeister.”

The most memorable reporting trip of Silver’s career was just getting started as he raced toward the airport a few hours later to catch a flight to San Antonio.

Rodman was an introvert growing up in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas, with his sisters, Debra and Kim, both All-American college basketball players. His father, Philander, left the family and relocated to the Philippines when he was three. Rodman developed a rebellious streak. He drifted across several jobs before working as a janitor at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport after quitting high school basketball. Rodman stole 15 watches one evening from the airport gift shop and was jailed for a night. His mother, Shirley, kicked him out of the house.

Rodman played on the Cooke County College basketball team in Gainesville, Texas, for a semester before leaving due to poor grades. He blossomed into the country’s best rebounder at Southeastern Oklahoma State, averaging 24.4 points and 17.8 rebounds as a senior. Rodman was selected by the Detroit Pistons in the second round in 1986 and became a critical part of two championship teams with his rebounding and defensive presence.

One evening in February of 1993, Rodman dropped off what appeared to be a suicide note to a close friend before leaving for a late-night workout. The cops found him asleep in his pickup truck with a loaded rifle later that night. His personal and professional life was a mess. Rodman was heartbroken after losing custody of his daughter Alexis in a divorce settlement with his ex-wife Annie. He was also upset at his team for parting ways with head coach Chuck Daly, a personal friend and father figure. Friends and family members were concerned for Rodman’s mental well-being after the incident. The Pistons forward assured everyone he was fine. He wasn’t contemplating suicide but was symbolically killing his old public persona to show the world who he truly was.

The Spurs traded for Rodman several months later before the start of the following season. He decided it was time for a new look. Rodman showed up to his first public appearance with his new team with a brand-new blonde hairdo inspired by Wesley Snipes’ blonde-haired character Simon Phoenix from the 1993 science fiction action film Demolition Man. He received a standing ovation from the fans.

Dennis Rodman, San Antonio Spurs

USA TODAY Sports

Silver arrived in San Antonio for day two of his reporting trip nursing a hangover. Rodman, meanwhile, was at the practice facility going through rebounding drills as if the previous night didn’t happen. The two would end up in Las Vegas by the end of the night, thanks to Dwight Manley.

A renowned coin collector from Orange County, California, Manley was in Las Vegas for a bachelor party in the summer of 1993 when he first met Rodman at a craps table. In the months leading up to his trade to the Spurs, Rodman had put up a “For Sale” sign at his Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, home and stayed at The Mirage in Las Vegas for the entire summer, blowing through $35,000 playing craps.

“I invited him to a George Carlin show,” Manley recalled. “The next day, we hung out and hired some entertainers for the bachelor party. It was a good time. We swapped numbers before saying our goodbyes.”

The two quickly became close friends, visiting each other during the season, and occasionally returning to Las Vegas together. The Spurs had a few days off before the Western Conference Finals, so Manley asked Rodman if he wanted to party. The answer, as always, was a resounding yes. Hours after landing in San Antonio for his second day of reporting, Silver was running through the airport trying to make a flight to Las Vegas. The group landed at ten in the evening and immediately headed to the craps table, calling it a night just before sunrise.

Manley’s hotel phone rang at five in the morning. It was Spurs head coach Bob Hill.

He wanted Rodman back in San Antonio in the afternoon for a Saturday film session.

Hill’s relationship with Rodman got off to a rocky start in the preseason after he replaced John Lucas as head coach. He suspended Rodman for three games after he arrived late to practice, skipped several team meetings, and threw a bag of ice in his direction during a preseason game.

The feud continued throughout the season and into the playoffs.

After Rodman was benched in the second half of a Game 3 loss in the second round against the Lakers, he refused to join his teammates in the huddle, sitting by himself with a towel over his head near the bench. Hill sent his starting power forward to the locker room for the remainder of the game and didn’t play him in Game 4. “I’m getting punished for some stupid reason,” Rodman said. “It didn’t hurt me at all. I can play or not play.” Hill responded: “I would always listen very closely to Dennis, and then, probably, whatever he says, the opposite is true.” The war of words continued when Hill said he hoped Rodman had learned his lesson. “Learned my lesson?” Rodman told the media. “I’m 34 years old. I’m a grown man. I know what I’m doing. So, no, I haven’t learned my lesson.” Hill managed to get in the last word, saying, “It’s all part of our existence here. Dennis is just playing a little game there. He’s trying to keep himself in a position of power. That’s what he’s about.”

Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images

Rodman did not want to go back to San Antonio but common sense prevailed after some pleading by Manley and teammate Jack Haley and a flight home was booked for noon. Silver was still waiting for a sit-down interview with Rodman as the third day of his reporting trip started.

Mike came up to me and said, ‘What do I do?’” Manley recalled. “I said, ‘Go with Dennis, and you sit with him on the way back because I’m going back to California.’ He told me the next day it was the best advice ever.”

During a one-hour layover in Houston, Silver and Rodman watched Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets beat Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns in Game 7 of their second-round series. The Sports Illustrated writer finally landed his interview when they sat together on the connecting flight back home.

Silver got Rodman to open up about everything, including his suicidal thoughts (“Sometimes I dream about just taking a gun and blowing my head off .”), murder fantasies (“Yeah, I’d kill somebody… in my mind. All of a sudden I lose control of what I’m doing. I’m in a torture chamber, and I’ve got to fight my way out. I definitely come out with a vengeance.”), celebrity status (“They hide behind their money, fame, and success. Then all of a sudden they have no opinion, or they’re afraid to voice it because they’re afraid someone will take away what they’ve got.”), his sexuality (“I visualize being with another man. Everybody visualizes being gay. They think, ‘Should I do it or not?’ The reason they can’t is because they think it’s unethical. They think it’s a sin. Hell, you’re not bad if you’re gay, and it doesn’t make you any less of a person.”) and Madonna (“She wanted to get married. She wanted to have my baby. She said, ‘Be in a hotel room in Las Vegas on this specific day so you can get me pregnant.’ She had ways of making you feel like you’re King Tut, but she also wanted to cuddle and be held.”).

Rodman landed in San Antonio and joined his team for a film session and dinner afterward. He met up with Silver in the evening to show the Sports Illustrated writer one of his favorite local gay bars before they both retreated to Rodman’s place. After spending the night writing in the guest room, Silver filed his story to his Sports Illustrated editor just before his Sunday morning deadline.

Silver woke up the following day, walked downstairs past 15 exotic birds, two German shepherds, and found photographer John McDonough setting up in Rodman’s kitchen.

McDonough graduated from Arizona State University with a photojournalism degree and worked for SPORT, The Los Angeles Times, and the Arizona Republic before joining Sports Illustrated as a photographer in 1982. He met Rodman two years earlier for the first time at a photoshoot in San Antonio.

“Dennis didn’t have much money then,” he recalled. “Here I am, a photographer, and here he is, a multi-millionaire, and I was buying him meals. We ended up hanging out for a few days. I remember telling him, ‘I’m not going to sit around and judge whatever issues or problems you have. I just want to know who you are.’ That’s how our friendship started.”

McDonough had asked the Spurs forward for ideas a few days before the photoshoot. “Dennis told me, ‘We’re not taking a picture of me in my uniform again,’” he recalled. “So now I’m driving in my rental car to his place, and I’ve got absolutely no idea what I was going to do.”

Rodman finally came downstairs to greet McDonough and asked if he could be photographed naked on the Sports Illustrated cover.

“We ended up making a few calls to the editors and were told it wasn’t going to work,” McDonough said. “Dennis was a little disappointed. I’m looking at the skylight coming through the front entryway, and it started to go. I’m starting to worry because there wasn’t time to set up any lights. Dennis comes back to us and says, ‘Okay, how about I wear hot pants and a tank top?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, that’s great.’”

McDonough sat Rodman in a chair and placed one of his macaw parrots on his arm for dramatic effect.

“The bird was getting fussy and started to bite him,” he recalled. “I was shooting as many photos as I could.”

Rodman went upstairs for a wardrobe change and came back wearing a pair of jeans with a rip in the crotch, exposing his privates.

“I was just laughing at this point,” McDonough said. “I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was a stressful day, but I managed to pull a rabbit out of my hat.”

The second part of the photoshoot took place on a red leather zebra skin couch where the Spurs forward sprawled out in a position where McDonough could shoot the pictures without exposing his subject’s crotch.

Silver watched the entire three-hour photoshoot unfold while going back and forth with his editors fighting to keep every detail of his cover story in print. He was not convinced the feature would run.

“To my understanding, it was batted around a lot,” Silver said. “It would have been a tough decision. It was 1995, it was Sports Illustrated, and we had an old, white readership. The photos themselves were risqué by their standards.”

To his surprise, a photo of Rodman wearing a shiny tank top, metallic hot pants, and a rhinestone dog collar, while seated in a leopard-print patterned chair with a parrot in his arm appeared on the cover of the May 29, 1995, issue of Sports Illustrated. The cover line read RARE BIRD in red and yellow, matching the parrot and Rodman’s hair dye.

Sports Illustrated/John McDonough

It became one of Sports Illustrated’s best-selling May issues ever. Shortly after the cover hit newsstands, the Spurs lost in six games to the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio weighed the pros and cons of having Rodman on their roster moving forward and eventually traded him to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for center Will Perdue in the offseason.

The Sports Illustrated cover story elevated Rodman to a different kind of celebrity status. He partied with Hollywood A-listers including Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Rock, and Courtney Love. Rodman modeled a G-string for supermodel Cindy Crawford on MTV and starred in the action-comedy film Double Team with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Manley became Rodman’s agent and used the Sports Illustrated cover story’s popularity to land him a book deal. Silver was Manley’s first choice to write the book, but he couldn’t convince his Sports Illustrated editors to give him time off. Manley and Rodman narrowed their list down to Jeremy Schapp and Tim Keown, who ended up writing the book. ‘Bad As I Wanna Be’ was a 1996 New York Times best-seller. Rodman orchestrated a book signing stunt by showing up at a Barnes & Noble in New York wearing a wedding dress a day after telling late-night talk-show host David Letterman he was getting married.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Silver—who ended up writing Rodman’s follow-up book Walk on the Wild Side a year later—saw another side of Rodman beyond the controversial stunts in public.

He saw someone who openly questioned masculine stereotypes in sports, spoke about the dangers of drug use, wore t-shirts supporting same-sex marriage to the arena during a time when homophobia was common among athletes and society at large and colored an AIDS awareness ribbon into the back of his head for a nationally televised playoff game.

“He had this huge groundswell of support by a wave of people who felt marginalized and misunderstood,” Silver said. “They felt like they had been cast in the freak bin too. I saw people react to him. They tore their hearts out and thanked him. He was their guiding light.”

The Sports Illustrated cover embodied the qualities of a perfect magazine cover. The magazine picked the right writer and photographer to capture their cover subject’s essence and profiled their cover subject at an ideal time in his career. Even Phil Taylor, the magazine’s lead basketball writer at the time, admits Silver was the right choice to write the most talked-about basketball profile of the year.

“When I read Silver’s story, I was jealous to a degree,” Taylor said. “But I also realized it probably would not have gone that way for me if I hung out with Dennis. I was a bit more buttoned-up and not as flamboyant. I get the feeling Dennis would have dropped me off at the hotel after the first night and said goodbye.”

A year after Rodman’s controversial Sports Illustrated cover, Taylor pitched his own feature idea on the power forward making an impression in his first year with the Bulls. “Everyone had written about his eccentricity,” Taylor explained. “I told my editors, ‘How about just a real hard basketball story about him?’ His rebounding just stood out. It looked to me sometimes like he had this sixth sense of where the ball was going.”

Before a game against the Miami Heat, Taylor found Rodman sitting by himself in the locker room. As Taylor walked over, Rodman started breaking down film from the previous night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks. “It was interesting because every time I talked to Dennis, he was a different person,” Taylor said. “No two interviews were at all alike. It was consistent in that if I tried to talk to him about on-the-court stuff, he would get all weird on me. But when I tried to talk to him about the things he was doing off the court, he would invariably shift into talking about setting screens and the X’s and O’s of basketball. He was just so into what he was doing this time it was almost like he didn’t realize he was being interviewed.”

Rodman took the remote and gave Taylor a step-by-step walkthrough of his process, fast-forwarding to find a possession during the Hawks game where Scottie Pippen shot a three-pointer from the top of the arc. He stopped the tape and pointed to the other players on the court, fighting in the low post for rebounding position. When he pressed play again, Taylor watched as Rodman slid past everyone to the right side of the basket, perfectly anticipating the carom off the rim for an offensive rebound. He fast-forwarded to another Pippen miss from the same spot and then a later miss from Michael Jordan, also at the top of the key.

“Anytime I see Scottie or Michael shoot from the top of the key,” Rodman explained to Taylor, “I know the ball will come off the rim to the right.”

On every possession he showed Taylor, Rodman was the only person on the court who knew precisely where the ball was going. He had spent hours in the gym rebounding for Pippen and Jordan to study the trajectory of their jumpers from every spot on the court. Taylor was blown away by the meticulousness with which Rodman approached his rebounding. “I definitely came away with a greater appreciation for what he did,” he said.

On the cover of the March 4, 1996, issue of Sports Illustrated was a photo of Rodman soaring to snatch a rebound away from an opposing defender with the cover line: THE BEST REBOUNDER EVER? DENNIS RODMAN REVEALS THE SECRETS OF HIS INSIDE GAME.

Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated

While every cover story tried to replicate Silver’s blueprint, Taylor managed to find a new angle to share with a national audience. Meanwhile, other magazines like Rolling Stone—who depicted Rodman as the devil on the cover, photoshopping the red-haired power forward with his tongue sticking out with a pair of devil horns—and GQ—who asked Rodman to pose naked next to scantily clad model Rebecca Romijn on the cover—tried to recreate the magic of the Sports Illustrated cover and fell well short. The moment had passed.

Sports Illustrated also tried to recreate the magic in 1999, when they asked Silver to write a feature on Derek Jeter. The 25-year-old New York Yankees shortstop had a recent high-profile fling with singer Mariah Carey and was known for his love of the city’s nightlife as one of the most eligible bachelors in the Big Apple. It had the makings of another memorable cover story.

But Jeter had been trained to portray a much different image to Sports Illustrated.

“We were in his apartment, and he’s telling me how he’s a homebody,” Silver said. “Meanwhile, there’s one chair, a television, a bed, and a refrigerator with nothing in it. I spent days with him, and he didn’t take me partying.”

He called Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci.

“I asked him, ‘If I write a story about how Derek Jeter just likes to chill at the crib, am I going to be the biggest idiot in the world?’” Silver recalled. “Tom said, ‘Absolutely. You cannot do that.’”

A photo of Jeter running mid-stride to catch a fly ball at Yankees Stadium appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s June 21, 1999, issue. The cover line said GOOD FIELD. GOOD HIT. GOOD GUY. WHY DEREK JETER IS SO EASY TO ROOT FOR.

Silver’s story explored the Yankees shortstop’s relationship with the city of New York. The most controversial part of the feature was an interaction between Jeter and a Circuit City employee, who heckled Jeter as he was shopping for a videocassette recorder in the store.

Silver still remembers a moment he shared with Rodman on their connecting flight home from Houston to San Antonio after a Friday evening in Las Vegas.

“Dennis asked me what my next story was going to be when we landed,” he recalled. “I told him, ‘Believe it or not, it’s this NASCAR thing.’ He said, ‘Aw bro, that’s going to be so fucking boring. It’s never going to get better than me. You’re never going to get someone who is this weird, this good, this open, and this funny. So enjoy this.’”

He was right.

Silver never found another cover subject like him again.

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