The question of whether a professional athlete who supposedly causes a lot of trouble off the field or in the locker room is worth the trouble for his team — and the accompanying question of whether such framing is fair to the athlete after all — remains frequent in professional sports discourse. At pretty much all times, that debate is being had about one sports star or another. Throughout the 1990s, the most frequent subject of such discussion was NBA forward Dennis Rodman. He’s in the basketball Hall of Fame, was on five NBA championship teams, and is generally considered one of the best rebounders in the history of the game.
He was also once referred to, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as “the NBA’s weirdest player,” and probably made more headlines in his career for his various antics than for what he did on the court. He dated Madonna. He cross-dressed, hinted that he was gay, and once “married himself” while wearing a full wedding dress. He joined pro wrestling’s NWO. He had ugly divorces from multiple NBA teams (and from multiple women), and after retirement, he befriended North Korean dictator — and supposed Bulls fan — Kim Jong Un, claiming credit for his subsequent summits with the president.
Now, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has released a documentary about Rodman, titled “Rodman: For Better Or Worse.” Directed by Todd Kapostasy, the husband of figure skater Tara Lipinski, the film goes through the entire history of the man known as “The Worm,” from his troubled youth up through his career, his many controversies, and his post-retirement life. It’s a fair, accurate and balanced depiction of Rodman that understands why he was a significant figure in NBA history, but also doesn’t let him off the hook for some of his antics. For instance, the film has no interest in making excuses for the North Korea stuff, or for the time Rodman kicked a cameraman for no reason during a game.
To its credit, “Rodman: For Better or Worse” cares about Rodman’s actual on-court game, and why it was important and revolutionary. He was a dominant rebounder who hardly ever shot or scored — the the type of player who might not have a place in today’s game, when rebounding matters a lot less. And yet Rodman was a significant player, part of the Detroit “Bad Boys” teams (subject of their own 30 for 30 a few years ago), as well as the first contending David Robinson teams in San Antonio and the second cycle of championships of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. His career concluded with ill-fated stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.
“Rodman: For Better or Worse” is far from a pure hagiography and apology. For one thing, it includes footage of Rodman’s adult daughter revealing that her father was hardly ever around for her childhood. This evokes shades of the Ric Flair 30 for 30, which had as a primary takeaway that the wrestling legend was a terrible father. The film also goes into the incident where Rodman considered suicide when he played for Detroit, and indicates that the player has battled mental illness and substance abuse throughout his life.
“Rodman: For Better or Worse” mostly leans on media members as talking heads, although there’s also some presence of his former teammates. John Salley is all over the film, while Isiah Thomas and David Robinson appear briefly, with Thomas even walking off camera while crying. The producers were also able to land the big fish — Michael Jordan — who doesn’t do this sort of thing often. (And in traditional Jordan fashion, he has nothing of note to say.)
All of that works, but there’s one thing in particular that doesn’t. For some reason, weird metatextual touches that accompany an intrusive narration by Jamie Foxx are tacked on at points. Not only are the touches a bit too cute, but the film doesn’t even commit to them. It’s also not exactly clear why footage of the Broadway production of Oklahoma! needed to be used to demonstrate that Rodman lived in Oklahoma.
The 30 for 30 series began ten years ago next month as an ambitious series of documentaries meant to commemorate ESPN’s 30th anniversary, while encroaching on HBO’s then-dominant position in sports documentaries. A decade on, 30 for 30 isn’t quite as ambitious. There are only five or six of them each year, they’re no longer being made by famous directors (Peter Berg and Barry Levinson made some of the early films), and seemingly half of them somehow involve the University of Miami football team. At their best, they look back on sports stories you probably barely remember, and do them justice. These includes docs like Big Shot, the 2013 story about how a guy named John Spano lied about having money so he could buy the New York Islanders. There’s also the following year’s The Day The Series Stopped, about the earthquake that disrupted the 1989 World Series. At worst, there’s ridiculous stuff like where Deion Sanders talks about the time he played both baseball and football on the same day — which probably doesn’t crack the top ten of intriguing stories from Sanders’ sports career.
Occasionally 30 for 30 gets super-ambitious, like with the Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America from 2016, and 2017’s Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies; and they’re doing it again next year, with a long documentary about the 1990s Chicago Bulls teams on which Rodman played. The show also has branched into podcasts, including a terrific recent series about the fall of racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. “Rodman: For Better or Worse” isn’t quite up to those heights, but it’s still a winning entry.