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No Country For Old Men | A Strange Life After Basketball

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My earliest memory of Dennis Rodman is also my favourite memory of Dennis Rodman.

It’s the third quarter of Game 6 in the 1996 Finals, and Rodman is being his prototypical self against Seattle. On one possession, he slithers his way under the rim, bullying Frank Brickowski like a child. He nabs an offensive rebound and puts it back in, turning around and sprinting up court like Usain Bolt, both arms in the air like he’s a victorious corporate stock photo.

It’s not over. The Sonics bring the ball up, but an errant pass is nabbed by Scottie Pippen. He leads a 3-on-2 break with Jordan and Rodman, and you already know who the defenders cover. Pippen tosses a late pass to Rodman, who flips up a horridly awkward reverse layup — no glass. It falls in, plus the foul, and the arms are in the air again.

Rodman didn’t start the game, but he willed it to its conclusion with nine points and 19 rebounds, including a Finals record 11 on the offensive glass. On defense, he poked and prodded at Shawn Kemp like a muscular tabby cat, infuriating him into a bad game.

Above all, he punctuated the Bulls’ fourth championship as a heroic x-factor, a story written by many teams since. He was Draymond Green without an offensive skill set, Shawn Marion without a jump shot. He was a fanatical weirdo, who never stopped pursuing the ball off the rim. Nobody before or since Rodman has cared so much about rebounds, the least sexy statistical element of basketball.

I was six years old watching those Finals. To this day, the ‘96 to ‘98 Bulls are my favourite team. Most of that is due to Jordan and Pippen, sure — but Rodman took the love affair to a different level. He was my weirdo, and he helped me first see the NBA for what it was — a league that welcomed eccentricity. Unlike other leagues which punish personality and embrace conformity, the NBA was different — if you could play, you can get away with being strange.

And yes, Dennis Rodman — and the story of his basketball life — is the epitome of strange.

A shy and introverted player from Southeastern Oklahoma State, Dennis Rodman was drafted as the third pick in the second round of the 1986 draft by Chuck Daly’s Detroit Pistons.

The fit is perfect in retrospect, but at the time, the quiet Rodman wasn’t necessarily fitting of the Bad Boys persona. Behind Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer, though, Rodman’s career (and mouth) quickly took off. Daly in particular played a huge role in Rodman’s growth on and off the basketball court. Rodman’s father had left him at a very young age, and grew up in a household with just his mom and two sisters. Chuck Daly became his father figure, and Rodman looked up to him thusly.

With the Pistons, Dennis would play some of his best ball. He was pivotal to the team’s two championships in 1989 and 1990, seeing his playing time increase after the trade of Adrian Dantley and the loss of Rick Mahorn. In 1990, he averaged 8.8 points and 9.7 rebounds and was awarded the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He had arrived in the league, but the road turned rocky as the Pistons fell off the summit.

After Chuck Daly resigned in 1993, Rodman contemplated suicide. Of all people, it was the recently-passed Craig Sager who initially talked him out of it. From the Washington Post:

The Times reported in October 1993 that “Rodman left a suicide note last February, and police later found him sitting in the parking lot at the Palace of Auburn Hills with a loaded rifle in the back of his truck.”

At the height of his struggle, Rodman disappeared and was considering killing himself when Sager tracked him down on the second floor of a Detroit strip club. “The Landing Strip,” Sager told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins earlier this year.

Rodman, Sager told SI, “had the gun. He was going to do it. I told him how stupid that would be.”

The intervention worked.

Rodman demanded a trade soon after and was dealt to the San Antonio Spurs, where his career and personality again blossomed.

In San Antonio, Rodman truly came out of his shell. He constantly found himself at odds with coaches, was suspended twice in 1994, and suffered a motorcycle accident that kept him out half the remaining season. He had a highly public affair with Madonna. He started to change his hair — from “Kanye” blonde to purple to rainbow and everything in between. Eventually, he was traded to Chicago for Will Perdue and cash.

We’ve already explored the height of what happens next. Rodman continued his eccentricities, but found a much more accepting voice in Bulls coach Phil Jackson. With the guidance of Zen — for whatever it’s worth — Phil let Rodman do whatever he want as long as he showed up.

Show up he did, becoming a defensive cog on the 72-10 Bulls in 1996, then successfully guarding and frustrating Karl Malone in the 1997 and 1998 Finals. In my other favourite Rodman moment, the two tripped each other all the way up the court on one possession in the ‘98 Finals. Malone had stooped to Rodman’s level, and the whole world knew who was coming away successful.

After the Bulls gutted their team in the summer of 1998, Rodman went off for unsuccessful stints with Los Angeles and Dallas in 1999 and 2000. His life away from basketball began in earnest, and that story — a sadder one — continues to this day.

My most recent memory of Dennis Rodman is his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice, and his trips to North Korea to play for Kim Jong Un.

His pursuit of headlines through the latter half of his basketball career, after a narrowly-avoided suicide attempt, continued with stunts like this. They increased in desperation — leaving many either uneasy or jumping off the bandwagon entirely.

It was easy to love Rodman when the weirdness was offset by a brilliant rebound, or a jump shot followed by a “who me?” shrug. Without basketball, it all felt rather sad.

The biggest constant in Rodman’s life these days is alcoholism. He’s entered rehab on multiple occasions since 2008, and his most recent legal troubles include a hit and run in November. His 2005 book title, I Should Be Dead By Now, seems more prophetic 12 years later — as a slow spiral appears to continue.

For me, though, it’s impossible not to think of Rodman as a basketball player first. I’m biased in that regard — I’m sure there’s a big chunk of the NBA-watching population that’s dismissed him by now, the basketball memories melting in the face of personal struggles.

Rodman, though, will always be a five-time champion. He’s a Hall of Famer, with one of the more memorable induction speeches in recent years. “I didn’t play to be famous,” he said. “What you see here is an illusion; I just love to be an individual that’s very colorful.”

Rodman’s goodbye to basketball was repentant, but unapologetic. He wants to be remembered the way we eventually will be — a strange player on a great team, the electric, eccentric personality that shows how accepting the NBA can be.

John is a sports writer hailing from the flat part of Canada. He’s an editor and podcast host at SB Nation’s Raptors HQ, with other sports work published in The Classical. As a freelance reporter, he’s covered sports at every level in Winnipeg: from the NHL’s Jets and CFL’s Blue Bombers, to CIS basketball and hockey at both major universities. In his spare time, John writes too seriously about music and posts good-to-okay photography on Instagram.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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Reloaded Raptors Banking on Young Guns

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Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.

No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.

Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.

It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.

But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.

These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.

The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.

Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.

In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.

Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.

Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.

Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.

As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.

And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.

It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.

So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.

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