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“He said, ‘Dennis, I don’t want you to die.’” — the moment Dennis Rodman realized Phil Jackson cared about him

Dennis The Menace first felt Jackson's love and care when he realized how concerned the Zen Master was about his night out in Las Vegas.
Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson and forward Dennis Rodman

Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman

Dennis Rodman's rebellion and wild side were born from a lack of structure in his life. He didn't have a father growing up, nor was his environment during his childhood years a safe one. The Worm went through a lot of pain both as a child and as an adult, which was why he often sought an escape. That escape was found in partying to a level that had many around Rodman concerned for his life.

How Dennis found structure

Rodman finally found a direction when he first played for the Detroit "Bad Boy" Pistons, with whom he won two championships with. His first coach, Chuck Daly, was the first father figure in his life, which was part of why he succeeded, tamed down, and found a structure during his time in Detroit. However, Rodman's time with Daly didn't last forever, as the Bad Boy Pistons eventually broke apart by 1993.

It didn't help that Rodman's time in San Antonio wasn't exactly as fruitful as Detroit's. He may have been a champion, but his behavior and style of play turned off most of his teammates and coach (John Lucas) during his 2-years with the Spurs. He didn't know if he'd find another Chuck Dally in his life until he was coached by Phil Jackson in the Chicago Bulls years after.

According to GQ Magazine's Mychal Denzel Smith, who sat with Rodman for a 1-on-1 interview in 2021, the 5-time champion first felt Jackson's love and care when he realized how concerned the Zen Master was about a night out in Las Vegas. This was the moment when Rodman felt he had another father figure and one that motivated him to play for.

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"More dependable figures from Dennis's life would occasionally try to intervene—like Phil Jackson, his old coach on the Chicago Bulls. "I like to have a good time, man. Good, clean fun," says Dennis. "But for a while, it was kind of a little sketchy. That's when Phil Jackson took me to the side, and that's the first time Phil Jackson ever got emotional with me. He said, 'Dennis, I don't want you to die.'" Rodman told Smith.

How Phil Jackson handled Rodman

Coaching Dennis The Menace was the perfect test for the Zen Master, who often approached basketball and his players spiritually. In his book entitled "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success," Jackson admitted that the practice of Zen Buddhism guided him to lead and get the best out of his players, especially with the likes of Rodman.

When it came to Dennis, Jackson would practice what his mentor and Zen monk Shunrū Suzuki often preached when handling people out of their control. He didn't use to scold Rodman, nor did he punish him often, but instead, he approached him calmly in a way where he made sure Rodman felt that his coach cared for him a lot.

"The best way to control people, he adds, is to give them a lot of room and encourage them to be mischievous, then watch them. 'To ignore them is no good: that is the worst policy," Suzuki writes. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them. Just watch them without trying to control them. This piece of advice came in handy later when I was dealing with Dennis Rodman," Jackson wrote.

Coaches have different ways of leading, guiding, and disciplining their players. It's often a hit or miss, but when it came to Jackson, he knew exactly how to get through one of the most polarizing players in NBA history. Jackson and Rodman's relationship was integral for both of them and one that made them better people and brought out the best in them as they journeyed and succeeded together. 

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