In 2020, we're all unconsciously dressing like the intrepid, queer-friendly, cross-dressing NBA star

Like many others, I watched the “The Last Dance”, a Netflix documentary about Michael Jordan and the legendary Chicago Bulls in the ‘90s. Back then, I wasn’t into sports—but I loved Dennis Rodman. A poster of his 1996 autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be hung in my bedroom, and simply looking at this Black superstar athlete—covered in tattoos, with stacked piercings and fluorescent hair, sitting naked on a motorbike—filled me with joy. He looked at the camera and seemed incredibly comfortable with himself, liberated even. 

While Michael Jordan was the undeniable superstar of the NBA, it was Dennis Rodman who I always rooted for. I was a young biracial girl who desperately tried to blend into my white surroundings, hoping that conforming to respectability politics would make my life a little easier. Back then, I studied dance at the Vienna Conservatory, and was expected to follow a set of spoken and unspoken rules that dictated how I had to behave both on and off stage. I found these rules to be extremely restrictive and quickly came to the conclusion that professionalism and self-expression were two opposite things that could not be reconciled—and then there was Dennis Rodman, who seemingly didn’t care about any rules. He was an excellent player and did whatever he wanted to do off the court. This level of nonchalance fascinated me and I enjoyed following the news to find out what he was up to next. It certainly never got boring. 

“He epitomized Black boy joy decades before it was celebrated as the antidote to toxic Black masculinity.”

During his time at the Chicago Bulls, Dennis Rodman turned himself into a walking performance piece. He epitomized Black boy joy decades before it was celebrated as the antidote to toxic Black masculinity. He made himself vulnerable by talking about his shortcomings, and often burst into tears during interviews—and people loved him for it. But the media also ridiculed and criticized him for his off-court antics, which were deemed unprofessional and disrespectful to the game. While there were many colorful personalities in the music industry back then, such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson, and Courtney Love, it was still highly unusual to see anyone like Dennis Rodman in the world of men’s professional sports. He was unusual, full stop. 

Sartorially, Dennis Rodman wasn’t just different, he was way ahead of his time. This fact was cemented in a viral tweet by @cowboybagel who posted a screenshot of Rodman on The Late Show With David Letterman in 1996. He appeared on stage in a sheer, semi-buttoned-up black blouse, black flared lace pants, and his trademark Oakley wraparound sunglasses. His hair was dyed green, and his nails were painted black. He wore a Cuban link chain and two pendants around his neck, two large silver earrings on the left and another one on the right, and his trademark nose rings. “Everyone in 2019 looks like dennis rodman in 1996,” the caption said, and an army of Rodman lookalikes shared selfies to confirm the statement. In a recent conversation with a friend who is a stylist, she declared that seeing Dennis Rodman in The Last Dance gave her fashion inspiration for days. What was considered weird, back then, seems to be perfectly on point today. 

Dennis Rodman was extra. He played into stereotypes and subverted them at the same time. He challenged the confines of masculinity and turned heads in the NBA. He talked about wanting to have sex with men while dating Madonna, Carmen Electra, Vivica A. Fox, and many more women according to his account. In the late ‘90s, neither mental health nor queerness were discussed in sports. Rodman brought those topics to the forefront, though not always in a way that everyone appreciated. He frequented gay clubs and often expressed his solidarity with the LGBT community, most notably at the 1995 playoffs, where he sprayed a red ribbon in his hair to draw attention to AIDS. The move was criticized for using a symbol of disease—instead of a symbol of gay pride, like the triangle or the rainbow—for shock value. His penchant for cross-dressing, which culminated in a media frenzy when he wore a wedding dress at his book launch, also raised questions about the authenticity of his solidarity with the LGBT community. His delivery might have been off, but I always respected Dennis Rodman for speaking up for the gay community at a time when societal prejudice was rife. He didn’t have to use his platform to talk about his sexuality, but he chose to do it, and many LGBT organizations reached out to thank him for representing them in the sports world as a result. 

In Bad As I Wanna Be, Rodman addressed a widely-publicized suicide attempt before his time at the Chicago Bulls. He wrote that instead of wanting to harm himself, he “Killed the Dennis Rodman that had tried to conform to what everybody wanted him to be.” The entire world knew about his excessive drinking and partying, and now it also knew about his depression. In the 2019 ESPN documentary Rodman: For better or Worse, he laid everything bare: his complicated relationship with a mother who never showed him love, his absent father, his shyness and naiveté, a period of homelessness, conflicts with the law, the sudden growth spurt that garnered the attention of NBA scouts, his rise to superstardom in the ‘90s, his battle with depression and alcoholism, and where he is now at 59 and a grandfather. 

To me, Dennis Rodman was so many things at once: flawed, relatable, and lovable even as he seemed to struggle with loving himself. He was a legendary basketball player, an incredible entertainer, and an accidental hero who kicked the doors open and brought uncomfortable conversation topics to the table. Watching him break out in tears, when he admits that he struggles with being a good father to his children, is saddening and infuriating at the same time, because he risks repeating the same mistakes his parents made—and also because I’m still rooting for him. Dennis Rodman was and still is unique. He practiced self-expression, vulnerability, and nonconformity like nobody else did in the ‘90s, and like only a few men do today, let alone Black superstar athletes. 

I was too young to understand a lot of things back when I had a poster of Dennis Rodman in my bedroom, but looking at professional sports today, and the perfectly curated image athletes present to the world, Dennis Rodman still stands out like a colorful butterfly. He was a viral sensation long before the term was coined, and he paved the way for those who unapologetically express their personality and identity today. To this day, watching Dennis Rodman doing his thing reminds me how beautiful self-expression is, and how much joy it can bring others—or, as he summed up his approach to life in a 1997 interview with USA Today, “I just took the chance to be my own man. I just said, ‘If you don’t like it, kiss my ass’ … I’m the guy who’s showing people, ‘Hey, it’s alright to be different.'”