TONY NICHOLSON: The day of the 'Worm'
I don't really care much for professional basketball, at least not now. Back in the 1950s, I followed the Boston Celtics with Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. In the 1960s, I watched Jerry West and Elgin Baylor with the Los Angeles Lakers. By the 1970s, I had too much work and family responsibilities to follow professional basketball. Although that isn't quite true. When possible, I watched the Celtics of the 1970s with Dave Cowens and the Celtics of the 1980s with Larry Bird. In fact, the only professional game that I had ever witnessed before 1995 was one in 1988 in which Larry Bird led Boston to a triple overtime win in Baltimore.
Some of the professional players have acquired interesting or descriptive nicknames. Most everyone has heard about Wilt Chamberlain, "The Big Dipper" or "Wilt the Stilt." I saw in person Julius Ervin, "Dr. J.," and Oscar Robertson, "The Big O," play college basketball before they became professional legends. One nickname that I did not know was "Worm."
Dennis Rodman played 14 seasons in the NBA. Many professional basketball sources consider Rodman as "arguably the best rebounding forward in NBA history and one of the most recognized athletes in the world." In 2011, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In his professional career, he played for the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs and the Chicago Bulls. However, Rodman is also known for "ever-changing hair color, tattoos and unorthodox lifestyle." He has had an affair with singer/performer Madonna and briefly married actress Carmen Electra. He wore a wedding dress to a ceremony in which he married himself. He made himself into a diplomatic envoy to North Korea where he enjoyed the attention of dictator Kim Jong-un. He is also known for having one of the most unusual nicknames, "Worm," apparently given to him by his mother when he wiggled around while playing pinball as a child.
In April 1995, I decided to attend my second professional basketball game. Primarily I wanted to do it for my youngest son. I wanted to make it a special occasion and take Mike for his birthday present to see a Minnesota Timberwolves game. He liked professional basketball and collected player cards. Through a friend of mine in Bemidji, I obtained two tickets for seats a few rows behind the bench of the visiting San Antonio Spurs, which would be the last game of the season for the Timberwolves. San Antonio featured the outstanding center David Robinson, known as "The Admiral" because he had attended the U.S. Naval Academy. We arrived at Target Center about an hour and a half before the afternoon tipoff. Mike had two 8 by 10-inch color photos of Robinson, several trading cards and a brand new black marker. As we made our way to our seats, we could see Robinson participating in a pregame shoot-around. When he left the court, fans clamored for his autograph, but he waved them off with his hand and hurried into the locker room. After the game started, I was struck by the apparent defiance of Dennis Rodman as he stood apart from his Spurs teammates during timeouts.
With a minute or so left in the fourth quarter, I turned my head to watch the action at the far end of the court. I wasn't aware that Rodman, who had played most of the game, was at the end of the bench in front of me. Suddenly, I caught the motion of something being thrown toward Mike. I looked at his hands and was dumbfounded to see a basketball shoe. I looked near his feet and saw another shoe. I astutely asked Mike where the shoes came from. Stoically he pointed to the San Antonio bench where Roman was standing. An usher approached us and suggested that Mike could take the shoes to Rodman, so he could autograph them.
After the usher took us behind the security ropes, Mike gave the shoes to Rodman to autograph. While he was doing that, I found myself face to face with former Celtic Dave Cowens, a Spurs assistant coach. Well, not exactly face to face as much as my head to his shoulder. The best that I could muster was a mumbled, "I have always been a fan of yours, Mr. Cowens." He politely nodded, smiled and shook my hand. So much for being suave. Neither Mike or I gave a first or second look at David Robinson.
When Mike and I returned to our seats, I took the shoes from him to read what Rodman had written. The right shoe clearly said, "Rebounding title 4, '95." On the left shoe, he had written, "Dennis Worm Rodman #1." During the drive back to Bemidji, I thought about the outlandish muti-tattooed black man with the colorful dyed hair who had given this reserved small-town white kid not just the shoes from his feet, but a lifetime memory.