The Backward Walking Person: Building A Team With Those Different From Ourselves

It’s not often I find myself moved to tears before the sun comes up, but it happened.

As the father of a 4 month old, I’m often up, fixing myself the first of a few cups of coffee well before the sun rises and I’ve recently been filling those early morning hours with the new ESPN documentary series, “The Last Dance”.  The show covers the life and career of Michael Jordan and I’ve found myself on the verge of tearing up more than once throughout the ten episode span. But you might be surprised to hear that the moment that hit me the hardest had nothing to do with His Royal Airness at all.

Dennis Rodman didn’t belong. Sure, he was a force on the court—a power forward with physical talent, ferocity, AND brains—but off the court, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He was tattooed from his neck to his toes and you could bet that his hair color would change on a weekly basis. Outside of basketball, Rodman had acquired a hard earned reputation as a partier, spending many non ‘team-sanctioned’ vacations in Las Vegas or Miami. From just about every angle, the man they nicknamed ‘The Worm’ seemed to be an outlier.

That’s why it was such a shock when Rodman was traded after a stint in San Antonio to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, a team already on the potential fast track to becoming a dynasty. With the release of ‘The Last Dance’, it’s become increasingly evident that Jordan kept his team in line with an iron fist, a fact that makes Rodman’s signing even more shocking.

For Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, the first meeting with Rodman was a disaster. “It was awful,” Jackson said. “I walk into (General Manager) Jerry Krause’s house. Dennis was sitting on the couch. He’s got a poor boy hat over his eyes. He’s got the rings in his nose and his mouth, and he doesn’t stand up to greet me. I said, ‘Stand up Dennis, take your hat off, shake hands. Let’s go outside and talk.’”

While Rodman’s positive impact on the court was unquestionable, no one was surprised when he didn’t keep his nose clean outside the lines. In one scene during ‘The Last Dance’, Carmen Electra recalls an instance when Jordan himself showed up at her Vegas hotel room trying to track Rodman down.

So why, you might ask, did Rodman’s segment in the series get me all teary eyed? I guess you could say it was a moment of kinship and understanding from Phil Jackson as he reflected on that first season with Dennis Rodman on the team. In the young, trouble making, misunderstood phenom he saw something of himself. “Dennis and I had this Native American bond between us,” Jackson remembered. “In the team room I had a bear claw necklace—a turtle shell that came from another reservation and various other Indian artifacts. Dennis said, ‘Wow, I have this necklace from the Ponca Indians in Oklahoma. I’m hip to that.’ So, I said, ‘Well Dennis, in their tradition, and the tradition that I knew, you would be a heyoka — a backward-walking person. They were people that were different and they were a heyoka. So you’re the heyoka in this tribe.”

Man! I just love it. So many coaches would have been completely justified in marking Rodman as a trouble maker. A waste of talent. Bad news coming down the highway. But what’d Phil do? He didn’t tell Rodman to change, in fact he did the opposite. It can be argued that part of what made Rodman such an essential part of that multi-championship Bulls team was his attitude; the way he rebounded, fought for balls, and defended all carried the same flair as his off the court style and personality. If Phil Jackson hadn’t seen that and, more importantly, embraced it, I don’t know if Dennis Rodman would’ve had the same impact on that Chicago Bulls team.

In preparing to write this blog post, I was also reminded of the brilliant ‘Team Of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is a vivid exploration of President Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the presidency and the unorthodox assembly of the members of his cabinet. In a move now considered both revolutionary and transcendent, Abraham Lincoln assigned the highest positions in his White House to the very men who ran against him for the presidency. These were all men who’d spared no means for beating Lincoln; they defamed his character, his politics, and even the members of his family. But in each of them, Lincoln saw talent, determination, and intelligence and in choosing to work beside them he captained the team to one of the most important presidential terms in U.S. history. He saw past what was different in order to draw out that which was truly great.

Here's the beauty of it all; Dennis Rodman and Abraham Lincoln probably have less in common than just about any two people in world history. But in both scenarios, when personal differences and conflicting personalities were not only put aside but embraced, HUGE things happened.

I would argue when building a team or even just working with one other person, it’s imperative that we embrace them for who they are. Of course, those non-sanctioned Vegas vacations or extreme behavioral issues need to be addressed and dealt with. But in acknowledging and embracing what makes people unique, you might just be affording your team the essential checks and balances to achieve what might’ve otherwise been impossible.

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