How To Help Dennis Rodman Help Himself

By McCarton Ackerman 03/04/14

The infamous NBA star has been dipping his toes into the world of recovery for years, but has remained unwilling to fully commit. Could his celebrity status ultimately be his biggest downfall to getting sober?

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We’re only a little more than two months into this year, but it’s safe to say that Dennis Rodman would already like a do-over on 2014. His booze-fueled “basketball diplomacy” game last month with North Korea was an unmitigated PR disaster that sparked national outrage. In addition to making headlines for singing “Happy Birthday” to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, Rodman made headlines for his drunken CNN interview in which he insinuated that Kenneth Bae, an American who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean camp for acts of “treason,” had done something to deserve his sentence.

But it’s his full-blown drinking problem and sheer denial of it that should be sparking equal concern. North Korean media outlets reported that Rodman “vomited and defecated” in the hallway of his hotel and drank heavily throughout the trip. Once he returned stateside, Rodman blamed booze for his bad behavior and spent three weeks at an alcohol treatment facility in New Jersey. But despite denying that he was an alcoholic after checking out of alcohol rehab, he vowed to return to the center every six months to see “where I’m at.” It should come as little surprise that Rodman publicly relapsed just two days after leaving the facility by getting so drunk off Kamikaze shots at a Miami Beach nightclub that he needed to be helped into a car.

Despite several stints in rehab, both in traditional settings and the televised Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew format, Rodman is unwilling to admit he even has a problem. And although Rodman amounts to a D-list celebrity these days, he is still one of the most easily recognizable athletes in the world. Famous clients can often manipulate rehab staff into making the treatment experience work for them, and not the other way around. This can pose an immense issue for clients in an inpatient setting who have accepted the severity of their addiction and are willing to put in the work to get better. 

“Allowing celebrity patients to dictate their course of treatment is very damaging to the other patients in the residential community when the patient makes his or her ‘appearance’ and gives their ‘performance,’" said Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a sober doctor who has appeared repeatedly on Good Morning America, among other shows. “The preferential treatment and pandering they receive from the staff is unfair and damaging to the well-being of all involved. They should be challenging the celebrity patients' entitlement, inability to connect to the staff and fellow residents, and require them to hold the often uncomfortable process of personal reflection that should occur in treatment. Allowing them to come and go as they please simply caters to the celebrity patients' self-destructive and narcissistic ego demands.”


But for many celebrities, their “friends” are often people on their personal payroll. They almost never hear the word “no,” often because these friends run the risk of being fired by not catering to their demands. And if the people on their payroll won’t give them what they want, they have the means to get it elsewhere. “There are obviously some some well-adjusted athletes like Peyton Manning, but often by the time you get them in treatment, they’re really messed up,” said Sally Greer, a former pro tennis player turned addictions counselor who runs 1 ON 1 Addictions Counseling for Athletes. “There was a 21-year-old Major League Baseball player I worked with who was bipolar and in detox for alcohol and drugs. He had just signed a $40 million dollar contract. How can you be normal after that? How can you live up to $40 million dollars?”

It’s the same problem that Rodman faced during the prime of his basketball career in the mid-‘90s. At his peak, he signed a one-year, $9 million contract with the Chicago Bulls. Only second to Michael Jordan in terms of popularity in the NBA, Rodman’s wild hair colors, tattoos, and piercings made him stand out among the giants of basketball, while his outrageous one-liners in press conferences made it clear he wasn’t interested in media training. He knew exactly how to push buttons and get attention, as evidenced by showing up in a wedding dress and announcing that he was marrying himself during a promotional appearance for his 1996 memoir Bad As I Wanna Be. 

His personal life made just as many headlines as all the rebounds he grabbed. Rodman married supermodel Carmen Electra in a quickie Vegas wedding in 1998 and their union didn’t last much longer than the ceremony. He previously dated Madonna, tried to conceive a child with her and then bragged about their sexual escapades to the press. “Dennis, you and I both know what happened when we made love that night and it was nothing to brag about,” she allegedly later told him in a phone conversation.

When his basketball career ended in 2000, he made ill-advised forays into professional wrestling and acting before being reduced to reality show stardom. Eventually, his bad boy persona just turned into straight-up bad behavior. Police were called to his Newport Beach mansion 70 times because of loud parties and he was arrested in 2003 for allegedly assaulting his then-fiancée. A second DUI conviction and domestic violence charge eventually followed before Rodman was also exposed as a deadbeat dad. His third wife, Michelle, filed for divorce in 2012 and it was revealed that he owed over $860,000 in child and spousal support. Shockingly, the man who earned $29 million in salary during his NBA career and likely just as much in endorsements admitted that he was now flat broke.

But despite hitting rock bottom by almost everyone’s standards, Rodman steadfastly refuses to be humbled. Ironically, the celebrity status that has helped destroy him could be the one thing preventing him from getting better. It’s hard for most people to not be awed by a 6’7”, 220 pound man covered in tattoos and piercings, let alone one who’s a five-time NBA champion. And even if he enters a luxury rehab center, the fine dining and top-notch bed sheets at these facilities often come at the expense of the one thing Rodman desperately needs most: quality medical care. 

“Finding a treatment facility that has the cultural and clinical competency to address the underlying character pathology that fuels his addiction and self-destructive behavior is like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Hokemeyer. “Too often, treatment facilities are not equipped to contain and challenge these patients in a way that gives them insight into their disease and offer a reparative psychotherapeutic experience. They get seduced by their glitter and want to hold on to the patient for their own financial and ego needs, rather than basing decisions on clinical needs. They’re not clinically skilled in recognizing the issues that plague men and women of power and celebrity including Sudden Wealth Syndrome, Wealth Addiction and Attachment Disorders.”

But according to Greer, finding a treatment facility for Rodman that has experience in treating top athletes is also crucial. “They need to be with other athletes instead of the normal population. People are going to ask them for autographs in group therapy sessions or ask them what players they know, so the focus is no longer on their treatment,” she said. “They need to be with people who understand the issues of traveling and being away from their families and constantly being on fight or flight mode. The treatment needs to be encased in an arena, if you will, and you need to take them away from the competing.”


For Rodman, another layer of the problem could be that he has already experienced exploitation surrounding his drinking more than once on a national level. During his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice in 2009, he was shown downing vodka-cranberries in almost every episode and was fired by Donald Trump during an intervention held by the entire cast. “It’s obvious Dennis has a drinking problem. He’s a little bit of a disappointment and I’m sad for him for that,” noted cast member Jesse James. After Rodman’s firing, a promo for Alcoholics Anonymous flashed across the screen. 

Rodman made it a point to be sober for the entire taping of All-Star Celebrity Apprentice last year, but the gossip rags waited for him to fall and splashed his inevitable relapse across the tabloids. During his time on Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew personally took Rodman for a brain scan and stated on-camera that the surface of his brain showed significant damage from alcohol abuse. “That’s the problem with these shows,” said Hokemeyer. “They capitalize on their vulnerability and weaknesses. They’re more focused on that and the ratings than delivering quality care.”

Given that Rodman is intent on using an inpatient rehab facility as a place to dry out for a few weeks each year, Hokemeyer said someone in his situation would be better suited for an outpatient setting and one-on-one clinical therapy. And once he’s ready for rehab, the facility should feel clinically obligated to provide boundaries and insist he adhere to them. But even with the best doctors and facilities in the world on your side, a client still has to want to get sober in order to see results.

“No treatment center would say have as many drinks as you want and then come back when you’re ready. They’re certainly going to help him if he asks and he’s obviously paying for it. But is he in denial? You bet,” said Greer. “There’s likely some co-occurring stuff going on there or maybe the frontal lobe just isn’t working. But the bottom line is that you have to want to get better. They can strap you to a bed in the treatment center, but it won't matter when you leave.

McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about politicians and their drugs.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.