If you're one of many who believe Dennis Rodman, the self-appointed ambassador to North Korea and now Vatican City, really needs to find his way back home, how do you suppose the family he abandoned feels? They haven't seen their "son" in ages, or roughly 57 tattoos ago.
"The truth is," said Pat Rich, her slow Midwestern drawl dripping with sadness, "we don't hear from him anymore. And I don't know why. There hadn't been anything that happened between us. We hadn't done anything to him. I've tried to reach out and tell him we still love him, always loved him and for him to come see us. It's like we don't exist anymore. He simply forgot about us. He don't contact us no more."
She says there are times when she and her husband James, after all these empty years, will glance outside the window at their narrow driveway and wonder if a car will pull up, and if the doorknob will turn, and if a tall and pierced black man will walk through and brighten the mood and the modest split-level house with his dyed hair and presence. And then this hallucination quickly fades and an elderly white couple are left to themselves, to come to grips with the cold reality: A Hall of Fame player and oddball is not walking through that door. Not now, and at this point, maybe not ever.
Here in a post-NBA career laced with strange turns, as one might've predicted, Rodman can trek to a foreign country half a world away and snuggle up to a ruthless and dangerous dictator. He can take another trip to Italy in a self-promotional attempt to gain an audience with a saint. But he can't bring himself to travel a few states away, to a place he once knew before the madness changed his life, and hug a family that famously cared for him in a way no one else has or probably will.
"I feel like I lost a son," Pat Rich said.
Two, actually. A few years ago her oldest died suddenly at age 48 and the tragedy shattered the tight family. Rodman and the Rich's two boys, Michael and Byrne, were an inseparable threesome once upon a time, and so the family naturally assumed Rodman would finally reconnect during a time of crisis. They spent days trying to contact Rodman before reaching him through his people. He didn't call and didn't show for Michael's funeral. As it turned out, he was busy. He sent word that he had an appearance on Jay Leno.
"It hurt my husband dearly," said Pat Rich. "My husband cried that day."
Rodman couldn't be reached for comment for this story. A person who identified himself as John at the talent agency that represents Rodman said "there's nothing at all" against the Riches but couldn't offer any explanation for his refusal to speak with them.
* * *
How the greatest pound-for-pound rebounder in NBA history met and bonded with a conservative family from the tumbleweeds of Oklahoma is one of those fairy tales that ring too wonderfully weird to be true. Once their story became public, it helped sell books and went beyond basketball. Rodman and the Riches were brought to life in a 1998 made-for-TV movie that depicted Rodman, in his time with the Riches, as normal instead of the cartoon character he created for himself during and after his career. He thanked the family profusely in his R-rated autobiography, "Bad As I Wanna Be," which told us more about Madonna's athletic ability than we ever knew and soared to the bestseller list. Even in his induction speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame, he teared up when recalling how much the family meant to him at a critical time in his life, when he had no direction and little hope.
When you see Rodman today, a retired star who seems desperate to hang onto whatever shred of celebrity he has left, you almost forget how he was a completely different person before fame hit, and that's where the Riches come into play.
As a white family, they took heat from neighbors in Bokchito, Oklahoma (the N-word was thrown their way quite a bit) who never knew of any black people, and even some relatives when their troubled 13-year-old son Byrne brought home a 22-year-old black man and asked if Rodman could stay for dinner. What followed was a study in racial and cultural attitudes, the healing power of love and how sports and fame can cause an unexpected shift in a three-stoplight town.
"We had so many wonderful times together and some struggles, and that's why this is so hard for us right now," said James Rich. "We all went through a lot. He was a son to us and we're all sad and wondering what happened. It's like a void in our lives. I don't know where to start."
Rodman wasn't some pampered basketball blue-chipper while growing up poor in South Dallas, the son of an Air Force enlistee dad named Philander (whom Rodman reunited with last year after 42 years of estrangement) and a mom named Shirley who had to take odd jobs to make ends meet, especially after Philander abandoned the family. Rodman didn't even play in high school, unlike his two younger sisters. He worked as a janitor. He had a late growth spurt after high school, found his way onto a basketball team at a local community college, flunked out, then migrated to Southeastern Oklahoma State University when a scholarship opened up.
While working a camp the summer before he started school in the college town of Durant, about 15 miles from Bokchito, Rodman came across a shy young camper who barely spoke. Drawn together by fate and basketball, Rodman quickly learned why the boy was so withdrawn. A few years earlier, Byrne had accidently shot his best friend Brad while they were using apples for target practice out back on the Rich's 600-acre farm. The boy died three days later and left Byrne in a suspended state of shock. His parents tried everything to trigger recovery and mostly struck out. One day they suggested he attend basketball camp, and he returned home, chatty again, with a stranger in tow.
The Dennis Rodman then wasn't the Rodman we saw during a suspension-filled 15-year career. His hair color was natural and demeanor was innocent and child-like. He had some rough edges, Pat Rich recalls, but nothing that would raise any red flags, not even close. At first he spent weekends at the Riches, doing chores and tending to the farm with Byrne and the Riches' other son Michael. Then he stayed there on some school nights. He and Byrne grew tight in a big-brother, little-brother way.
When James Rich learned Rodman never knew his own biological father, Rich could relate. He grew up the same way and so the "new father" and "new son" had a unique bond. Rich challenged Rodman repeatedly. When Rodman grew discouraged and homesick, Rich said: "If you go home you'll never make anything of yourself. Stay here, give it a shot and maybe you'll create some opportunities in your life."
When Rodman told the family he'd soon be a big man on campus, Rich said, half-joking: "You'll never make the starting five." Rodman did, immediately. Rich told Rodman if he got 25 points or 25 rebounds on a certain night, he'd take him to Pizza Hut, his favorite spot.
"That relationship," said Pat Rich, "just grew and grew."
Pat always cooked Rodman's favorite meal ("barbeque chicken, corn on the cob and rolls") and allowed him to drive the family car and take a spin on the tractors. Even when he became the best player in NAIA, nobody envisioned he'd win seven rebounding titles and five championships in the NBA; professional basketball wasn't on the radar. Rodman was considered family, nothing more or less, for the three years he stayed, and the subsequent visits in the several years that followed.
"I was strict on him like I was with my boys," Pat Rich said. "He couldn't curse in my house. He had a curfew. We went to church every Sunday. He had to show respect. And he did."
Then the first hurricane hit: Rodman was drafted by the Pistons and became a major part of a two-time champ. Pat Rich found the response a bit funny in Bokchito.
"The people who complained about us having a black man in our house, all of a sudden, wanted his autograph," she said. "Having him in our house wasn't OK until he became famous."
The second hurricane was a lot harsher: Rodman took on a new persona, dressed in drag for attention, contemplated suicide, liked his motorcycles and women fast and turned into a controversial icon. The Rodman the Riches knew was dead and buried. This new one, they accepted anyway, but didn't quite know what to make of him. Who did?
One of his former Bulls teammates likes to tell this story. Rodman didn't arrive for an important practice one afternoon. Phil Jackson said: go get him. The teammate drove to Rodman's house, which was surprisingly unassuming, located on an ordinary street in the Chicago suburbs. There was no answer at the door, so the teammate pushed it open and found a dozen people in various stages of dress, all sleeping on the floor. Rodman was among them. The place was a mess.
"Dennis," the teammate barked. "Get up. Let's go." Rodman staggered to his feet, reached for some shorts and sweats and off they went.
People often freaked out whenever he appeared in public. I saw the height of Rodmania first-hand at the team party following his first championship with the Bulls. Rodman stood at the edge of a balcony (with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, a Rodman pal, nearby) overlooking a large dance floor packed with people celebrating the victory.
"Watch this," Rodman said. "Mosh pit." Without warning, he jumped some 15 or so feet and caused a crater in the crowd. Security raced and began throwing bodies aside, grabbed Rodman and dragged him back upstairs to safety.
"Crazy, I know," said Rodman.
The separation between Rodman, now 51, and the Riches, according to Pat Rich, was gradual, then sudden. Byrne Rich was a frequent member of Rodman's entourage at first until the invitations stopped coming. Bokchito became Pluto. Once a visitor each off-season, Rodman stopped coming to see the Riches, then stopped calling.
Several years ago, or maybe longer, Pat Rich can't remember, Rodman called Byrne out of the blue and asked her son to join him in Las Vegas for a weekend. Byrne, who didn't like how Rodman disappeared from their lives, declined.
Pat Rich said the family never depended on Rodman financially, never asked him for much. When Rodman began appearing in the news for the wrong reasons, they began to fear for him, that he'd die young.
"I know he got to drinking hard and partying," she said. "I worried just like any parent would."
She added: "Dennis is just peculiar in some ways. He's not confrontational. He just doesn't deal with responsibility real well. He'd rather just run away. There are some things he'd rather not face."
She doesn't know what to make of the North Korea trip, or Rodman talking up the tyrant Kim Jong Un, or the attempt to see the Pope. She just doesn't understand why he can make time for that -- most likely, there's a financial stake in it for Rodman -- and not the family that knew him before his life became chaotic, the family that helped put him on the right path.
"We're getting up in age," she said, "and my husband asked, 'If one of us passed away, would Dennis come to the funeral?' That's how we talk sometimes. I don't know if he cares about us. Deep down, he might. I just think the fame took him away from us, made him drift further from us."
The Dennis Rodman who ventured into small town Oklahoma and befriended a white family and lived a quiet and unassuming lifestyle isn't the one who raised eyebrows in Washington by going to North Korea. The trip was wrong in so many ways, and Rodman confirmed as much when he returned and suddenly became an expert on Kim Jong Un and international relations.
"Kim told me to pass a message that he said is very important," said Rodman, in one of his stops on a post-trip media blitz. "He said, 'Tell President Obama to call me. Because if we can talk, we can work this out.'"
Call. Talk. Work this out. What if Rodman followed that advice?
"If he did, we would be ecstatic," said Pat Rich. "But it won't happen. Those days are over."