Re-raceing the Athlete's Body
Dennis Rodman with Tim Keown
Bad As I Wanna Be
New York: Delacorte Press, 1996
Mention the NBA and I imagine quick, clean body motions; the sound of high-tops screeching mixed
with deep rhythmic thuds as the ball pounds up-court; that "swish" as the ball drops through the net in a final crescendo. But there is more to the game, of course, than its sights and sounds. Men's
pro-basketball is a billion-dollar a year profit-making enterprise controlled by a few white, male, middle-class heterosexual coaches, managers, and agents, and is a game whose typical audience shares
these features—yet it is one played predominantly by black athletes. Pro-basketball is a sport ultimately
caught up in longstanding social and discursive controlling mechanisms that contain the African-American male subject as an instrument of cultural capital represented only as a black male body. It is the
confinement of the theatricalized space of the basketball court which allows the typically white, male spectator to experience safely the dark exotic other.
This is not to deny the sport's emancipatory potential. Clearly, when the inner-city educational systems populated predominantly by youth of color fail to open doors to higher education and economic
opportunity, sports like basketball can unlock such doors. Think of writer and intellectual John Edgar Wideman, who hooped his way out of the ghetto to become one of the first black Rhodes scholars. Or
even those inner-city teens who might not make the college track or the NBA "All-Star" club, but who nonetheless find something other than vice or crime to believe in.
However, although recreation centers can provide possibilities in a society which presents so many obstacles to success for the inner-city youth, once the monied hands of commercial sports enter the
picture, it's all about shaping the black body into a high-performance machine that generates profit. The
business of professional basketball sheds light on a larger ideological paradigm which constructs then naturalizes hierarchies of difference according to a duality wherein "black" signifies the body/the
sexual/the uncivilized, while "white" signifies the mind/the asexual/the civilized.1 So when the U.S. education system fails to open doors, the inner-city athlete's only way out is to become the very
apotheosis of the body—the black athlete. To "make it" the body must be given priority and becomes the only capital. Put otherwise, the athlete of color engages in a process of self-commodification, turning
himself from black subject into black object and thereby reproducing the primitivist ideology that contains the racialized body as the uncivilized, "dark" other.
These processes of objectification are refreshingly undermined and critiqued in Dennis Rodman's autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be, because it shows how one black athlete resisted such processes in
remaking himself. At first glance, Rodman gives us a fairly straightforward rags-to-riches tale of his ascent to NBA superstardom. He grew up alienated both from mainstream society and from an
African-American community that, because of his early physical and social clumsiness, failed to include him. He was raised by his mother and two older sisters, who were his antithesis—tall and dexterous with
a basketball. He was short and scrawny. Growing up he felt invisible, but everything changed in his late teens, when he grew by more than a foot and the basketball started magically to beckon: "It was like I
had a new body that knew how to do all this shit the old one didn't." By age twenty-one his new body had allowed him to transform himself from a nobody, stealing wristwatches and working the janitorial
night shift at the local airport, to a somebody, playing basketball. Recruited by a local junior college team,
he moved swiftly up the ranks, winning a basketball scholarship to Southeastern Oklahoma University.
By his mid-twenties he'd made it into the NBA, first drafted by the Detroit Pistons, then later traded into
the San Antonio Spurs. In his early thirties, with a reputation as the league's best rebounder, he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls.
In the midst of Rodman's writing of his ups and downs, there emerges a subtextual narrative that speaks to the politics of difference. At one point, on the brink of suicide, Rodman experienced a moment of
heightened self-awareness that altered his perception of the basketball court's politics of difference, and
he decided that, rather than buckle to the pressures to conform to the image of a player as defined by coaches, managers, and spectators, he would annihilate "the Dennis Rodman that had tried to conform to
what everybody wanted him to be." Academically interpreted, Rodman decided to re-invent himself into
an identity in flux, a subject which would at once play by the rules of the game, yet sidestep the racialized,
controlling gaze for which the game is staged. Describing his coming into an awareness of his body as a site where racism and heterosexism converged, Rodman announces emphatically, "They didn't create
me, and they can't control me."
Rodman's autobiography, then, is less a how-to-succeed recipe than the trace-marks of a black athlete
who has re-formed his body and self to exploit, through performative, parodic play, the social and discursive practices that contain the racial other. This is the story, then, of a black athlete coming to
embody what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., identifies as the parodic spirit of the "signifying monkey" (symbolized by the double-mouthed African god Esu), which playfully "signifies" by repeating then
revising the social and discursive practices that contain black subjectivity.2 By cross-dressing, dying and re-
dying his hair, and re-making and re-shaping his body, Rodman assumes an in-flux racial and sexual
identity to "signify" on and critique certain images that represent the African American as maligned and otherwise "dark".
Even before the reader opens the book, this signifying begins. The front cover foregrounds a naked Rodman straddling a black-and-chrome Harley Davidson motorcycle and confronting the reader with a
gaze of frank indifference. He flaunts his material success and racial crossing over, astride a machine more often associated with a white heterosexist counterculture. He appears to inhabit his naked body
with so much confidence that the photo reads like an assault, forcing the reader to acknowledge his or her own simultaneous fear of and desire for the black male other. The white backdrop folds around the
book's spine, smoothly transporting the reader's gaze to the back cover where Rodman, still naked, stands with his back to us, revising the image of da Vinci's Vitruvian man by stretching his arms and legs
into an X while balancing a basketball in each hand. As he stretches, his buttocks clench, his body muscles striate, and hieroglyphic tattoos splay across his shoulders. His body further confronts Western
dialectics of white/black difference; it becomes a sign of not just the body, but of the constructed body.
Once past the book's cover, we encounter further instances of the construction and reconstruction of Rodman as an athletic form. Because he came to basketball so late, he writes, "I was like a sideshow for
the NBA. They looked at my statistics, and they looked at my age (by then I was twenty-five), and they didn't know what to make of me." As a result, he was assigned only one position, that of the
rebounder—the player least in the limelight and most often responsible for the "grunt work" of the game. Here the basketball court's caste-like differentiating strategies are identified. For Rodman, the
rebounder—expected to retrieve the ball after a messy shot and return it to the shooter for a cleaner attempt—is akin to the civilian janitor (a position Rodman had already played) who does all the dirty
work and yet receives no recognition. So even though the rebounder has the power to turn a game around, he is never acknowledged as a game's hero. Rodman makes it his mission to re-create the image
of the rebounder. He writes, "I've taken one part of the game and made it into an art form. I've taken this
ugly stepchild and made it beautiful." But even by making the rebounder's role into art, he still can't replace the shooter (whom Rodman calls the "good soldier") in the heroic limelight. He chooses instead
to play as the game's anti-hero, or, as he calls it, "the bad boy."
His occupation of this role is a form of resistance, since, he contends, "the league doesn't want guys to
take the route I did, to come up from nothing and build it up on my own. The guys who run the league are
scared by that, because they can't control the image and control the person." Rodman's self-assignation of "bad boy" echoes Roland Barthes's discussion of the "bad wrestler"—a figure who "accepts the rules
only when they are useful to him and transgresses the formal continuity of attitudes…[who] is unpredictable and therefore asocial."3
Rodman finds a sense of empowerment as he re-fashions the
image of the rebounder and re-creates himself as the "bad soldier," thereby usurping the agents' and managers' power that would otherwise, he boldly concludes, "control me."
Rodman points out that even if he would have started playing ball at birth, and not at age twenty-one, he
still would not have been able to become the game's hero. He lacks the right "good-soldier pedigree": the
chocolate-hued skin, Caucasian-like nose, and hard jaw lines that qualify as "good looks." He also lacks the educated, middle-class background enjoyed by other well-known players. Rodman gives the
example of Grant Hill, who not only has the "right looks" to become an NBA posterboy but has the right background: "His father—Calvin Hill—was a great pro football player. His mother is a big-time
Washington lawyer. He was articulate and lived a clean life. And on the basketball court he was flashy with his dunks and scored a lot of points. It was so perfect for the NBA."
The various stylizations of his body for which Rodman is famous represent further degrees of resistance. For example, he dyes and re-dyes his hair not just to grab media attention (and secure high-paying
contracts for MTV ads), but to problematize the good/bad soldier dialectic—to attract the attention and accolades of an audience which customarily ignores the importance of his position. Unlike Michael
Jackson, whose apparent desire to morph racially supports rather than contests the hegemonic constraint of the black star, Rodman's constant reworking of his hair functions, as Kobena Mercer writes of black
forms of resistance, as a "stylized means of defying the 'natural' color codes of conventionality in order to highlight artificiality and hence exaggerate a sense of difference."4 Moreover—to borrow the language
Homi K. Bhabha uses to describe the subaltern's re-inhabiting of colonized spaces—Rodman's hair stylizations and hieroglyphically tattooed body combine "to revalorize the ethnic signifier."5
Similarly, Rodman publicly advertises an indeterminate sexuality through parody and pastiche. He cross-dresses (wearing dresses and paramilitary boots, for example), paints his fingernails pinks and
purples, drives a pink Harley-Davidson, and, he tells us, likes to wear halter tops as well as "TIGHT STUFF." Through the exaggeration and juxtaposition of elements that socially code the body as feminine
or masculine, white or black, Rodman parodies the way the black body has been traditionally contained by representations which either emasculate it (for example, in the Uncle Tom figure, or the blackface
Sambo) or overdetermine its masculine sexuality (as in the cover photo of his sculpted body juxtaposed with motor-bike chrome). The black hypersexual body has traditionally been kept at a remove from
normative society, as has the perversely ambiguous body; Rodman plays off both images, pushing the margin into the Western epistemological center. Rodman's crossdressing performance is a deliberate
move to confuse sexual as well as de facto racial hierarchies of difference that would otherwise control and contain the subaltern male subject. Sexuality and race intersect in this way throughout the
autobiography. On one occasion, Rodman sarcastically refers to the game as a "peepshow" where the audience can put in a "quarter and wonder, What's the next show to come up?" Rodman thus analogizes
the black athlete with the dancing female stripper who performs for a spectatorial subject safely outside
the theatrical frame. In fact, he makes this equation explicit: "I've come to realize we are the prostitutes.
We're professional prostitutes, wearing a game jersey and uniform, running seven miles in two hours."
Rodman's representation of his experiences as a basketball player sheds light on the ways that race,
sexuality, and class mark the black male subject in mainstream culture. Furthermore, his use of a black idiomatic language (for example, he uses "bro" in direct address) deform the genre's contours—
defined by a more serious high-brow style—to further represent the self-formation in which he seeks to engage. Even the typographical style of the book, in its use of boldface and extra large fonts, resists
convention in order to express his bodily transformation.
Of course, Bad As I Wanna Be is hardly problem-free. We could easily, for example, re-read the cover
photos as Rodman's reaching up and striving toward whiteness in a grand gesture that legitimates the black/white dichotomy, reproducing hierarchies of racialized difference. There are also basic omissions
that, in their grim reality, undermine the parodic strain of his signifying acts—he fails to mention, for example, the time he threw his pregnant wife down a flight of stairs, or any of those moments when he
raged out of control and even head-butted fellow players, referees, and journalists. Finally, too, one must
question how much he's engaging in the revision and subversion of the codes of mainstream capitalist culture when, in 1997 alone, he raked in twenty-six million dollars in NBA salary and corporate
sponsors. He can sit in the buff astride a Harley and confront the reader precisely because he can afford such apparent rebellion, and, if anything, profits by it. As Mike Lubica of Esquire
magazine wrote in a review of Rodman's book, "cunning is often confused with intelligence, especially in the current culture of sports."
6 Yet we might consider that it is not despite but because of its narcissistic poses that Rodman's
autobiography manages to question and reveal the social and discursive practices through which the racialized male body is contained, and that, as a result, the reader can see under a brighter light what the
NBA court tries to keep out of bounds.
Frederick Luis Aldama
(1) See Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask (London: Paladin, 1972) and Abdul JanMohamed, "The Economy of Manichean
Allegory: the Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature," Critical Inquiry 12:1 (Autumn 1985): 59-87.
(2) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Signifying Monkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) xxiv and passim.
(3) Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 24.
(4) Kobena Mercer, "Black Hair/Style Politics," Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (London: Routledge,
(5) Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 251.
(6) Mike Lubica, Review. Esquire 128:1 (July 1997): 32