"The cradle rocks above an abyss," Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

I think often about that sentence. And I think often about all we do to chase that light.

Tonight, I wish dearly that Nabokov had lived long enough to see Dennis Rodman pour his soul onto the basketball court.

I can imagine Vladimir walking inside on an early summer morning in Montreux, Switzerland to see his wife Vera enraptured on the couch. He sets his butterfly net down, casts his eyes towards the television.

And there he sees the Pistons facing the Lakers as Rodman, 27-years-old, rail thin, manic, arms stretched out like a mantis, finger tips electric like E.T., lunges against all odds, turns a basketball into a balloon and drags his whole existence away from the abyss and into his hands.

Speak, memory. Forget all you know.

The Last Dance will ultimately be the story of Michael Jordan -- and I am more than willing to worship at the altar of his game -- but God bless this unknowable world for giving us both Jordan and Rodman, on the same team, in 1998, with the cameras rolling.

And God bless Dennis Rodman, for fighting the darkness.

Episode III

Sports stories are always cast in warrior tropes. They're boring until they're well-earned.

Watching the Detroit Pistons just rattle Jordan out of mid-air over and over in the late 80s was a good reminder that some players do truly overcome adversity.

The hero does get knocked down and even Rodman is impressed when he stands back up.

The first three episodes of this documentary have shown us the different paths Jordan, Rodman and Scottie Pippen took to this 1997-1998 Bulls team.

Jordan's first hurdle in sports is mythology at this point, the future greatest-of-all-time cut from his varsity team as a sophomore.

Pippen's story was new to me, 11 siblings, father and brother both in wheelchairs, essentially a walk-on at Central Arkansas but full of confidence and a growth spurt turns him into an NBA prospect.

Rodman's story was the first of the three stories that I thought I knew.

But I was wrong.

I thought I knew it because Rodman was, and remains, ubiquitous to our culture. A man who changed everything about what it means to be a star, an athlete, an icon.

Chuck Daly said of coaching Rodman in Detroit, "You can't put a saddle on a mustang."

I never saw Rodman when he played for the Pistons, I only saw him after he joined the Bulls. But to me, as a young kid in Iowa who had only rooted for squeaky clean PR athletes like Michael Jordan and Greg Maddux, he was static electricity.

The way the media portrayed him made it impossible not to view him as a menace. He was the great unknown -- hair dyed, nose pierced, naked on the back of his book, on a Harley in a wedding dress, he was feminine and masculine and unlike any athlete in the world.

Barbara Walters asks Rodman, "What does it mean?"

By "it", she means his existence.

He says, "I like doing what I'm doing. It's making me happy. It's making me feel like a 10-year-old kid."

Even today there is something about that attempt to turn innocence into freedom that sounds like a weapon against our expectations.

But, of course, Rodman's story is not just partying and hair dye and piercings and misunderstanding. There is real pain there. And there is terrifying, emotional destruction.

When he plays basketball he says he is looking for, "something that is going to bring out the hurt and the pain. I want to feel that."

That he was homeless at 18-years-old, with no direction -- just as easily in jail or dealing drugs, in his own words, as playing in the NBA -- only goes to show how thin the line is between destruction or self actualization.

And even success doesn't cure Rodman. He drives to the Pistons practice facility and parks his truck while holding a gun. Whatever drove Rodman to appear suicidal that day isn't clarified, but his pain is clear.

It's both fitting and unbelievable that Madonna is the one to help him tap into a different aspect of his individuality.

Rodman's teammate John Salley says, "Madonna explained to him, 'You have to establish who you want to be in this life, don't be who they tell you you should be.' He started realizing he could push to any boundary, and that's a freedom."

It is a freedom, but it's one that a society like ours will always try to contain.

And these Bulls were no different.

The stress and frenzy of our culture may have turned Rodman into some kind of punchline but how immeasurable is his influence? How vital will his contributions be in decades to come?

What did he do to start the discussion around mental health in the NBA?

How about the question of individual agency vs. team conformity?

What about the conversation over gender in athletics?

Of sexuality, period, in America?

Rodman faced more than adversity, and he overcame a lot more than athletics.

Episode IV

He also partied, very well.

Director Jason Hehir hasn't missed a step in this documentary through the first four hours. It's magnetic storytelling for any sports fan.

But he has really hit a stride in his soundtrack choices, and having Big Punisher's 1997 absolute smash hit "Still Not a Player" over footage of Rodman and Carmen Electra in Las Vegas was inspired enough that I woke up my wife with laughter.

Once again this documentary is showing us just how far sports has come in terms of sheer public relations muscle.

At one point Rodman walks out of the stadium drinking a Miller Lite, climbs onto a motorcycle and drives away!

And there is no world, anywhere, anymore where Rodman gets to leave the defending champion Chicago Bulls for four days to party in Las Vegas in the middle of the season.

That Jordan had to go drag him out of his bed while Electra hid under a comforter behind the couch is the sort of image that, well, it just makes you happy to be alive.

"I'm not going to say what's in his bed," Jordan says.

Once again MJ is in a hotel room with a bunch of nefarious characters!

Hehir segues from Rodman to head coach Phil Jackson and focuses the episode on drawing some pretty solid comparisons between the two iconoclasts.

Jackson was raised by two preachers in Montana but he says, "My goal was always in conflict. I would rather by playing sports than on my knees praying."

He finds an outlet in Native American history and spiritualism, taps into buddhism, takes LSD, wins some titles as a fierce rebounder and defensive standout with the Knicks, coaches in Puerto Rico where teams sacrifice chickens pre-game, and then returns to the states and makes his way to the Bulls bench.

This episode again laid out that Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause was underappreciated. How bold was it of Krause to fire Doug Collins -- 137-109 over three seasons with Chicago and made a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season -- and hire Jackson?

The closest comparison I could think of in the modern NBA was the Warriors firing Mark Jackson to bring in the ageless Steve Kerr as head coach.

It seems impossible today that Jordan would initially not like Jackson, and buck against the triangle offense that Jackson and Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter installed, but for all of Jordan's individual excellence Jackson knew that he had to reach another level to win a title.

The Bulls finally accomplish that in 1991 when they defeat the Pistons in a sweep and top the Lakers and Magic Johnson in five games.

The fact is that Jackson's whole cerebral style changed coaching forever. His ability to reach into the psyche of athletes is unparalleled.

Even Kerr, who was coached by Spurs legend Gregg Popovich and is one of the greatest coaches in sports right now, says, "I have never met a coach who was that different and genuine."

It's easy to see how Rodman and Jackson got along.

"Phil realized I was different," Rodman says.

Jackson calls him a heyoka, a Lakota name that signifies a backwards walking person.

Rodman, for his part, rewarded Jackson's faith. He played 80 games during the 1997-1998 regular season, averaged 35.7 minutes per game and led the league with 15.0 rebounds per game.

The relationship between these two shows the unique power of Jackson to mold competing personalities into a unified whole -- few in sports have ever done it so well.

That Krause has already told Jackson he'll never rehire him, that Michael Jordan has said he will never play for anyone but Phil Jackson, continues to provide the momentum of disbelief underneath Hehir's excellent documentary.

Grade: 9.3 out of 10

Stray observations

  1. This is a newspaper so we need to talk about the fact that Michael Jordan LOVED reading the sports page. He is quoting articles back to the sports journalists interviewing him all the time! He tells three Chicago sports writers that they're idiots for predicting the Bulls would lose to Cleveland in the 1989 playoffs and then he makes all of their predictions wrong by nailing the game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo. That is a journalism fan! He tells another journalist, "You gave me a good article the other day, I appreciate that." Can you imagine? I hope MJ reads this. He'd definitely want it published in print.
  2. Speaking of "The Shot", after Jordan makes it a television journalist runs out to interview him -- it can't be four seconds after he makes the shot -- and he just keeps screaming, "You stuck it Michael! You stuck it Michael!" I find this very unprofessional because it's not a question, but Jordan yells, "YEAH!"
  3. The influence of French fashion on Jordan during this 1997-98 season is ludicrous. He's rocking camel hair trench coats with a beret over Bulls sweats. It's madness.
  4. Rodman meanwhile wears some kind of blue leather duster and a hat that says "Bong." on it to meet kids and sign autographs. Someone tells him he should visit Nashville and Rodman says he has been to Nashville before and will never go again. I'd like to know what happened to Dennis Rodman in Nashville.
  5. Jackson apparently spent the whole season dressed like Sam Neill in Jurassic Park and I'm getting used to it.
  6. After the Bulls win the title in '91 we see Krause and Pippen having a bootyshaking contest on the plane and no one wins.
  7. Charley Rosen, who co-authored a back with Jackson, is wild-eyed wearing a Woodstock softball shirt talking about LSD and there's no doubt I'd like to see more of him. I have to imagine that someday Hehir will release 4,000 hours of interview footage and I promise you I will watch it all.
  8. Former Bulls come popping up in the documentary like long lost friends. There's Jud Buechler looking svelte. Will Perdue is somehow younger than he was in '97. Bill Cartwright looks like a college professor. Horace Grant appears like he could still box someone out. Ron Harper has no time for any of this, or for Lenny Wilkens or Craig Ehlo. And B.J. Armstrong remains extremely baby faced.
  9. It appears that Rodman was drinking a kamikaze cocktail before a game. I have no problem with this other than I simply do not understand how athletes perform after drinking.
  10. Gary Payton's R-rated description of Dennis Rodman was so wonderful. I think this documentary has made me long for the days of really good defensive players in the NBA.
  11. When Scottie comes back from his foot injury, Jackson plays him 31 minutes his first game back. That is not good load management Phil!
  12. A lot of the athletes in this documentary appear to have not aged very much in 22 years, but Carmen Electra took it to another level.