Basketball Urban Legends Revealed #14

This is the fourteenth in a series of examinations of basketball-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn the strange story of how allergies led Dennis Rodman to the Detroit Pistons! Plus, did Drew Gooden really go on the disabled list because of hurt HAIR FOLLICLES on his leg?!? Finally, did a home visit from legendary basketball coach Adolph Rupp actually lead a player to NOT attend Kentucky?

Click here to view an archive of all the previous basketball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASKETBALL LEGEND: Allergies allowed the Detroit Pistons to, in effect, steal Dennis Rodman in the 1986 NBA Draft.

STATUS: True

During Season 8 of the NBC TV series Celebrity Apprentice in 2009, Dennis Rodman missed one of the weekly competitions on the program. When later asked why he was not able to do the task, Rodman explained that he had severe allergies that knocked him out for the count. His fellow contestants doubted his story, claiming instead that Rodman had been partying and that he was hungover not suffering from allergies. I certainly cannot tell you whether Rodman was telling the truth on the show, but I can say that Rodman does, indeed, suffer from severe allergies. Rodman also has asthma, and his allergies can cause a terrible reaction with his asthma. While Rodman managed to control his allergies and his asthma long enough to have a Hall of Fame career in the National Basketball Association (NBA), it was due to his allergies that Rodman became one of the biggest steals in NBA Draft history.

Dennis Rodman was a late bloomer when it came to basketball. Growing up in the Dallas area, Rodman was too short to play on his high school basketball team (he was only 5 feet 6 inches as a freshman). After he graduated from high school, he took a job as a janitor at a local airport. However, a growth spurt that took him all the way to 6 feet 6 inches tall made him decide to give basketball one more chance. He attended Cooke County College in Gainesville, Texas for a semester. He played for their basketball team and averaged 17.6 points and 13.3 rebounds. Although he was only there for a semester, he showed enough promise that he got a spot on the basketball team at Southeastern Olkahoma State University, a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Rodman excelled at SOSU for his three seasons there, averaging 25.7 points and 15.7 rebounds as he was named to the All-NAIA team in all three seasons.

As graduation approached, Rodman began to prepare himself for a chance at a career in professional basketball. He attended the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament is the only pre-draft tournament that only allows senior students to participate. As a result, in recent years it has developed a reputation of being a place where the fringe players compete – the players who really need to impress scouts to have a chance of being drafted. For instance, of the 64 participants from the 2011 tournament (it is a four day tournament made up of eight teams of eight players), only three of them were drafted in the 2011 NBA Draft, although one of them, tournament MVP Jimmy Butler, was drafted in the first round. Currently, five participants from the 2011 Tournament are playing in the NBA (with nine more playing in the NBA D-League). Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks is a notable alumnus of the tournament.

Obviously, back in 1985, the Tournament was a bigger deal because there were more good players who would stay in college for all four years, but even in 1985 Portsmouth was not considered the cream of the pre-draft crop. So with this in mind, when Dennis Rodman dominated the 1986 Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, winning MVP honors, he definitely caught a lot of attention but the attention was received with the proverbial grain of salt. When Rodman then followed up his performance at Portsmouth with horrible performances at the pre-draft workouts in Hawaii and Chicago, teams that were hot for the young forward were now cool on Rodman. The conventional wisdom was that Rodman was faltering as the level of competition increased. The Detroit Pistons had been all over Rodman from even before the initial workouts and following his dominant performance at Portsmouth they were heavily considering taking him with their first round pick, which was the #11 overall pick. But then came the later two workouts. Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey recalled, “Everybody saw him in Portsmouth – he was MVP for the whole tournament. But his playing went down when he went out to Hawaii and then when he went to Chicago. I said, ‘Geez, this isn’t the same guy.’” Luckily for the Pistons, they had an ace in the hole. Rodman’s agent Bill Pollack was good friends with the Pistons’ trainer, Mike Abdenour, and during the Chicago workouts, Pollack invited Abdenour to Rodman’s room. Abdenour later recalled, “Dennis had allergies to almost everything. Cat hair, you name it. In Chicago, it was so hot and humid, the kid could hardly breathe, let alone play basketball.”

Fellow player John Salley roomed with Rodman at the Hawaii tournament, and he recalled that when he entered the room they shared, Rodman was already in there and “he has the sliding door open, the air conditioning on and he has asthma and he’s under the covers, watching cartoons, shivering. And I’m going, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m sick.’ ‘What kind of sick? I ain’t got time to be sick.’” Rodman explained his situation and told Salley that in return for Salley allowing their living arrangement to remain as they were, Rodman would defer to Salley the entire tournament and help make Salley look good. Salley agreed and Salley did, indeed, win the MVP of the Hawaii tournament.

So McCloskey now knew something very important – that Rodman’s weak performances were almost certainly due to allergies and when Abdenour informed McCloskey that he was confident that they could control Rodman’s allergies in the NBA, McCloskey knew that he wanted to draft Rodman. All things being equal, he would have Rodman ranked #1 on his board and would take him with the #11 pick. However, he wondered if he was the only GM that knew Rodman’s situation. McCloskey began working the phone lines and having his assistants do the same, trying to gauge what other teams thought of Rodman. You see, McCloskey also wanted John Salley, as he wished to concentrate on defense in the Draft and Salley was a powerful shot blocker out of Georgia Tech.

McCloskey knew that Salley would be there at #11 but he also knew that Salley would definitely not be there when the Pistons next made a pick, which was the third pick of the second round (#27 overall). So McCloskey decided to take a risk. Every other team seemed to have written Rodman off after Hawaii and Chicago, so McCloskey had to cross his fingers and just hope that Rodman would be there at #27.

As you well know, Rodman was there at #27, and he went on to become a key player (as did Salley) for the Pistons as the franchise won back-to-back NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990.

Rodman made an All-Star team as a Piston in 1990 and was named Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons in 1990 and 1991. Rodman is the only player from the 1986 Draft so far to make it into the Basketball Hall of Fame for his NBA playing career (Arvydas Sabonis was inducted for his international play). And who knows how his career would have went if it were not for allergies!

Thanks to Keith Langlois of Pistons.com and Steve Addy and Jeffrey F. Karzen’s great book The Detroit Pistons: More Than Four Decades of Motor City Memories for the great quotes for this piece.

BASKETBALL LEGEND: Drew Gooden missed three games due to infected hair follicles.

STATUS: Misleading Enough That I’m Going With False

It is plainly (if sometimes even painfully) evident that we live in a world of sound bites – information parceled into easy-to-understand descriptions. The problem, though, is when these easy-to-understand descriptions are inaccurate, or at the very least, lacking important pieces of information. That problem becomes exacerbated when news is created based on other people reacting to these incomplete sound bites. This is especially troublesome nowadays with the proliferation of social media like Twitter, where ill-informed people can spout off reactions to incomplete information. A sports-related example of this was during the 2011 National Football League playoffs. In the National Football Conference championship game, the quarterback of the Chicago Bears, Jay Cutler, left the game due to a knee injury and his team lost a close game with their third-string quarterback taking the snaps (as Cutler’s back-up was also injured in the game). Whatever the severity of Cutler’s knee injury, there were people who wished to react to the sight of Cutler standing on the sidelines later in the game. A number of players from other teams tweeted derisive comments about Cutler’s ability to play through pain. Clearly, they knew no more about his injury than anyone else watching the game on television, and yet they felt like they could pass judgment upon Cutler’s drive and willingness to play through pain. Heck, maybe they were even correct and Cutler’s injury was something most NFL players would have played through in such a big game, but whatever the situation, they clearly did not know the full facts before choosing to put Cutler down.

This brings us to the time that NBA forward Drew Gooden, then playing for the Orlando Magic in 2004, missed three games due to what was then termed “infected hair follicles.”

Even today, eight years later, Drew Gooden’s injury routinely appears in articles with titles like “Top 10 Embarrassing Sports Injuries” and “10 Really Bizarre Sports Injuries” (as well as some more offensive message board discussions, which I’ll just say include a number of homophobic declarations about Gooden’s injury). At the time, Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sun-Sentinel discussed the injury with former NFL-great Jack Youngblood (who once played in a game with a broken leg), and the discussion was mostly mocking Gooden’s fragility, with Youngblood exclaiming, “I’m sorry, but that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. That may be the all-timer. Lie if you have to and call it a hamstring, but don’t admit that you’re sitting out with a hair follicle” and Bianchi referring to Gooden’s injury as “the wimpiest injury in Magic history.”

Naturally, Gooden’s injury was a good deal more severe than anyone could understand at the time, to the point where its continued inclusion in “wacky sports injuries” lists is a great disservice to what Gooden went through. Read on to see what actually happened to Gooden…

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacterium that results in dangerous infections in humans. As it is part of the Staphylococcal infection family, it can generally be referred to as a “staph infection.” Staph infections historically tend to target people recovering in hospitals, due to the amount of open wounds and invasive devices that welcome infection, as well as the weakened immune systems that result in the bacteria causing an infection. Highly contagious, the bacteria can be carried by healthy people for weeks (in some cases, even years!), infecting anyone they come into contact with.

While historically hospitals and nursing homes tend to be the most common places for staph outbreaks, in recent years many other populations have become known as “high risk,” including students staying in dormitories, prisoners (Folsom Prison had an outbreak in 2007) and athletes who spend a great deal of time working out in confined spaces, like NBA players working out in their gyms.

As you might have noticed from the name, this particular staph infection is resistant to many antibiotics. Cuts get infected frequently, but they are treated and the infection goes away. That was the situation that Drew Gooden found himself in in 2004. He developed an infection in the hair follicles on his leg (most likely from an ingrown leg hair, but I can’t say for sure). Like most MRSA infections, it initially presented itself as small red bumps that resemble pimples, spider bites, or boils. In Gooden’s case, they presumed it was spider bites. They gave him some antibiotics and he tried to play through it.

In 2006, Gooden spoke on the subject:

I was in the most pain that I have ever felt ever in my life. I kept playing on it, thinking it was going to heal but the infection got worse and worse to the point where my leg swelled up and I couldn’t bend my knee.

They repeatedly drained Gooden’s infection until they eventually took him to the hospital where he received direst intravenous injection of antibiotics for a few days. After 72 hours of treatment, the bacteria was defeated and Gooden returned to health (and NBA action for the Magic).

Much like concussions, the public seems to be only now starting to understand the severity of staph infections, particularly MRSA ones like Gooden had. Will it eventually lead to Gooden’s injury no longer being seen as something to be embarrassed by? One could only hope!

Thanks to Tom Withers and Mike Bianchi for their articles on the subject!

BASKETBALL LEGEND: Dick Grubar was prepared to commit to playing at Kentucky until Adolph Rupp made a personal visit to his family.

STATUS: True

One of the most powerful tools that a college coach has in recruiting players is the home visit. Especially the famous coaches, those that have won multiple titles and are legends in their own times. In fact, these visits are so persuasive that the NCAA nowadays limits them (so Nick Saban can’t show up at your house constantly to convince you to come play for him).

Back in the 1960s, though, there was more or less free reign, and coaches like The University of Kentucky’s Aolph Rupp, at the time the coach with the most wins in college basketball history, drew in players like honey drawing in flies.

Amazingly enough, though, in the case of Dick Grubar, it was Rupp who turned him from a “yes” on Kentucky to a “no.”

Grubar was a highly recruited high school player out of Schenectady, New York. He was friends with Pat Riley, who was a few years older than Grubar and a star player at Kentucky. Riley told Grubar he had to come to Kentucky. They worshiped basketball players there. Grubar was on board.

And then Adolph Rupp visited Schenectady for a Christmas Basketballl Tournament.

Grubar later recalled the visit, “He never talked about any of his players. All he talked about was all of his own success. It was all about him. It was unbelievable.”

Grubar also noted his discomfort with the size of Rupp’s entourage when they visited the Grubars’ humble abode, “There must have been 15-16 people. And they all decided to come to my house. At my house, you could maybe sit six people comfortably. But Rupp brought all these people into my house, and at the time it really embarrassed my parents. They had all these people just standing around because we didn’t have chairs for them. It never even bothered Rupp, though. He just continued to talk about himself, what he’d done and how many wins he had.”

So Grubar changed his mind and opened himself up to other schools, ultimately choosing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose young coach, Dean Smith, was prepared to let the six foot four Grubar play point guard (other schools thought he was too tall to be a guard). Grubar helped lead UNC to its first three Final Four appearances, although he did not win a title with UNC.

Injuries derailed Grubar’s chance at a professional basketball career. He worked as an assistant coach for a number of years before leaving basketball for good to become a businessman and later a politician in North Carolina (Greensboro, to be precise).

Years later, Grubar counseled Dean Smith to stick with his coaching long enough so that Smith would pass Rupp in the all-time wins category. Smith did just that, passing Rupp before Smith retired in 1997 (Smith himself has since been passed by three other coaches).

Thanks to Scott Fowler and Woody Durham’s book, North Carolina Tar Heels: Where Have You Gone?, for the great Grubar quotes.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

3 Responses to “Basketball Urban Legends Revealed #14”

  1. Gooden actually had MRSA? That is seriously Bad News. (Been there, done that.) Nothing funny about it.

  2. Yep. And he got made fun of for it!!! Totally ridiculous.

  3. http://www.freeharmonicalessons.com

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