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Sunday, June 9, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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After A Difficult Childhood In Projects Near Dallas, Dennis Rodman Reached A Turning Point As A Basketball Player At Southeastern Oklahoma. He Discovered A Surrogate Family That Taught Him Discipline, A Best Friend Who Taught Him Restraint, And A Game That Taught Him The Power Of Success.

The Texas State Fair is held in Dallas, about five miles from where I grew up in the Oak Cliff projects. None of the kids I hung around with had enough money to get into the fair, but we went every year.

There is an underground sewage tunnel that can take you right there. We'd crawl in through a manhole in the project and start our journey. The tunnel was wide in most places, but it stunk like you wouldn't believe. It was dark and scary, so we'd bring flashlights so we could work our way around and also so we could follow the lines that somebody had drawn years ago to mark the way.

Five miles through a sewage tunnel to the state fair? Other kids were driving in their parents' cars, probably getting all kinds of money to ride the rides and buy cotton candy. We were walking around sewage, holding our noses, trying to find the arrows with the beam of a flashlight.

That's what we had to do for fun. I think back to times like that and realize how easy everything is for me now. I think that's why I strive to make my life so difficult now. I'm not comfortable being comfortable.

I never really knew my father. He was in the Air Force in New Jersey, where I was born, and when I was 3 we packed up and came back to Dallas. We did this when my father stopped coming home.

I haven't seen my father for more than 30 years, so what's there to miss? I grew up with my mother and two younger sisters. There wasn't a male role model in my life until I got to college.

A lot of times you'll hear somebody ask an NBA player what he'd be doing if he wasn't playing basketball. The answer they get pretty often is: dead or in jail. Most of us are from poor backgrounds: no money, no father, no hope. I think that's a big reason a lot of guys make it - they're escaping through basketball.

I was homeless for about six months when I was 19. I was living in Dallas, not going to school, not really doing anything with my life. My mom was having a hard time providing for everybody, and here she had this deadbeat son sitting around the house not doing much of anything.

The problem was, I didn't have anywhere to go. I was out on the streets, just hanging. I went from house to house, staying with friends, maybe sleeping on their floor or a couch. Many nights I just walked all night, going nowhere, roaming the streets like a lost soul. Some nights I just slept on the streets.

Lonn Reisman, a coach at Southeastern Oklahoma - an NAIA school - had seen me play and was convinced I could make it. I needed to get out of Dallas, for good. I was going nowhere in a big hurry.

Southeastern Oklahoma is in Durant, a town of about 6,000 people. Compared to what I was used to, Durant was a different world, bro. A whole different world.

I noticed the difference right away. I was walking to class soon after I got there, and some jerk leaned his head out of the car window and yelled, "You go home, you black SOB." That happened a lot.

There were many times when I wanted to get back at those people, when I wanted to deal with it the only way I knew how: with violence.

I didn't, though. I didn't because there was a little kid there telling me not to.

The little kid was named Bryne Rich. I had met Bryne at the basketball camp the summer before I started school there. He was 13 and I was 22. I can remember him looking at me funny, which wasn't unusual; back in those days, I sometimes walked around with quarters in my ears. I don't know why I did it - probably just so people would think I was crazy. Anyway, Bryne and I became friends - best friends.

The Riches lived in Bokchito, about 15 miles from Durant. Before long I lived there, too. There isn't much there but dirt roads and a few farms. The Riches had a farm and Bryne's father also worked for the post office. I had a room in a dormitory on campus, but I moved in there because Bryne and I hit it off. It seemed like the thing to do.

Bryne and I had something in common from the start, as strange as it seems. We were both coming off hard times. I was trying to decide where my life was going, and Bryne was trying to deal with having shot and killed his best friend in a freak hunting accident the year before. Bryne told his parents he wanted a little brother. He got me instead.

I think we came together at the right time for both of us. I had to fight through a lot of racism living out there, and they helped me get through it. It was such an unreal scene: me, who never knew anything but the projects, living with this white family, getting up at 5 in the morning to milk cows or do some other chore.

They're one of the major reasons I got to where I am. I don't know what would have happened if I would have had to deal with all that by myself.

Bryne is still my best friend.

He helps to run my construction company - Rodman Excavation in Frisco, Texas - and we talk all the time. We both went through a lot together, and that's a strong bond.

Eventually, I was accepted in the community at Southeastern because I could play basketball. That's when I first saw the power that comes with having a little success.

That was the first time I was able to see through people, into what they were really thinking. You would have had to be dead not to see that.

I don't forget my roots. I never have. I always go back and drive through or walk through Oak Cliff when I'm down there. I visualized what happened there and what I did to overcome it. I go back there for perspective, because sometimes I need it. It keeps me hungry and keeps me grounded.

I loved coming in as the guy nobody had ever heard of. I didn't care. During my first training camp with the Pistons, a reporter came up to me after a practice and asked, "Who are you?" I looked up at this dude and said: "I'm nobody, straight out of nowhere."

From the book "Bad As I Wanna Be." Copyright 1996 by Dennis Rodman. Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte Press, an imprint of Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. $22.95.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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