I have blogged before about losing my younger brother Donnie and his fiancee Marcie to a drunk driver here and here.
Donnie was 23 years old when he was killed in 1988, 23 years ago this July. Hard to believe, when put in those terms. But what I haven't told you about, until now, is what this has to do with Dennis Rodman. You see, in 1988 - long before his five World Championship rings (two with The Pistons and 3 with the Bulls), and before he became known for his rainbow-colored hair, an assortment of tattoos and body piercings and wearing women's clothing - he was simply "The Worm", a young rebounding phenom and original member of the Detroit Piston's Bad Boys. The Piston were coming off of their best season ever to that point, having eventually lost in 7 games to the 1988 World Champion Lakers.
Nobody was looking forward to that next season more than Donnie. He loved the Pistons, but most of all, he loved Dennis Rodman.
Perhaps it's easier if I post the following column that ran on February 8, 1989, in the Flint Journal (re-typed from a yellowed original I keep in a box on a closet shelf). Dean, I realize I didn't get your permission to post this, so just drop me a line if you want me to pull it. I just know I couldn't tell this story better.
Warmest Regards Rodman's reply touches grieving familyThe Pistons went on to win the Championship that year, sweeping the Lakers for their first of back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990.
By DEAN HOWE
Journal sports writer
Letters can say so much.
I know there is nothing I can say to relieve your pain and grief. From what you've told me, your brother was a very special person. Your love for him and all the good memories you still have are obvious.
Your letter reminds us that our time is limited, so we must make the most of it. I try to demonstrate that when I play basketball. I would like to think that's the quality Donnie identified with.
Thanks for sharing those memories with me.
Rick Carlson went to the mailbox and opened up that letter late last month.
He was surprised.
Carlson's younger brother, Donnie, was a loyal fan of the Detroit Pistons, and Dennis Rodman, the Piston's super sixth man, in particular.
All of the Carlson family had looked forward to showing up at The Palace this winter, to cheer on Dennis "Worm" Rodman.
"Donnie couldn't stop thinking about the Pistons and the great year they just had," said older brother Rick. "We were playing golf last July, all us Carlson brothers. Nobody was thinking about basketball except Donnie. He couldn't stop talking about how much fun it would be to go to The Palace this year.
A few days after that golf outing, a tragic accident would take the life of Donnie, 23, and his fiancee, Marcie martin, 21.
A pickup truck ran a red light and smashed into the Carlson vehicle.
Two families mourned and still mourn today.
This is no ordinary fan letter. I read recently that you receive so many letters from fans that you have had to have a firm help you answer them. This letter needs no answer. I would only like you to personally see it.
See, it's about my brother Donnie, 23 years old last summer when he died. Don was the youngest of five children... we're a close family. If there is a closer family in the history of the world, I don't know about it...
Rick Carlson needed to write a letter to Dennis Rodman, for his family, for his peace of mind.
He had been thinking about it since Donnie's death. So, early last month he got the courage to sit down and express his thoughts. They were emotional, touching, from the heart.
Seven pages of feeling by pen and paper.
"I didn't want anyone to see this but Dennis," said Rick. "I wasn't looking for a response.This was just so personal to me I had to write it. I was preoccupied at work. I didn't think I'd hear from him."
But Rodman got the message and he responded.
A few days after writing the letter - Carlson can't remember when he sent it out - a call came from Rodman's agent's secretary.
And then came the letter which touched so many deeply in the Carlson family.
P'S. On Sunday, Feb. 5 vs. Chicago on CBS, I will try (technically against NBA rules) to wear a black stripe on one sock in memory of Donnie.
Rodman also said he would provide two tickets for the Carlsons, his guest at Sunday's game against the Chicago Bulls. Rick managed to scrounge up a couple more tickets and when the national television lights brightened The Palace, there were the Carlsons - father Donald Sr., Rick, Jerry and Greg, 15 rows up in the stands.
Watching Dennis do his thing with one black-striped sock.
It occured to me a couple weeks after the accident that I should write and tell you about Donnie. I knew then that this year would have been special for Donnie and that all eyes would be on you. Every time Worm made a play, grabbed a rebound, dunked on a layup, whatever, all of the family would get a tear in the eye, a lump in the throat and pay a quiet tribute to Donnie for his choice as favorite Piston player.
I didn't write then because, as I said before, I don't write fan letters. I thought it might upset you for no reason, thinking you couldn't do anything for our grief. But you can. Just continue to play the same inspired way you have been playing.
The game had been over for almost an hour at The Palace Sunday afternoon when Dennis Rodman emerged from the locker room to seek out the person who had written him one of the many letters he receives in a week.
The letter had left an impact.
Rodman took a father aside shook his hand warmly and spoke in soft tones. He met Rick and shook his hand. The others too.
"It's not so much what he said but what he didn't say that mattered to us," said Carlson. "We could see that he was a genuine, sincere, a feeling kind of human being. We were touched. I think Dennis was too."
Rodman dug into his duffel bag and pulled out one sweaty sock with a black elastic band stitched to the top.
The National Basketball Association would not penalize him for breaking any rules. Only Rodman, a father and his three sons had noticed the stitched tribute anyway.
By writing this letter, I'm going to believe during so many of the special moments watching you play that your inspiration just might be in some small part due to this letter and that some of what you are doing is being done for Donnie and Marcie and those of us left behind.
"I feel better now that I wrote the letter," said Carlson. "I didn't want to make it embarrassing for him. That wasn't my intent. I just wanted to let him know how much Donnie admired him as a basketball player."
Two letters sent in the night.
Perhaps the only two letters ever between new friends, the Carlsons and one pro basketball player.
They have become pen pals for life.
Right or wrong, it's my fault this personal story was told. I was so taken with the kindness Dennis showed us, that I thought others should know of this Bad Boy's heart of gold. As an employee of the newspaper, and in a fit of impulse, I took the marbeled stairs up from Circulation to the newsroom. I sought out Howe in the Sports department, sat across from his cluttered desk and told him this story. It never occurred to me that I could be earning Dennis a fine, nor that I probably should have asked my big brother for permission to tell his story he had meant to be private. Thankfully (as far as I know) Dennis avoided punishment and Ricky has never chastised me for doing this to this day.
I'll never forget waiting for Rodman to exit the locker room. Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson exited first, wearing a full length fur coat, glittering bling and topped with a cool fedora as he made his way through the garage. Rodman must have confided in his fellow "X Factor" partner, John Salley, about us. Salley came out and made his way to Greg and I. His hand was the size of a small snow shovel, as he shook our hands. He looked down at us smiling, and asked, "Are you two twins or did your mom mess up twice?" He must not have spotted Rick at that point or he would have sworn triplets. My most cherished memory of that day was when Rodman finally exited the locker room and made his way to our father, taking him aside and offering his condolences. I know it meant a lot to my dad. He died about a year later. The doctors said it was the result of mesothelioma, a cancer casued by asbestos he ingested some 40 years earlier on a construction job in his youth, but we all know he really died from a broken heart.
So come April 1st of this year, when #10 is raised to the rafters, I know I'll be thinking of my brother "The Donz" and the special gift Dennis Rodman gave us so long ago. It is truly "one of the highlights of my life."
PICTURED: A signed autographed picture by Isiah Thomas driving the basket on Michael Jordan, with Worm and his black-striped sock positioning for the rebound during the February 5th, 1989 game between the Pistons and the Bulls. I was there... (Picture courtesy of my pal Pic Pic)