Like millions of viewers around the country, Carmen Electra was enthralled last Sunday during the premiere of “The Last Dance,” the epic docuseries about Michael Jordan’s last championship season with the Chicago Bulls. Watching from her bed, Electra became so excited by the pounding action and slam dunks that “I wanted to get up and cheer.”
That’s where Electra’s similarity with most viewers ends.
Taking in the first two chapters in the 10-part series became emotional for the actress, former Playboy model and MTV host, stirring up vivid memories of that pivotal 1997-98 season when she first became involved with Dennis Rodman, the team’s key defensive player and eccentric free spirit. Their torrid romance, fueled by outrageous behavior and marathon alcohol-soaked parties in Las Vegas, was a headline-grabbing sideshow to the Bulls’ quest to win their sixth championship.
“Seeing Dennis back on the court brought tears to my eyes,” Electra said in an interview from her Los Angeles home.
Their red-hot union would eventually burn out — the couple divorced less than a year after getting married in 1998 during an all-night bender in Vegas. Though they were no longer a couple, they stayed in touch, and both were arrested in 1999 and charged with misdemeanor battery for a physical altercation at a Miami Beach hotel.
Although she says during an interview in the documentary that being Rodman’s girlfriend during that season was “definitely an occupational hazard,” her continuing fondness for him was evident when she recalled their time together.
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“I have no regrets at all,” she told The Times. “I saw all these different sides of Dennis. He would always say, ‘No one understands me. No one gets me.’ He was very emotional at times. Then there was the sweet romantic side and the fun, eccentric guy who loved to go out and drink and wear feathered boas.
“But on the court, he was a savage.”
The documentary’s fourth chapter chronicles Rodman’s unauthorized absence from the Bulls for several days after coach Phil Jackson — despite Jordan’s warnings — reluctantly granted the tattooed athlete a few days to blow off stream. The chapter describes Rodman and Electra partying heavily in Vegas during his break. She now says she was unaware of the circumstances behind his departure, and how he later extended his hiatus without permission.
Rodman at that time had arranged for a plane to bring her to Vegas: “Dennis had these rituals to celebrate, and he celebrated in a big way. We were drinking shots. Everywhere we went, people would follow. I always called him the Pied Piper. You couldn’t miss him with his colored hair and tattoos. We would hit the strip club, then after-hours clubs. We were having a blast.”
Heightening their spectacle was Electra’s own celebrity. She was a star on “Baywatch,” and her form-fitting swimsuits won her legions of fans. She was a former protege of Prince, and had also appeared several times in Playboy before she met Rodman.
After their Vegas whirlwind, the couple returned to Chicago. Said Electra, “Dennis was very humble. He had a small house and a truck. There was a couch in the living room. He threw a mattress on the floor, and that’s where we slept.”
Meanwhile, Jackson and Jordan were becoming increasingly incensed by Rodman’s disappearing act. “I had no idea of all the behind-the-scenes drama,” she said. “I had no idea Michael Jordan was freaking out.”
One morning, someone started pounding on Rodman’s door. “I was hungover and we were naked on the floor,” Electra recalled. “Dennis gets up to answer, and there’s Michael Jordan! I got up and tried to hide. I knew Dennis was in trouble. That was a big deal and a shock to me.”
The actress had not been a sports fan when she first met Rodman at a Los Angeles nightclub. She and her friends were leaving at the same time the player and his friends were entering. Someone grabbed Electra’s coat and took it inside, hiding it behind the bar.
“I’m yelling, ‘Give me my coat back,’ and they said no,” said Electra. “Then Dennis leans over and says, ‘What do you want to drink?’ My friends said, ‘Fine, let’s have a drink.’ We ended up exchanging numbers. I didn’t return his calls for a long time. Then I finally did.”
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Electra knew who Rodman was. “He was the bad boy of basketball. He dated Madonna. The next thing I know, he’s inviting me to get on a flight to Chicago and see him play. Seeing the Bulls play was amazing. Michael and Scottie Pippen. That first night in Chicago, Dennis told me, ‘You’re not leaving.’ After that, it was quick. We fell for each other pretty fast.”
Rodman was so taken with Electra that he tried to persuade the Bulls to allow her to ride on the team plane to road games, a request that was quickly shut down. Still, the couple were almost always together and she eased into Rodman’s turbulent lifestyle.
Said Electra, “I was in my 20s. I was down for drinking and going to the clubs. I ended up becoming one of the boys. He wanted me to go to all the games and everywhere with him. Every time I would leave Chicago, I would be on the plane and I’d start crying because I missed him.”
She disregarded warnings from her agent, manager and others about Rodman’s impact on her blossoming career. She had ignored scripts and began blowing off auditions as Rodman relentlessly wooed her.
“One day when the Bulls had an off day from practicing, Dennis said he had a surprise for me,” she said. “He blindfolds me and we get on his motorcycle. When he finally takes my blindfold off, we’re standing at the Bulls practice facility, center court. It was crazy, like two kids in a candy store. We were eating Popsicles from the fridge and pretty much having sex all over the damn place — in the physical therapy room, in the weight room. Obviously on the court.”
She bursts out laughing. “To be honest, I don’t think he’s ever worked out so hard in his life.”
Still, it was not all fun and games.
Even Electra could not tame Rodman’s shifting moods and erratic behavior. “There were those moments of ‘Where’s Dennis?’ Other team members would worry when he would run off and they couldn’t find him. There were times when all of us would go to a few bars and then we all would try to get Dennis to go back to the hotel. He would just run away and leave us. There was nothing we could do.”
Electra remembered feeling nervous when the Bulls faced off against the Indiana Pacers in a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference finals. “If Dennis didn’t have a good game, if the Bulls didn’t win, it would reflect back on me in a sense. We were both so out there.”
But it was magical when the Bulls finally beat the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals to clinch the championship, ending their “last dance” in triumph.
Said Electra, “Dennis gave me his jersey — he was always throwing his jersey to fans. I got pulled into the locker room really quickly and suddenly I’m in there with the guys. Michael Jordan is popping bottles, champagne is being poured down my throat, in my hair and on my clothes. I was honored to be allowed in there.”
These days, the couple who used to be so in love rarely speak to each other. “We have the same agent,” she said. “He sent some videos to me wanting to have lunch. Typical Dennis. So [our agent] put us on the phone for a few minutes and Dennis said hi. It was sweet.”
She is expecting to get emotional again as she continues to watch the ESPN series over the next several weeks.
“I was so honored to see them play,” she said. “There’s just no words for that era. There will never be another one like it.”