Fred Paulsen and Ralph Newton can describe the dunk like it happened yesterday.
Paulsen coached Huron College to the 1986 NAIA men’s basketball tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, and it was feeling good after an opening-round win over Quincy College (Ill.).
Huron College was set to face Southeastern Oklahoma State and its bouncy forward in the next round. The Tribe then got a glimpse into the future.
At that moment, Dennis Rodman was light years away from tattoos, pierced ears, dyed-hair and his flamboyant personality. It was before he became a household name and a central figure in ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary currently airing about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
In 1986, Rodman was a little-known NAIA power forward, but he made a lasting impression and an early statement against the Tribe. Huron misfired on an early shot, Rodman corralled the rebound and kicked an outlet pass to the opposite side of the court.
“The guy coming down the floor was on the side of our benches and all of a sudden, he just threw a pass out of nowhere, which I thought ‘What is he doing?’ ” Paulsen recalled.
The Southeastern player knew what he was doing and so did Rodman, whose 6-foot-7 springy frame came soaring through the air.
“Here comes Rodman out of nowhere,” Paulsen continued. “I mean out of nowhere. He one-hand grabbed it and just threw it through. Slammed it. I called timeout immediately because it was nothing like we had ever seen before and I just reminded the guys, ‘Hey, it’s only two points and we have to move on.’ ”
Newton, then a sophomore forward, painted a similar picture of Rodman’s rim-rattling dunk and it’s also etched in his brain.
“It looks like he’s just gliding,” Newton said. “He caught it with one hand and went down and just flushed it and we were looking like ‘Oh my God.’ I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was just unreal.”
‘Freak of an athlete’
The slam dunk set the stage for a dominating performance by Rodman. He erupted for 31 points and 20 rebounds in a 79-66 victory over Huron, which was representing the South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference in the NAIA tournament.
One year after going 8-19, Huron College posted its 28th win after knocking off Quincy College. The Tribe was powered by Dennis Smith, Herman Braxton, Felton Beckette and Jeff Norman, all of whom were top players in the U.S. Marine Corps before heading to Huron. The quartet helped Huron capture the SDIC tournament crown over South Dakota Tech and a spot in the District 12 tournament. After outlasting Minot State in triple overtime in the district semifinals, the Tribe defeated Rocky Mountain College (Mont.) in front of more than 6,000 fans at the Huron Arena in the final.
Behind Smith’s 26 points, Huron pulled away from Quincy for a 90-77 victory in the NAIA’s opening round. It led to the Tribe’s matchup against the future Hall of Fame forward and five-time NBA champion.
Rodman was a few months away from being drafted 27th overall by the Detroit Pistons, but Paulsen could see he was oozing with potential and said “he was a freak of an athlete.”
“We played a good schedule, but nobody in the SDIC had anybody like that,” Paulsen said about Rodman. “Northern State didn’t have anybody like that, and if we played one of the North Central Conference teams, they didn’t have anybody like that. We certainly didn’t have anybody like that.”
The Savages built a 30-23 halftime lead, with Rodman recording 16 points and 13 rebounds at the break. Paulsen switched up his defense and put Newton, who was also an NAIA All-American linebacker, on Rodman in the second half.
“It was a physical battle,” said Newton, who at 6-foot-4, was giving up three inches to Rodman. “That was my style. Back in those days you could use the forearms and you could bump. It was just a physical game. I did my best trying to keep him off the boards and slow him down as much as we could.”
Huron stayed within striking distance in the second half. Norman converted a 3-point play as the Tribe trailed 38-36 with 15 minutes left. But Southeastern answered with seven straight points -- three by Rodman -- for a 45-36 advantage.
“We battled with them and we were in the game the whole way through,” said Newton, who still lives in Huron. “Rodman did everything like he did when he was drafted. He ran like a deer. He was a fighter.”
Rodman, who racked up 212 technicals in the NBA, then drew one on Paulsen. Rodman altered a shot at the rim and Paulsen still contends to this day it should have been whistled for a violation.
“It was goaltending,” said Paulsen, who is now an assistant principal in Coloma, Michigan. “We were still in the game and I followed that official all the way down the sidelines and it took a lot to get (a technical).”
It didn’t matter as the Tribe lost and finished the season 28-3. Braxton led Huron with 18 points, while Smith finished with 12 points. Norman added 11 points and Beckette logged 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
The Savages edged Southwestern (Texas), 58-55, in the next round. Southeastern fell to eventual national runner-up Arkansas-Monticello, 67-61, in the semifinals. Tennessee’s David Lipscomb College, which was coached by future Northern State coach Don Meyer, won the 1986 NAIA national championship.
Rodman showcased his rebounding and defensive prowess at the tournament. He exploded for 46 points and an NAIA tournament record 32 rebounds in Southeastern’s 75-74 win over New York’s St. Thomas Aquinas for third place.
Rodman led the tournament in points (27.4) and rebounds (19) per game, displaying his constant energy that’s again been revisited in the ESPN documentary.
“He was an awesome rebounder,” Paulsen said. “The things you see in this (documentary) where he keeps the ball going, he was very good at that and the guy could run. I remember some coaches sitting around one night and they were talking about if we lined everybody up on the end line -- of all the players -- he would win hands down.”
Rodman was a three-time All-American, joined on the 1986 first-team by Central Arkansas forward and future teammate Scottie Pippen.
The 1986 game wasn’t the last encounter between Rodman and Paulsen, who was an assistant coach on the 1979 Michigan State national championship team led by Magic Johnson. Paulsen returned to Michigan to work basketball camps and assisted with a Rodman-sponsored camp during his early years with the Detroit Pistons.
Paulsen saw a different side of Rodman that’s been chronicled again in the ESPN documentary, which airs each Sunday through May 18.
“He was a pied piper -- I am telling you -- everywhere he went the kids would follow him,” Paulsen said. “Before he did some of his stranger things, he was just a normal guy. He took the staff to lunch every day and asked questions and let us ask questions. I thought he was quite the guy.”