Trip to North Korea another twist in Rodman’s own strange story

Former basketball star’s life has been so bizarre up to now that he probably doesn’t find it weird to be courted by a dictator

Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game with U.S. and North Korean players at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game with U.S. and North Korean players at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

Sat, Jan 11, 2014, 14:00

In April of 1993, the Detroit Pistons basketball player Dennis Rodman was found asleep in his pick-up truck in the car park of the Auburn Hills Palace, the basketball arena in the suburbs of the failing city. A shotgun was only companion. He was hastily sent for psychiatric evaluation, the incident became a national news story and it was later interpreted by Rodman in the second of his memoirs – cheerfully entitled I Should Be Dead By Now – as the moment he contemplated taking his life and instead decided to live precisely how he wanted to.

Behind the sequins, the flamboyant cross dressing, the stark rebuttal of conventional conduct, the sexcapades with Madonna and the general aura of strangeness which has cloaked Rodman through his public life, there lay beneath the tabloid veneer a pointedly bleak story of yet another African-American youngster destined for a life on the margins of society. But for the freakish intervention of a growth-spurt and an unconventional path into the bright lights and burgeoning wealth of the NBA, he probably would have fallen long before his fifth decade.

Rodman survived that dark night of the soul and ended up joining the very squad whose players he liked to torment and infuriate –- Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. A memorable Sports Illustrated cover from 1995 showed a bemused Jordan standing beside the electra-red headed Rodman with the headline ‘Air and Space’. Rodman’s chief achievement in life is considerable: he played starting five on one of the best basketball teams ever assembled and he had the smarts and adaptability to thrive under the complex and leftfield coaching orthodoxy of Phil Jackson.

Sporting emissary
Somewhere on the West Coast, Jackson is probably half amused and half maddened by Rodman’s latest metamorphosis as sporting emissary. Rodman’s recent trip to North Korea, with a cast of almost entirely forgotten NBA players from the 1990’s is definitely a head-spinner.

Like most people, I found the idea of Rodman (now 52 years old) befriending the leader of the most notorious and unknowable political regimes on earth through basketball to be utterly bizarre and mainly inconsequential. That Irish bookmaker firm Paddy Power had initially decided to sponsor his latest basketball exhibition contributed to the notion that this was something from the further reaches of Hollywood – a cross between Zoolander and Argo as directed by the Coen brothers. The Irish broadcaster Matt Cooper, who travelled with the Rodman entourage for journalistic purposes, shed some light on the match yesterday afternoon when he spoke on his radio show.

But something about the depiction and portrayal of Rodman over the past week has made me queasy. As ever, the ‘Worm’ did himself no favours with his ill-judged response to CNN interviewer Chris Cuomo’s line of questioning about the detention of Kenneth Bae, the American citizen who is serving 15 years hard labour in North Korea.

The interview generated the global publicity and led to the general denunciation of Rodman’s ‘friendship’ with Kim Jung -un and the hypotheses on the real reasons behind it. “This one I believe was a little bit blinded by the flash of Korean money,” said David Stern, the NBA commissioner. As Stern himself noted, in the most chilling line of the entire business: “They need food. They are the most malnourished country we don’t do business with.”

Elsewhere, it was open season on Rodman. On Fox show The Five Greg Gutfield said Rodman now joined Lillian Hellman, Jane Fonda and Sean Penn on America’s long list of “totalitarian buttkissers desperately seeking recognition to disguise a defective intellect.” Republican senator John McCain described Rodman as a person of “not great intellect”. Gutfield described Rodman’s interview as being “like a dictionary having a seizure”.

Already, there was confusion as to whether it was the ethics of Rodman’s visits to North Korea were up for debate or Rodman himself. Little wonder that the Reverend Jesse Jackson has felt compelled to voice support for the possibility of Rodman’s integrity, arguing that at the very least, playing a game of challenges hoops in North Korea served the purpose of “illuminating” an opaque country.

It is hard to imagine that if a more conventional, media-smooth and – not to put too fine a point on it – white former NBA player decided to play an exhibition in North Korea that the comments would be so openly condescending. As it happened, Rodman’s entourage included Charles Smith, the former New York Knicks player who is as measured as Rodman is emotive and who, after the exhibition game took place, admitted he had mixed feelings about the trip and who seemed unnerved by the political controversy but whose reasons for being there appeared genuine.

Much debate
Rodman’s previous basketball trip to North Korea last February – accompanied by several Harlem Globetrotters and a film crew from Vice Media, attracted debate but nothing like the same vitriol.

An official from the Council of Foreign Relations was recently quoted in the Washington Post as saying that, “any interaction with North Korean invokes an element of moral hazard”. This is surely at the nub of it and the perfect opportunity for a free society to exercise its anxiety about that interaction was surely in the months ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in which North Korea’s participation generated huge curiosity but little by way of protest. Countries could have boycotted the tournament just as 28 countries did the 1976 Olympics to protest the presence of New Zealand, whose rugby team had toured apartheid South Africa. But in 2010 in South Africa, the presence of the North Koreans could be interpreted by as a validation of their place among the nations. Playing Brazil in Johannesburg carries infinitely more clout than playing Vin Baker at basketball.

Bets are open as to whether Dennis Rodman’s clumsy attempt to “open the door” to the most secretive and maligned regime on earth has been motivated by cynicism, desperation, or good old cash.

After all, this is someone who at 20 years of age was on his way to getting fired from his janitorial role in Dallas airport for petty theft: his prospects were less than zero and yet he became one of the most instantly recognisable figures in American life. His life story has been so fabulously bizarre up to now that he probably doesn’t find it all that strange that he is being courted by a dictator.

Like Rodman said in his NBA Hall of Fame speech, he is always surprised at the powers for “even just having me in the building”.

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