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
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.
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.”