He’s not exactly Bill Clinton on a mission to free American hostages, but given the success rate of U.S. diplomacy in North Korea so far, perhaps anything is worth a try.
Dennis Rodman, former NBA bad boy, aka “The Worm,” took off on a plane from Beijing on Tuesday in an attempt to create some kind of bridge to the world’s most isolated nation -- via basketball.
Rodman, three players from the Harlem Globetrotters, and a film crew from the Vice media company are visiting North Korea to shoot footage for a TV show slated to air on HBO in April, Vice told the Associated Press shortly before the crew boarded the plane in Beijing.
Of their plans in the communist country, Vice said they would try to initiate some "basketball diplomacy" by running a sports camp for Korean kids and challenging locals to games. They have also arranged an exhibition match with what are said to be North Korea's best athletes. Vice told AP they hope the game might be attended by North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” Kim Jong-un.
"At a time when tensions between the two countries are running high, it's important to keep lines of cultural communication open, no matter how non-traditional those channels may be," Vice Founder Shane Smith, told AP. "It's important to show North Koreans that America is not their enemy, and playing a game we both love is a step in the right direction."
In South Korea, the news that Rodman and co. would be visiting their hostile neighbors to the north -- with whom the country is officially still at war – was received with surprise and skepticism. Headlines in local press read, “NBA’s Enfant Terrible Going to NK?” and “Why is Roadman Going to Pyongyang?” Most local stories in Seoul on Tuesday suggested the visit was untimely, in that it’s been just two weeks since the North’s most recent nuclear test, which Western leaders said would only further isolate the country.
According to AP, the U.S. state department wasn’t contacted by Vice in advance of the visit. The news service quoted a senior administration official saying that the department does not vet US citizens' private travel to North Korea.
For Rodman, it’s an odd and flamboyant episode in a career consistently comprised of unpredictable antics. Widely regarded as one of the greatest rebounders and defensive players in basketball history, Rodman was tabloid and late-night TV fodder throughout his playing days – often more famous for his neon hair and frequent ejection from games than the actual playing of them. He won five NBA championships, but also dated Madonna, married Carmen Electra, was booked for domestic disturbances and spent some time in rehab.
In the late 1990s he briefly dabbled in acting, appearing opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in the pulpy fight flick Double-Team. The film earned three Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst New Star, Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Screen Couple (extended that year to include the non-romantic partner roles played by Van Damme and Rodman). He also dabbled in professional wrestling throughout the early oughts. More recently he’s made appearances on the reality TV circuit, appearing in Celebrity Big Brother, Love Island, and Celebrity Apprentice.
Over the past year though, Rodman has presented a more introspective side of himself to the public eye. When he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, he gave a lengthy heartfelt acceptance speech, often breaking down into tears while thanking those that had helped him during his career’s many low points – a speech many commentators at the time said was one of the most moving they had seen in sports. And last week, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Rodman became choked up while discussing the recent death of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, whom Rodman said was like a father to him.
Basketball is wildly popular in the sports and discipline-focused culture of North Korea. Despite the near absolute ban on foreign media, many of the game’s greatest players are known by name (Kim Jong-il was also know to be a great fan of Michael Jordan in his heyday). Whatever welcome Rodman – with his bleached hair, tattooed neck and hoop-pierced nose – receives from the Hermit Kingdom's incredibly isolated locals, it will all be captured on camera and coming soon to HBO.
Hyo-Won Lee contributed to this report.