In 1995, Nelson Mandela used the power of sport to unite bitterly divided groups in a show of supreme courage that set a nation on the path to reconciliation. Dennis Rodman is not Nelson Mandela, and an exhibition game of basketball between North Korea and a team of retired professional basketball players is not the rugby World Cup.
The media swell of outrage continues to highlight the tour of poor taste on which Rodman and his crew of basketball retirees have embarked upon, to a country with the worst human rights record in the world, to play basketball in celebration of its dictator Kim Jong Un’s birthday.
Perhaps it was equally as incongruous, however, that he might provide a direct link to peace talks between two nations about as far apart – politically – as it gets, a role he never really asked for. Ironically, there are few people in the world better placed to do it.
Rodman, the man
Rodman is a contradiction dressed in feathers; he is irony with piercings. As a teammate, he was reportedly a loner. Reluctant to mingle, he communicated very little, and when he did, he was often difficult to follow. After games played in the gruelling 82-game NBA season, it was said that he’d punish a stationary bike for a full hour, alone. Sweating bullets while his teammates sat together strapped to ice packs, he’d skip the showers and instead whack on nothing but a leather jacket and a pair of jeans and hit the underground nightclub scene.
On the court however — when he wasn’t reading magazines or taking naps on the bench — everything he contributed was for the betterment of the team. With very little to offer as a scorer, Rodman shone a light on some of the less-popular aspects of the game. He did the dirty work, and became a star for it.
Amid the controversy of his coloured hair, tattoos and piercings, Rodman won five NBA championships and a record seven-straight rebounding titles. Standing at 6’7”, he was often giving up seven inches in height to opponents.
He was named best defensive player in the league twice, again having to regularly shut down players bigger than he in every sense. For Rodman, his offering to a team was immeasurable, but his game and his attitude have always been about survival, about finding places where he felt he could fit in and exist.
Overcoming a challenging past
Considering the level of rejection he experienced in his life — his father left when he was five and his mother kicked him out onto the streets as a teenager — not to mention the outlandish fashions he has felt most comfortable in, and his growing list of indiscretions, arrests, bizarre behavioural outbursts and bad press, those places were seldom in the light of day.
Kim Jong-un, who spent time studying in Europe as a teenager, is reported to be a huge NBA fan, particularly of the 1990s era, when Rodman and the Bulls ruled the league. Considering all of this, it’s less of a stretch to see where the pair found some common ground to start from — I doubt it was Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Rodman is not a diplomat: he’s a sportsman and an entertainer, happy to perform for those willing to pay for the pleasure. He gave a teary-eyed and broken-up speech at his induction into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2011, where he claimed that his unlikely basketball career saved him from a life of drug-dealing, gang-banging and an almost certain early departure from this mortal coil. His stints as an N.W.O. Wrestler, B-grade action movie star alongside Jean Claude Van Damme, and reality TV personality, not to mention stories about his relationship with Madonna and marriage to Carmen Electra have kept him in work.
Does his latest job seem that far removed at the top of his CV? Ultimately the man they fittingly call The Worm remains the only known American in recent history to have spent time with, and gone some way to understanding the North Korean dictator. His trip may not have led to the freeing of any prisoners, or opening of dialogues, and although his motives and his past may be questionable, the issue remains: could this unlikely link between the two nations yet have something to offer?