The question “where are they now?” asked about former NBA stars could not be more apt for former rebounding king Dennis Rodman this week. That’s because Rodman is traveling to North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters and a film crew — they landed in Beijing today — in an effort to coach in basketball camps and play some games, with the hope that dear leader Kim Jong Un will show up.
Sending Rodman to North Korea is utterly bizarre, but it’s also sort of a genius stroke to send to Un a basketball player the U.S. no longer has use for but whom was a famed part of the Chicago Bulls team Un reportedly worshiped growing up. In a 2009 report by the Washington Post that described Un’s two years at school in Switzerland — a story that sounds hilariously like my own mid-90s, NBA-on-NBC-loving childhood minus my father not being an oppressive nation-leading despot. According to that story, Un even got pictures with Toni Kukoc and Kobe Bryant and wore basketball shoes often.
Back to present-day, however. The AP breaks down the scene in pre-Rodman Pyongyang, and let’s just say I’m skeptical the nation that has 28 state-approved haircuts (that’s not a joke) is ready for Rodman.
Shown a photo of a snarling Rodman, piercings dangling from his lower lip and two massive tattoos emblazoned on his chest, one North Korean in Pyongyang recoiled and said: “He looks like a monster!”
But Rodman is also a Hall of Fame basketball player and one of the best defenders and rebounders to ever play the game. During a storied, often controversial career, he won five NBA championships – a feat that quickly overshadowed his antics for at least one small North Korean group of basketball fans.
Along with soccer, basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it’s not uncommon to see basketball hoops set up in hotel parking lots or in schoolyards. It’s a game that doesn’t require much equipment or upkeep.
The U.S. remains Enemy No. 1 in North Korea, and North Koreans have limited exposure to American pop culture. But they know Michael Jordan, a former teammate of Rodman’s when they both played for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
During a historic visit to North Korea in 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented Kim Jong Il, famously an NBA fan, with a basketball signed by Jordan that later went on display in the huge cave at Mount Myohyang that holds gifts to the leaders.
Of course the timing is serious, just weeks after North Korea launched a missle, flouting every rule the international community is holding the country to after previous missile tests. Because of it, and a sense of decorum that would rarely put the country’s leader into company with foreigners — let alone the Harlem Globetrotters, a VICE film crew and The Worm — Un is a sure bet not to show up. That Post report revealed, however, that he probably wishes he could because of his love for the game.
He fell in with a group of mostly immigrant kids who shared his love of the National Basketball Association. Kovacevic, who shot hoops with the North Korean most days, said Pak Un was a fiercely competitive player.
“He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker,” said Kovacevic, who now works as a tech specialist in the Swiss army. “If I wasn’t sure I could make a shot, I always knew he could.”
What do you think of the plan?
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