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Dennis Rodman continues 'basketball diplomacy' mission with exhibition game

Dennis Rodman attends an event in 2013.
Photo by Andrew H. Walker

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman held an exhibition basketball game in North Korea earlier this month as part of his mission to promote the sport and possibly soften relations between the communist country and the United States. In what has been a very controversial year for the five-time NBA champion, Rodman has made multiple visits to North Korea to carry out his mission of achieving what he calls “basketball diplomacy.” Rodman announced his plans to set up basketball games in North Korea back in September after he returned from his second trip to the country.

The game was played on Jan. 8 with Rodman leading a team of former NBA players against a top North Korean senior national team. Rodman’s team included Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker, all of which are former NBA All-Stars. Rodman was also joined by Craig Hodges, Doug Christie and former New York Knicks player Charles D. Smith. The game was viewed by a crowd of about 14,000 and was held at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium. Also in attendance was Kim Jong Un. Kim is North Korea’s young authoritarian leader and a good friend of Rodman's. After playing in the first half, in which the North Korean team outscored the American team 47-39, Rodman sat out the remainder of the game and took a seat next to Kim, the latter whom was also celebrating his birthday. Rodman even sang “Happy Birthday” to the North Korean leader before the start of the game. The event lasted for two hours and the crowd was visibly pleased with what it was getting.

By putting the event together, Rodman was able to stay true to his word and carry out his intentions, but it wasn’t easy. He admitted to the media that some of the players he had reached out to for the game were reluctant to make the trip. Specific reasons why were not disclosed. Furthermore, Paddy Power PLC, an Irish betting company that Rodman had hoped would provide the sponsorship for the event, decided to back out and cut its ties with the Hall of Famer. Fortunately, however, the company still honored all of the contractual agreements it had previously made. The game also took place just a few weeks after Kim made national headlines by opting to have his own uncle, and former mentor, executed for various crimes he had been accused of. Despite all of these setbacks, Rodman acknowledged that he would continue with his plans.

Members of Rodman’s team, the players who did show up, said they saw an opportunity to connect with a country that has always been so isolated. Rodman, 52, has openly expressed his refusal to talk of political relations and has instead decided to keep the focus on the game of basketball.

Rodman began his NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, with whom he won two championships in 1989 and 1990. His NBA career came to an end in 2000.

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