PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Former NBA star Dennis Rodman brought his basketball skills and flamboyant style — neon-bleached hair, tattoos, nose studs and all — on Tuesday to the isolated Communist country with possibly the world’s drabbest dress code: North Korea.
Arriving in Pyongyang, the American athlete and showman known as “The Worm” became an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Or maybe not so unlikely: Young leader Kim Jong Un is said to have been a fan of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, when Rodman won three championships with the club.
Rodman is joining three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team for a Vice Media production to air on HBO in early April, Vice founder Shane Smith told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview before the group’s departure from Beijing.
Smith said the Americans hope to engage in a little “basketball diplomacy” by running a basketball camp for children and playing pickup games with locals, and by competing alongside top athletes of North Korea — formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes,” said Smith, who is host of the upcoming series. “But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.”
Rodman might seem an odd fit for an impoverished country where male fashion rarely ventures beyond military khaki and growing facial hair is forbidden. During his heyday in the 1990s, Rodman was a poster boy for excess. He called his 1996 autobiography “Bad as I Wanna Be” — and showed up wearing a wedding dress to promote it.
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.
“When I discussed with Dennis the invite to go to North Korea and meet with Kim Jong (Un) and the Korean national basketball team as part of a documentary for HBO, he knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a fun shoot around playing basketball and would give him the chance to speak directly to Kim Jong (Un) that the only way to go is with peace not war,” said Darren Prince, Rodman’s agent.
Rodman’s trip is the second high-profile American visit this year to North Korea, a country that remains in a state of war with the U.S. It also comes two weeks after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in defiance of U.N. bans against atomic and missile activity.
Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a surprise four-day trip in January to Pyongyang, where he met with officials and toured computer labs, just weeks after North Korea launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket.
Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and others consider both the rocket launch and the nuclear test provocative acts that threaten regional security.
North Korea characterizes the satellite launch as a peaceful bid to explore space, but says the nuclear test was meant as a deliberate warning to Washington. Pyongyang says it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself against the U.S., and is believed to be trying to build an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a missile capable of reaching the mainland U.S.
Vice, known for its sometimes irreverent journalism, has made two previous visits to North Korea, coming out with the “VICE Guide to North Korea.” The HBO series, which will air weekly starting April 5, features documentary-style news reports from around the world.
The Americans also will visit North Korea’s national monuments, the SEK animation studio and a new skate park in Pyongyang.