Pyongyang, North Korea, is a continent away from Detroit and Chicago. But Dennis Rodman, the NBA player whose career took him to those glamorous U.S. cities, makes the trek there so often he should rent a condo in the city.
Rodman has turned his friendship with Kim Jong Un, the wreckless young leader of the communist country, into the theater of the foolish. The colorful and whacky Rodman has probably made some people look at Kim as a lovable and harmless figure, someone like tattooed Rodman himself.
Yet we now know that Rodman, whose visit CNN has jokingly described as “basketball diplomacy,” is hardly harmless. Nor can he lay claim to being apolitical, because his forays into North Korea strike a political chord that no one wants to hear these days. He knows what he is doing isn’t without its political repercussions.
His visits to North Korea hit at the heart of what freedom allows. In the minds of most Americans, Rodman is doing the unconscionable: He’s consorting with the worst of mankind, a political strongman who holds power at the front end of an AK47 or who consolidates his power whenever the executioner plays his song. Just last week, Kim had his uncle, who was also his mentor, executed as a traitor.
From what Rodman says — and he says plenty these days — those sorts of issues are not his concerns. He looks at his visit abroad as a trip to see a “good friend” and to coach Korean basketball. No matter that whenever he steps foot in North Korea cameras follow his every move; no matter that whenever he goes in North Korea the state-run media asks him to make a bold pronouncement of some kind. Troubling to most Americans is that this multicolor freak show obliges.
What goes on inside Rodman’s head would be worth a shrink’s time to explore in depth, although some Americans wouldn’t be surprised if doctors found nothing but empty space. Rodman has never been what anybody who has followed him or covered his career would call a deep thinker.
And that’s at the core of what’s bad about him: Dennis Rodman doesn’t think at all. He lives life on what feels good to him. If he wants to dress in a wedding gown, he does; if he wants to turn his hair into a Crayola box of colors, he does; if he wants to call one of the most deplorable dictators on the planet his friend, he does.
As unthinkable as it might be to befriend a dictator – does anybody remember Forrest Whittaker’s performance in The Last King of Scotland – an American gets to pick who his friends will be.
Not all of our friends are with men (or women) we can be proud of; not many of our friends, if any, have a global profile like Kim’s. Our friends come wrapped in all sorts of colorful packages; opening one of those packages often reveals the surprises that keep a friendship fresh, strong.
Maybe the package that Rodman opened in Kim carries traits the dictator dares not display on a global platform. Maybe Rodman sees in Kim what the rest of the world doesn’t: a man with the potential to change his ways.
We know change can happen. We’ve seen that change in Rodman since he first came quietly onto the NBA scene as an energetic, introverted understudy to Isiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn, Joe Dumars and “The Bad Boys” of the late 1980s Detroit Pistons.
His later years were neither quiet nor predictable. No one knew what Dennis “The Worm” Rodman might do; no one cared too much either. He was Dennis Rodman, and Dennis Rodman had the right to be whatever he decided to be. He has, too.
We didn’t mind so much when he went Looney Tunes on us. All of those reality TV moments were funny, harmless. But when he took his craziness on a global stage, he touched a nerve in those who see their basketball purely in red, white and blue.
Dennis Rodman is that shade of gray we all loathe. He doesn’t wear patriotism as if it were his badge of honor. Yet is what he’s doing in Pyongyang a show of dishonor?
He was unpredictable when we delighted in his goofy antics on the basketball court; we cheered and laughed at him then. Should we be cheering and laughing at him now?
After all, this joke of a Black man is on us.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: PETAR KUJUNDZIC/LANDOV)