Dennis Rodman is one of the wackiest athletes the world has ever seen, but the man known for his piercings, colorful hair, and many off-the-court antics arguably outdid himself when he positioned himself as an unofficial diplomat by making multiple trips to North Korea.
“The Worm” was one of the best rebounders in NBA history and played a pivotal role in the second threepeat the Bulls pulled off in the 1990s with a little bit of help from Michael Jordan.
However, anyone who was lucky enough to watch him play in his prime is very aware he had a tendency to end up in the headlines for plenty of things that had nothing to do with basketball.
Rodman was the kind of guy who lived life to the max while balancing his escapades with his basketball career, and his uncanny ability to keep his name in the headlines didn’t wane after he capped off his time in the league with a brief (and somewhat tumultuous) stint with the Mavericks in 2000.
From that point, Rodman kept his hoop dreams alive by playing overseas, reviving the professional wrestling career that started when he linked up with the WCW while he was still in the NBA, appearing on shows including The Apprentice and Celebrity Big Brother, and briefly serving as the commissioner of the Lingerie Football League.
Oh, and there was also that time he made international headlines by going to North Korea to kick off a chapter not many people saw coming.
How Dennis Rodman ended up befriending Kim Jong Un
It’s believed the American government repeatedly toyed with the idea of sending an NBA player to North Korea during Kim Jong-il’s reign in an attempt to deploy some “basketball diplomacy” with the dictator who had a well-documented love of the Chicago Bulls.
Whether or not that was actually the case, what is clear is that Rodman linked up with the folks at Vice in 2013 for a documentary chronicling a group of athletes (that also included a few members of the Harlem Globetrotters) who made the trek to North Korea for an exhibition game and a tour of the country.
At that point, no Americans had been granted an official audience with Kim Jong Un since he’d replaced his father as the country’s Supreme Leader in the wake of his death in 2011. As a result, plenty of people were surprised to discover Rodman was the person to earn that very honor after spending some time with the man he’d describe as “his friend for life.”
Rodman had not headed to North Korea as an official representative of the United States government (unsurprisingly, the CIA will not confirm or deny it contacted The Worm at any point before or after the trip), so while he wasn’t even close to being an ambassador, he still decided it was worth trying to step into that role.
At the beginning of 2014, Rodman visited North Korea for a second time during a trip where he sang “Happy Birthday” to the dictator at a basketball game.
Shortly after returning to the United States, he wrote a letter to Kim Jong-un pushing for the release of Kenneth Bae, a South Korean-born American member of a Christian ministry who’d been behind bars in North Korea since 2012 after being charged with “hostile acts against the republic.”
Rodman committed a bit of an unforced error in a subsequent interview where he implied Bae deserved that particular fate, nut he apologized (and admitted he’d been drinking when he said that). There’s no telling how much of a role he played in Bae’s eventual release that year, but the free man thanked him for serving as a “catalyst” who helped end an ordeal that spanned over 700 days.
In 2017, Rodman once again returned to North Korea for what he positioned as a trip designed to foster sports programs in the country. During that visit, he gifted a copy of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal to North Korea’s Minister of Sports and traveled to Singapore the following year for a summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un (a journey made possible with a sponsorship from a marijuana-based cryptocurrency company).
Rodman has maintained he doesn’t consider himself a diplomat, although he did cry tears of joy during an interview on CNN where he discussed the improved relations between America and North Korea. However, regardless of his official role, it’s hard to deny he wields more influence in the international affairs realm than most people probably could’ve ever anticipated when he was still in the NBA.
What a world.