A Theory for Why Rodman Loves Kim: They're Both Miserable Loners

Both North Korea and Dennis Rodman know the pain of ostracization. 

When he was child growing up in a Dallas housing project, Rodman was relentlessly teased by his peers. Because of the way his body moved when he played pinball, he earned the nickname "worm." It's stuck with him ever since. He had big ears, and he definitely wasn't tall. His father abandoned him and fled to the Philippines. At age 19, all five-foot-nine of him worked a janitorial job at a Dallas airport.

Then, he rocketed in height and turned into an unlikely basketball sensation. He won three championships with Michael Jordan. But over the course of his career he also turned into something more than a star athlete. Isolated, misunderstood, and profoundly weird, he became the bad boy of the NBA. He donned a wedding dress and married himself, went through women and wives like they were sneakers, and dyed his hair every color of the rainbow.

Had it not been for his adventures in basketball diplomacy, he might have faded into a drunken obscurity. As detailed in a fantastic Miami New Times profile from May 2013, Rodman has in his post-NBA career become a sad version of his former self. He hangs out with strippers and drinks Estonian vodka by the liter; he goes on three-day binges and does endless push-ups in the sauna to sweat out the booze. He's alienated from ex-wives and his children. No one in his life seems able to reach a man enveloped in depression and alcohol abuse. But all his confidants agree: Somewhere in there is a really very sweet man.

So what is this giant of a man doing serenading North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on his birthday? After a trip last year to the hermit nation, Rodman declared himself friends for life with Kim. This week he returned for more of the same: basketball and media fireworks. In what might be loosely described as an "appearance" on CNN yesterday, Rodman suffered a meltdown. He may have been drunk, he might not have been. Either way, he implied to Chris Cuomo that Kenneth Bae, an American missionary imprisoned in North Korea, might have gotten what he had coming. Profanities rained down on Cuomo as Rodman explained how he didn't care much for the CNN host's opinions about his trip.

But why is Rodman doing this in the first place? As he's learned over the course of his career, there are many ways to get media publicity -- and the pay checks that come with it -- but why he's using North Korea to do it has been something of a mystery.

In Kim, Dennis Rodman has found someone with a reputation very similar to his own. Isolated from the world, he is repeatedly ridiculed and denounced for its barbarity. Just last week, the world's media exploded over what turned out to be in all likelihood false allegations that Kim had executed his uncle by setting free 120 starved dogs on him. They reportedly tore him to shreds. The story was just weird enough to pass muster with the world's blogs and newspapers. It fit the preconceived notions of the country: utterly weird, utterly depraved, utterly fascinating. The same thing could be said of Dennis Rodman and his treatment in the media.

Rodman and North Korea have developed a shared strategy for survival: publicity bombs. North Korea threatens to fire missiles at the United States and South Korea and detonates nuclear weapons. In return, it generally gains diplomatic concessions. The threats also satisfy a domestic demand to justify a state on a continual war-footing. Rodman uses a similar tactic of outrage to receive his paychecks. By maintaining his media profile as a bad boy beyond repair, the reality shows keep calling. Moreover, the attention fuels the megalomania that has become part and parcel of his depression and, probably, his alcoholism.

Misery loves company.


The Sad Backstory of North Korea's First Basketball Diplomat

Dennis Rodman's epic CNN meltdown on Jan. 7 -- in which he implicitly defended North Korea's continued imprisonment of American citizen Kenneth Bae -- may be the lowest point in his confused "basketball diplomacy" crusade.

The former basketball star is currently in North Korea with six other NBA veterans to play in a charity ball game that doubles as a birthday present for Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Though Rodman has vacillated on whether this trip has diplomatic undertones, it's fair to say that his efforts at fostering goodwill have accomplished little more than stir controversy. Since his first visit to the pariah state last February, Rodman has taken a lot of heat for his friendship with the North Korean dictator. His December visit, a scouting mission just days after Kim executed his uncle, similarly raised eyebrows.

Of course, Rodman isn't the first to attempt basketball diplomacy between North Korea and the United States -- and he won't be the first to fail. That dubious honor belongs to Ri Myung Hun, a 7-ft., 8-in. tall North Korean who, in 1998, nearly became the first Asian in the NBA.

According to Twitter, the two would-be ambassadors have been been hanging together in Pyongyang -- exchanging stories, one hopes, about the difficulties of mixing sports and politics. Ri's is certainly a sad one.

In 1998, the center was recruited by an American scout. He flew to Canada, changed his name to Michael Ri, after his favorite player, Michael Jordan, and was soon being courted by teams all over the country. But his dream of joining the NBA was foiled by the State Department, which decided that signing Ri would violate the Trading with the Enemy Act, which bars U.S. companies from doing business with North Korea.

Soon after, Ri told CNN: "The NBA agreed for me to play, so did the U.S. Commerce Department.... But the State Department waited for six months, and then said no. They wanted to use me for political purposes. So I just gave up."

Two years later, the State Department reversed its decision, allowing Ri to play in America. But, evidently, that didn't go over so well with former dictator Kim Jong Il, who "was insulted by the previous rebuff and retracted his 7-foot-8½-inch olive branch."

In North Korea, Ri was honored with a position in the military (he is popularly known as the super tall soldier at Kim Jong Il's funeral) and a place on the DPRK national team. He's now retired which means, among other things, that he doesn't have to deal with Kim Jong Un's weird, made-up basketball rules.

Incidentally, in 2001, Michael Jordan was tapped to make a goodwill trip to Pyongyang but his management team -- perhaps wisely -- declined.