A day after a meltdown on CNN that brought outrage over his support for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Dennis Rodman led a group of former NBA players onto a basketball court for an exhibition in Pyongyang and sang “Happy Birthday” to Kim.
“It started out as surreal, then people joined in and it sort of faded a bit, but it seemed pretty heartfelt from Rodman’s side,” Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who attended the game, said (via Reuters) of Rodman’s Marilyn Monroe moment. “It was unexpected, and probably unplanned. Kim Jong Un appeared to smile, but he didn’t appear to expect it.”
A crowd of about 14,000 attended the exhibition, which Rodman intended as partly a birthday present for Kim. One former NBA player, Charles Smith, said he and other did not join in singing the song. “We always tell Dennis that he can’t sing. He is tone deaf,” Smith said (via USA Today). “He did it alone.”
The game brings to an end another of Rodman’s self-instigated diplomatic missions to North Korea and this one, his fourth, may have generated the most heated reaction yet, coming just weeks after the execution of Kim’s uncle. During his interview Tuesday with Chris Cuomo on CNN’s “New Day,” Rodman had lapsed into an at times unintelligible tirade about, among other things, Kenneth Bae, the Korean-American missionary who has been held in North Korea for over a year. Rodman seemed to question whether Bae was to blame for his captivity. The tirade left everyone from the U.S. government to the National Basketball Association distancing themselves from the attempt at hoops diplomacy.
Rodman continued to stress his affection for Kim, telling Cuomo, “I love my friend. This is my friend.” But at least one member of the NBA entourage, Smith, was aware of the effect Rodman’s emotional, expletive-ridden message on CNN was having. “Some of the statements and things that Dennis has said has tainted our efforts,” Smith told the Associated Press. “Dennis is a great guy, but how he articulates what goes on — he gets emotional and he says things that he’ll apologize for later. I feel a lot of remorse for the guys because we are doing something positive, but it’s a lot bigger than us. We are not naive, we understand why things are being portrayed the way they are. We can’t do anything about that; if we could, we would.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Rachel Nichols on Tuesday night, quickly pointed out that these are “former NBA players” and that “Dennis will be Dennis.” As for why the former players would join Rodman, this trip, Stern said, “was blinded by a flash of North Korean money. And I’m worried for their sake. They may get paid in counterfeit U.S. money, because I understand that North Korea is — used to be a leader in counterfeiting U.S. money.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney refused “to dignify that outburst with a response” and pointed out that Rodman is on a private trip.
It’s always easy to take Rodman lightly because of self-promoting antics and outrageous outfits that nearly upstaged a Hall of Fame career, but this trip was too much for Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, who said in a statement that Rodman “is playing games with my brother’s life. There is no diplomacy, only games, and at my brother’s expense.”