If Charles Smith, Vin Baker, Doug Christie and other former NBA stars now hanging out in North Korea possessed greater awareness, they would not have appeared in an interview this morning with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. They would have let basketball’s ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman, appear alone for the session. The occasion for the interview, of course, is the visit of Rodman and other former NBA players to North Korea for a basketball game honoring the birthday of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Intercultural fun on the basketball court comes just weeks after Kim executed his uncle. Another issue: North Korea has been holding American Kenneth Bae for more than a year on account of alleged “hostile acts.”
In a mismatch that any good basketball mind would recognize immediately, Cuomo, using polite and occasionally deferential questions, embarrassed the hoops-loving delegation in a seemingly endless interview with many high points:
1) Multiple “this”es.
To kick off his interview, Cuomo asks why the players think it’s a good idea to play a game in North Korea at this point. Rodman takes the question. He responds, in part, with these words: “It’s a great idea for the world, for the world. And this, and people always turn down the things that I do. And it’s weird, it’s like wow. You got Michael Jordan, you got the LeBron and stuff like this. This, this this, this. They can do all the cool things in the world, but me: Why North Korea. I love my friend. This is my friend.”
Then he turns to naming his traveling companions. As if we needed to re-learn this lesson, Rodman isn’t equipped to defend his role — whatever it is — in complex matters of diplomacy.
2) Rodman’s Passions.
Smith: Outside of what people know of Dennis, you don’t know Dennis. This guy’s got a great heart. His passion is children and families.
3) One thing, not the other.
Smith: We had no idea that the type of press, the negative press that we were going to get from this would extend this far. We’re doing what we do. We play basketball.
“Playing basketball” needn’t preclude 20 or 30 minutes on a computer to brush up on the state of relations between North Korea and the rest of the world. Or just to hear about the execution of Kim’s uncle. Or to get an update on the fate of Bae. As Cuomo said at one point, “The problem is, it’s more complicated than basketball. It just is, it’s more complicated than basketball, I’m sorry.” Smith retorted: “Basketball is not complicated to us.”
4) Define “friend”
Cuomo: [Kim] is not a friend to the Bae family; he is not a friend to your country, and you have to understand that, Dennis, you can’t pretend like you don’t get why people are upset about your friend, Kim Jong Un. Do you get why they’re upset?
Rodman: I’m going to ask you one thing, I’m going to ask you one thing, guys, and it’s amazing that you’re saying this right now. You’re saying 10 guys here, nine guys here: They believe, they believe what I’m doing. Doug Christie — everyone knows Doug Christie. Everyone knows Vin Baker. Everyone knows Charles Smith. Everyone knows everyone here, and it’s amazing how we strive on negativity. This guy, this guy, this ruler, this leader — sorry. Do anyone know that this guy is only 31 years old?
Cuomo: Hey, Dennis: He could be 31, he could be 51. He just killed his uncle and he’s holding an American hostage. The family is desperate for his return; they don’t even know why he’s being held. It’s been a year, Dennis. This is your friend, the guy you call your friend.
Smith: Listen, we’re playing semantics on the word ‘friend.’
That stuff speaks for itself.
5) The Bae case.
Cuomo: Are you going to take an opportunity, if you get it, to speak up for the family of Kenneth Bae?
Rodman: The one thing about politics: Kenneth Bae did one thing. If you understand. If you understand what Kenneth Bae did — do you understand what he did in this country?
Cuomo: You tell me, what did he do?
Rodman: No, no, no: You tell me, you tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country?
Cuomo: They haven’t released any charges; they haven’t released any reason.
Rodman: I would love to speak on this.
Cuomo: Go ahead.
Rodman: You got 10 guys here that have left their families, left their damn families to help this country as a sports venture. We got 10 guys, all these guys here, do anyone understand that?
Cuomo: We do, and we appreciate that. And we wish them well with cultural exchange.
Rodman: No, no, no [undecipherable]. . . . I don’t give a rat’s ass what the hell you think. I’m saying to you, ‘Look at these guys here. Look at ‘em.’. . . They came here, they came here, they came here.
Cuomo: You just basically were saying that Kenneth Bae did something wrong. We don’t know what the charges are. Don’t use those guys as a shield for you, Dennis.
Smith: The key is, you can bait Dennis or any of us into a political conversation and it can get emotional.
Cuomo insisted that he never intended to bait Rodman into anything. If “baiting” means asking reasonable questions about international relations, Cuomo is a baiter-in-chief.
6) “No, no, no, no — watch this.” — Rodman
See the 6:55 mark in the video above. At that point, Cuomo is circling around Rodman, pressing him on the friendship of sorts that he has fashioned with the North Korean leader. “Come on, Dennis, let’s be honest about this because you put these guys in this situation.”
The pressure from Cuomo sparks a spasm of jousting between Smith and Rodman, who are seated side by side. With his body language, Smith appears to be lobbying to take the question from Cuomo; but Rodman, saying “No, no, no, no — watch this,” insists on holding the baton. He then says something barely decipherable. Throughout this agonizing session, Smith and Rodman play this same game within a game: Smith clearly wants to do all the talking here, and not necessarily because he’s self-obsessed. It’s that he knows that allowing Rodman to speak for the group isn’t going to end well. And it doesn’t.