DENNIS RODMAN: (Singing) Happy birthday to you...
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's been a publicity circus trailing Dennis Rodman to North Korea to present a big, bouncing birthday present of a basketball game to Kim Jong Un. But did you see the score of the game? The U.S. team of former NBA players lost the first half 47-39 before the sides were combined. Well, if you play a team sponsored by a ruthless leader who recently had his own uncle iced, losing is probably the smart move.
I happen to like Dennis Rodman. I saw him close-up when he played for the Chicago Bulls and was one of the great rebounders for all time. He was famously flamboyant but also often disarmingly frank about the frailties and insecurities he developed growing up as an abandoned young man on the roughest streets of Dallas. He seemed to call anyone he met his friend - nice quality until you meet the despot.
This week, Dennis Rodman apologized for suggesting that Kenneth Bay, the American man being held in a North Korean prison, must deserve being locked up for hostile acts against the state. I had been drinking, Dennis Rodman said in his statement. I embarrassed a lot of people. I'm very sorry. Several other players who joined Mr. Rodman in North Korea, including Kenny Anderson and Vin Baker, have had drinking problems that shortened their pro careers. The dear leader's birthday bash might have been their last chance at a big payday. NBA commissioner David Stern told CNN this week he thought the players had been blinded by a flash of North Korean money.
Dennis Ross, the longtime U.S. diplomat, told us he believed that Dennis Rodman, quote, "is being used by North Korea," but adds, "someone ought to talk to the group about who and what they saw because even small details of the crowd at that birthday basketball bash might offer insights into a bizarre and murky leadership."
Ping-pong might have helped the U.S. and China break barriers in the early 1970s, but has Dennis Rodman's mystery tour through North Korea then sports diplomacy or propaganda? With 16 million North Koreans in need of food according to a U.N. report and 130,000 being held as political prisoners, you might wonder if U.S. and North Korean athletes need to recognize their common humanity on the basketball court so much as the North Korean regime needs to see the humanity of its own people. But is Dennis Rodman available for kids' birthday parties?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY")
MARILYN MONROE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, Mr. President, happy birthday...
SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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