Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.
December 14, 2013
“OK, OK, last price – 120 kuai, OK?” I’ve had my fair share of strange and confusing experiences – having taken 130 trips to North Korea over a dozen years, it pretty much goes with the territory – but acting as personal shopper for Dennis Rodman in Beijing’s Yashow Market is up there with the oddest.
Rodman's luggage had failed to arrive in Beijing and the basketball star was due to transfer to an even-colder Pyongyang the next day; some winter kit was essential. Rodman, of course, has an idiosyncratic style – but one that Yashow was more than able to match.
Bargaining over tens of yuan for NBA-sized red tracksuit pants, jeans, polo shirts, some horrible shoes (that were never even worn) and other accessories was odd enough – even odder when the intended wearer is widely perceived as a millionaire – but seeing the giant star on CNN in his eccentric (fake) clobber was probably worth it. Probably.
Along with the rest of the world, I watched with a combination of bemusement and curiosity when the Dennis Rodman circus first wheeled into town in Februrary 2013, courtesy of VICE Media and accompanied by the Harlem Globetrotters. A young Marshall Kim Jong Un would later watch in the stands as Rodman and Co. played an exhibition match that strained even the hardiest of cognitive dissonances. But even this image would come to seem normal, compared to the bizarre heights the Rodman project would later reach.
My peripheral involvement in L’affair Rodman began when a friend was contracted last year to arrange his next trip in September. Although initially undertaken with little fanfare, it would later emerge that Rodman spent a substantial amount of time with Kim himself, hanging out at a resort on the sea of Japan (or, to use the official parlance, the East Sea of Korea in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) and meeting his baby girl – whom Rodman was the first to inform the world about. Indeed, her very existence remains an open secret inside North Korea to this day.
Photos showed Rodman relaxing with the Marshall, who he often describes as a close friend – a view he is utterly sincere about – and singing with the Moranbong Band, North Korea’s answer to the Spice Girls. An all-female ensemble thought to number around 20 musicians and singers, and formed under the guidance of Kim himself, the Moranbong Band are alarmingly ubiquitous on North Korean TV these days. Fashionable young ladies copy the group’s flattering, pixie-like haircut, and the band has even popularized above-the-knee skirts, socially unacceptable before their emergence.
'Dennis didn't know the first thing about the DPRK: not even the difference between North and South, let alone the major issues. He was just along for the ride.'
(I had the brief pleasure of meeting some of the Moranbong at the Masik Ski Resort, where they had gone for lessons – mostly wandering around in pastel skiwear, though they did indeed take to the slopes. Unfortunately, a vice minister of sport declined my request for a photo op. The band were “very pure” he said, giving me an appraising look – I was too “experienced.” I wheedled for a while: “surely they might be interested in some experience?” But the minister insisted – rather presumptuously, in hindsight – that these K-Pop pourri were “too innocent” and “wouldn’t want” to meet the likes of me.)
The reason for Rodman’s unprecedented access? Both Kim Jong Un and his father, the late Kim Jong Il, were basketball fans – a ball signed by Michael Jordan and presented by then-US Secretary of State Madeline Albright is one of the main attractions at the International Friendship Exhibition, while the extant Kim, who now rules over a nuclear-armed, military-first nation of 24 million, was supposedly an ardent fan of the Chicago Bulls’ glory days while schooling in Switzerland.
December 15, 2013
It was for his latest and most infamous trip that I first met Dennis and his entourage, a cast that included his bodyguard and friend (a former professional fighter and downright charming man), a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University who had met Rodman while playing ‘horse’ at a charity event, a film crew shooting a (now eagerly awaited) documentary and a representative from Paddy Power, the Irish gambling giant underwriting the trips at the time (they later pulled their name in the face of public criticism).
At Beijing’s Terminal 2, I encountered my first major media scrum. I’d witnessed the Japanese media corps meet Kim Jong Il’s former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, in 2012, but that was a sedate affair. Falling cameras and shouting matches punctuated just getting Dennis Rodman a couple of hundred meters from his vehicle through customs.
From the shelter of the bus, I chatted with Dennis and found him charming, engaging, funny and interested in North Korea. But as he openly admitted, Dennis didn’t know the first thing about it: not even the difference between North and South, let alone the major issues. He was just along for the ride. It’s easy to mock Dennis as a clown, as someone out of his depth, but he plays up to that. He loves to be the center of attention, but is also genuine about wanting to do something special inside North Korea.
December 31, 2013
It wouldn’t be for another two weeks that we would meet again, when I returned to Pyongyang on New Year’s Eve (previously, the DPRK had an unexplained ban on tourism over the Christmas period; this was then dropped, also without any explanation).
Fireworks erupted around the 150m-high Juche Tower, and afterwards we mingled with the young crowd in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square for our first New Year. Koryo Tours had been granted exclusive access to the Paddy Power Invitational basketball event and planned to assemble two groups to come along. Initially, there was resistance to the attendance of tourists, but finally it was agreed that a small number would be allowed in, mostly DPRK veterans, Americans and basketball fanatics: a perfect combination.
We also used the exclusivity of this event to raise funds for a charity project in Pyongyang, funding and operating the country’s first school for deaf children. It is estimated that 1% to 2% of the population are deaf, and one indisputably good thing to have come out of this trip was being able to generate significant funds to help with this project, which is simply one of the most worthy we have ever come across. Dennis visited the school himself on his third visit, and seeing the kids there overjoyed to meet him – he is by now, of course, immensely famous inside the DPRK – makes you realize what just a little help can do for the lives of people with disabilities in a difficult place like North Korea.
January 6-7, 2014
The confirmation from the DPRK National Olympic Committee that we would be in attendance at the game was somewhat ambiguously worded.
We were advised not to “worry too much” about access – experience told me to worry, but only the right amount. But what is that? This question lingered while we took our visitors to some of the more interesting sites of Pyongyang: the newly opened Mirim Riding Club (featuring Kim Jong Il’s favorite horse, stuffed), the new war museum, a local bar and as much else as we could cram into a drizzly day.
In the evening, we chatted with some of the players on Dennis’s delegation, who had been very brave to follow the mercurial Rodman and take part in this audacious piece of ‘basketball diplomacy.’ Sadly, the Koryo Hotel, while among the best they have, has a strict policy of closing their main bar at 11pm, a blow to all of us enjoying drinking with the players.
However, I managed to persuade the waitresses to keep the bar open longer by teaching them to juggle with bottle caps – more effective than an offer of money moments earlier. So while we flicked imported Bavaria lager caps, the players and tourists enjoyed a unique evening ahead of a nerve-wracking event the next day.
It was only later we found out that this session took place just a few hours after the now-notorious interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo; fellow player Charles Smith had presented the players’ case very well but a tired and emotional Dennis had somewhat flown off the handle when Cuomo repeatedly brought up the case of imprisoned American Kenneth Bae.
By shouting at Cuomo, Dennis came across as rather undignified. Charles’s intervention calmed things down a bit, though, and the next day Dennis’s publicist issued his apology, stating he had been under a lot of stress and drinking. Both of which I knew to be true – still, it wasn’t an auspicious start.
January 8, 2014
The big day. We were told to dress smart and had to abandon lunch halfway through to join the motorcade of diplomats on their way to the newly renovated Pyongyang Indoor Stadium. We couldn’t take in cameras or, indeed, anything (a level of security that surely heralded a Kim appearance) but ran into Dennis and his entourage in very high spirits, on their way to meet Kim. Dennis was clad in a natty-gray North Korean-style suit and swigging from a glass of something brown – possibly Coke mixed with Bad Ass Vodka, Rodman’s own premium brand, bottles of which (curiously, engraved with the likenesses of both him and Kim) were presented to the Marshall).
Along with around 12,000 Koreans, mostly students, we took our seats. As both teams warmed up, big screens above the court showed a Korean-style history of basketball – apparently, it began in ancient Greece. Then the Marshall emerged about 30 meters to my right with wife Ri Sol Ju, a former singer and current style icon (sound familiar?)
The crowd leapt to their feet, and for several minutes cries of ‘Manse!’ (‘Long life!’) echoed loudly around the arena. Kim acknowledged all sections – even us – then motioned for everyone to sit down. It didn’t do the job: the cries and cheers kept coming. I’ve seen this kind of thing many times on television, and experienced it personally with Kim Jong Il in 2005, but it is actually a chilling spectacle to be in the middle of a sea of enraptured people, all calling out the same word over and over. Strangest of all was seeing our Korean guides, who I have known for many years, doing the same; not that I would have expected otherwise, but seeing that took things from the abstract to the visceral. Frankly, it gave me goosebumps.
What came next was arguably even odder. Dennis took to the mic for what was expected to be a warm tribute to the thousands who had gathered there, and the millions who would watch later on TV (live footage of the Marshall is never broadcast in North Korea), and/or a bland statement about non-political sporting engagement.
He decided to go in another direction, though, first thanking the American players, then encouraging a sing-along to ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim (the slow, husky Rodman mix). Although January 8 is known as the leader’s birthday, it is not celebrated as a national holiday. Uptake was slow to say the least, although the song is widely known even in North Korea – clearly unplanned, it left everyone feeling bemused, as if they couldn’t quite credit what had just happened.
'He decided to go in another direction... encouraging a sing-along to ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim... It left everyone feeling bemused, as if they couldn’t quite credit what had just happened'
Dennis was clearly emotional about the whole thing, wiping away tears afterwards, but I think for many it struck the wrong note for what the event was about: bringing Americans and Koreans together to play some ball, away from politics.
This was proven in the game itself (despite all the cheers being organized by men in caps, with no group spontaneity at all). The first half was American on Korean and, honestly, the home ‘torch’ team walked it (despite Smith’s boast the night before that there were no winners or losers in basketball diplomacy – but the Americans would definitely win!) Teamwork and deadly accurate three-point shots made up for any height deficit and lack of flamboyance in the Koreans’ play.
After the teams mixed sides, though, sh*t got real. It was simply a league above the first half: streetballers showboating, showing off with alley-oops and slam dunks with even the Korean players getting into the spirit (which they normally shy away from). My gaze, though, was often drawn away from this spectacle to watch Kim Jong Un and Rodman as they sat, smoking (Kim chaining cigs, Rodman on the cigar, the only people in the arena doing so), seemingly having a wild time of it. I did appear on the Jumbotron at one point and went to blow a kiss to the crowd – but the camera cut off and I ended up looking as if I had put a hand to my mouth in affected shock, like some starstuck fanboy. Dammit!
After the Marshall left – I forget the final score (the White team won) – we tripped out into the dark evening with the locals for a frantic discussion back at the hotel about what we had seen and what we thought the international reaction would be. Dennis stopped by for a chat then headed to his rooms on the secret floor of the hotel (I went once: very nice indeed but almost impossible to find, due to cunning architecture). The Associated Press were uploading their feed and seemed to be using the entire nation’s bandwidth so I had to wait around a bit to do a Skype interview with Sky News, but the merriment continued.
Shortly afterwards I heard a voice shouting my name: it was Rodman in the lobby, sipping soju with the crew and an Irish writer sent in to document the whole thing. He was on top form; approachable, holding court, flirting with any women and making wild statements about himself and the future of basketball diplomacy.
Dennis was proud of himself and keen to take credit. I asked whose idea it had been to mix up the teams and he looked at me like I was an idiot. Of course it was his idea (probably true). This little session was the highlight of my trip, as it probably was for some of those tourists who bantered along with him. Sure, he called me a “little sh*t” a few days later, but I took it as a friendly gesture.
January 9, 2014
And just like that, when we woke the next morning the big man was gone – off to an as-yet undisclosed series of locations. Rumors abounded that they had helicoptered to the East Coast or to the Masik Ski Resort or to Kim Jong Un’s actual house. (I know the truth but am sworn to secrecy for now.) The remaining players spent the morning at the new Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, mixing with local kids (shame the media weren’t there to cover this) and that afternoon I spent several hours (and just under 200 dollars) letting them ‘hot spot’ off my phone to check email, read news, and Skype their families. I got on especially well with street-baller Andre ‘Silk’ Poole, not only a wonderful player and storyteller (his 40-minute live-action explanation of Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang to an audience of just me shall not be easily forgotten), but also played the streetball ringer from season one of The Wire.
'Rumors abounded that Rodman had helicoptered to Kim Jong Un's actual house. I know the truth but am sworn to secrecy'
These players will be criticized, but they showed millions that Americans and North Koreans could play together and even be better for it. Dennis provided both the engine and, unfortunately, the bumps on the road that threatened to constantly derail the whole thing. There are aspects to be deeply critical of, as well as elements to be praised about the whole venture, but even as someone on the periphery – personal shopper turned bar confidante – I will dine out on the story for years.
As for Dennis, he’s a force of nature; a charming man who can cause unbearable stress to those around him, but also great pleasure and loyalty. That’s just what he’s like: a bag of contradictions, but someone I’d gladly spend time with again in the future. And if any other NBA players need a personal shopper in Beijing, well – they know where to find me.
Simon Cockerell is General Manager of Koryo Tours in Beijing. No money was exchanged for this article.
This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue of That's. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.