Dennis Rodman speaks: The inside story of how he journeyed to North Korea

Ryan YoungYahoo Sports
Dennis Rodman waves at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, after singing 'Happy Birthday' to him before an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, in January 2014. (AP/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Dennis Rodman waves at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, after singing 'Happy Birthday' to him before an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, in January 2014. (AP/Kim Kwang Hyon)

One would expect, after the prolific career he had on the court, that basketball would be the centerpiece of Dennis Rodman’s legacy.

The former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls star accomplished quite a bit throughout his 14 seasons in the NBA — something the once-homeless teen living on the Dallas streets could have never imagined. Just more than a decade after he left the league, with five titles under his belt, Rodman was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.

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That well-deserved honor was something that — in most cases — would have solidified Rodman’s place among the basketball greats. His incredible rise from nearly nothing to the top of the sports world is the focus of a new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that premieres this week, too, yet another sign he’s made it.

Yet it’s what happened about two years after his Hall of Fame induction that captured the attention of the entire world.

Suddenly, astoundingly, Rodman started repeatedly visiting the extremely isolated nation of North Korea at the behest of its leader, Kim Jong Un.

The dictator — who has committed countless human rights violations, controls his people’s lives completely, frequently tests missiles and weapons and even openly threatens the United States — simply loved him.

“We got along so well. Basically how we kind of communicated was because of sports,” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “I never knew anything about politics, the things about the army, the missiles, the nuclear stuff. I didn’t ever talk to him about that. I just talked about sports with him. He loved that.”

Rodman’s first journey to Pyongyang

Rodman first made the nearly 6,000-mile trek over the Pacific Ocean to Pyongyang, North Korea, in February 2013.

That trip, though, started out as a mistake.

Rodman said he was approached to simply play an exhibition game and maybe sign a few autographs, something he was used to in his post-NBA life. So his agent, Darren Prince, started setting up the trip for him. Except Prince didn’t realize that there was a difference between North and South Korea.

It wasn’t until Rodman’s manager, Steve Simon, put the pieces together that he realized there was a problem.

“He looked at me and goes, ‘You idiot. That’s South Korea. Let me see this contract,’” Prince said in the 30 for 30. “So I showed it to him, and it said Pyongyang, North Korea. And he goes, ‘You cannot send Dennis to North Korea. Do you understand what type of place this is?’”

Rodman didn’t understand where they were going until they had landed in Beijing and a member of his team started explaining it to him.

“No one informed me about North Korea,” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “I just thought we were going for a basketball game and do autograph s--t. That was it. I was so blind, man.”

Regardless, Rodman made the final leg of the journey to Pyongyang. When he arrived, he said the military was waiting for him and had rolled out a red carpet at the door of his plane. That’s when he really started to put it together.

By the time he had to play the game the next day, however, Rodman had changed his mind. He wasn’t feeling it anymore, and didn’t want to participate after arriving at the arena.

“So I was sitting on the bench and some of [Kim’s] people came down from the stands in black suits, they came directly to me … and were like, ‘Would you come with us please?’” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “I’m thinking I’m going to jail, that I did something in America.”

Rodman followed the men, who led him up into the stands to sit at these tables overlooking the court. He sat down in a chair and waited, still sweating bullets.

“All of the sudden you heard this big roar. I’m thinking [the fans] stood up and turned around toward me, and I’m looking around like, ‘Great.’ I’m thinking they’re clapping for me,” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “I start waving and s--t like that. … I look over to my left and this little short guy comes out.”

That short guy was Kim. Despite all the commotion and thunderous applause in the arena, the North Korean leader approached Rodman and sat down next to him.

Through an interpreter, he then asked Rodman how he was doing.

“I still don’t know what the f--k is going on. I don’t know why the hell I’m up here,” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “He started to talk to me about my basketball.”

Kim was a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls, Rodman said, and loved watching him play with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

“I don’t even know this guy. Still, we’re sitting here having a conversation like I’ve been knowing this guy for a long time.” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “We got in depth with Chicago and about the Bulls. Then he broke out this question.

“He said, ‘Dennis, one day I would love to come to America. Would you take me?’”

Dennis asked him why.

“He said, ‘I really want to go to Madison Square Garden and watch a basketball game,’” Rodman told Yahoo Sports.

Dennis Rodman talks to the North Korea women's basketball team during his visit to Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2017. Rodman went sightseeing in Pyongyang during the trip and said he hoped it would "open a door" for President Donald Trump. (AP/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Dennis Rodman talks to the North Korea women's basketball team during his visit to Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2017. Rodman went sightseeing in Pyongyang during the trip and said he hoped it would "open a door" for President Donald Trump. (AP/Kim Kwang Hyon)

A wave of backlash

Rodman traveled to North Korea three additional times over the next year, and even brought other players with him on one occasion for an exhibition game.

While he was enjoying the trips and his new friendship with Kim, those trips weren’t received the same way in the United States. It wasn’t necessarily the trips themselves that got him into trouble, however, but rather how he described them in interviews.

“I love him, I think he’s awesome,” Rodman said about Kim following one trip, saying he had a “friend for life.”

“The backlash was all about the way Dennis vocalized and verbalized it in several interviews,” Prince said in the 30 for 30. “The other problem was that he was drunk in several of the interviews.”

It was the last trip — in January 2014, when he brought other former NBA players with him — that pushed it over the edge. Rodman erupted at an Italian journalist, and then screamed at CNN’s Chris Cuomo live on air days later.

“On that trip, Dennis was on a bender to end all benders,” Prince said in the 30 for 30. “That was the lowest of the low. Nothing has been that bad.”

Rodman checked into a rehab facility one week after that trip. Not only did he need the help, but he needed to hide out. The death threats that he and his family were receiving, Rodman said, had gotten out of control.

In his eyes, though, Rodman hadn’t really done anything wrong.

“I was sitting there contemplating every day, ‘What the f--k did I do wrong?’” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “I thought I was just trying to break bread and try to be humble and peaceful to this country, then all the sudden they put this s--t on my head in the blink of a f--king eye. I was just all by myself and I had nobody to turn to.”

Donald Trump’s summit validates Rodman’s efforts

President Donald Trump met with Kim in Singapore in 2018, becoming the first sitting United States president to meet with the leader of North Korea.

The historic summit was, in a way, validation for Rodman’s efforts. All the heat he took for meeting with the dictator had finally opened the door for dialogue between the two countries.

Rodman, of course, made the trip to Singapore, too. While he didn’t meet with either leader in an official capacity, he appeared to be on top of the world — as evident in an extremely emotional interview with Cuomo on CNN.

“I kept my head up high, brother,” Rodman said on CNN. “I knew things were going to change. I knew it, I was the only one. I never had no one to hear me. I never had no one to see me. But I took those bullets. I took all that. Everyone came at me, and I’m still standing. Today is a great day for everybody.”

While he said on CNN that day that Trump’s secretary reached out to him to thank him, Rodman doesn’t feel he received any credit for launching that summit.

“I told everyone that Trump is going to do this, and you guys didn’t believe me,” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “Then when Trump did it, you guys praised the f---er. That’s what f---ed me up ... I know he’s the f---ing president, but god----. He wasn’t even going to get invited if I hadn’t even brought awareness to it.

“So now the president wants to get all the praise … for the fact that, ‘Oh s--t, I just broke bread with North Korea.’ No, Mr. Trump, I did.”

That summit, though, didn’t really accomplish much. Neither did the second summit between the two leaders a year later in Vietnam. The denuclearization goal Trump had going into the summits didn’t happen, and North Korea is still actively testing new weapons and missiles.

Trump did meet with Kim a third time briefly in June, and even crossed the border into North Korea, becoming the first sitting president to do so.

What comes next regarding relations between the two countries is anybody’s guess.

Either way, that’s not Rodman’s business — and it never was. He went over to North Korea for basketball initially, not for anything else.

And after everything, the NBA Hall of Famer is just happy that a dialogue has been started — even if he had to endure a lot to get there.

“[Trump] never mentioned me,” Rodman told Yahoo Sports. “He mentioned everybody else that had something to do with it, but he didn’t mention me at all — which I didn’t give a damn. Everyone knew what really happened.

“But I’m just happy the fact that they actually talked. That’s all I wanted.”

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