January 15, 2014  Statement #2 From the Dennis Rodman Defense Committee

Dennis Rodman’s recent trip to North Korea with a team of retired NBA players was akin to John Lennon and Yoko Ono going to bed in public to end the war in Vietnam, or Dennis Peron saying “I dedicate my life to world peace” as he began selling marijuana in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Real hippies dream of peace and some even try to make it happen with desperate, hopeful gestures.

The Korean War began in 1950 and a cease fire was arranged in 1953. The war never officially ended, and thousands of U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea.  Not coincidentally, 1950-53 is known in the U.S. as “the McCarthy era” —a reference to the rightwing Senator from Wisconsin who was supposedly weeding Communists out of government jobs but was actually rolling back New Deal reforms. MSNBC’s Chris Mathews says we Americans have put McCarthyism behind us, but the brief video clip that Mathews’ showed his “Hardball” viewers —Rodman losing his cool— was the equivalent of a doctored photo, a McCarthyite tactic. Edited out was the context, the disrespect from an interviewer to which Rodman was responding

Rodman went off during a January 7 interview by Chris Cuomo on CNN. The trip had been an object of media ridicule ever since Rodman announced his intention to organize it, and the racist overtones were obvious.  NBA Commissioner David Stern, a financially secure White Man, had the gall to say that the African Americans accompanying Rodman had been “blinded by money.” By the time Rodman and his comrades were interviewed by Cuomo, a White Man, some of them had been advised by family members and business associates back home that the trip was setting them up for trouble. Kenny Anderson’s wife was worried about their kids taking heat in school.

During the interview by Cuomo, Rodman was sitting next to Charles Smith. They were flanked by the other retired players who had made the trip. (Kenny Anderson didn’t take part in the interview.) Cuomo pointed out that the planned exhibition game was being presented as a birthday gift to despotic Kim Jong Un. Smith said that the players had been invited by the North Korean Olympic Committee, which had chosen the date.

Charles Smith organizes exhibition games featuring retired NBA players, and Rodman had turned to him to put together a roster for his Pyongyang venture. Funding for the trip reportedly came from HBO and Paddy Power, the Irish gambling site that sponsored Rodman’s previous visit, then declined to support a return trip, then chipped in belatedly. The retired players did not take money from the North Korean government.

Smith is an eminently sensible and dignified man. He often pauses to find the right way to put something. “Understand this,” he said to Cuomo about Rodman: “He is not here and I am not here —none of these guys are here— to talk sense into any politician.” Smith said they were practicing  “basketball diplomacy… using the relationship with others through basketball which we did today with the North Korean team.”

As for delivering State-Department-type messages, Smith told Cuomo, “Do you really think that (after a long pause) the leaders here are going to listen to anything that we have to say? And that’s not what we’re here to do. We’re here specifically to put smiles on people’s faces. Everlasting memories in the minds of individuals… We’re going to be an example of how we are as Americans when it comes to the sport of basketball. So please don’t continue to put politics into that. This is not what we’re here for.”

Cuomo interrupted with annoyance in his voice: ” I get it. I get why you’re there. But it’s more complicated than basketball. It just is. it’s more complicated than basketball, Charles, I’m sorry.”

Smith replied, “You say it’s more complicated than basketball. Basketball is not complicated to us. And that’s what we do. We’re not here for complications. And again, we apologize for the kind-of-a-storm that has been created by our presence. We’re not apologizing for doing what we do. Those people today —the North Korean team, meeting the citizens— we’re connecting people to basketball and people to people. It’s all relational.”

Cuomo’s tone turned from impatience to a kind of baby talk as he introduced the subject of Kenneth Bae, a religious missionary who became a tour guide in North Korea and was apparently busted for proselytizing.  “I respect what you’re doing,” said Cuomo as he totally ignored Smith’s explanation of basketball diplomacy. “I’m just concerned, with the family of this man who is held there. And I’m concerned as many Americans are, about giving a birthday present to a man who is seen as a despot who just had his uncle executed. Dennis, you understand the issue…”

Smith had just spent five minutes explaining that the players were not there to talk about politics. Cuomo was aiming at Rodman but Smith intercepted, using the term “activities” to describe the detention of Bae and the offing of Kim’s uncle (who was reportedly organizing a military coup). Charles Smith told Chris Cuomo (a child of privilege, son of  Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, and brother of Andrew, the current governor), “You continue to talk about the different activities that take place here. We have activities that take place…” Two point four million in prison, he could have added, and drones that drop bombs on wedding parties in foreign countries. “There’s activities that take place all over the world.”

As Smith resumed talking about his actual interactions with people in North Korea, Cuomo cut him off with finality: “And I wish you good luck and effectiveness in influencing the people there. I hope it’s a good cultural exchange. Dennis, let me end on this. You do have a relationship with this man. You’ve said it many times. We’ve seen it demonstrated. For whatever reasons. Are you going to take an opportunity, if you get it, to speak up for the family of Kenneth Bae and to say ‘Let us know why this man is being held. That this is wrong. That he is sick.’ If you can help, Dennis, will you take the opportunity?”

By now Cuomo was beyond sanctimonious; he sounded like the character in Peter Pan who asks the audience if Tinker Bell should be allowed to live. Smith started to respond, but Rodman said “I got it guy.” He was so angry that he was hardly coherent, but what he had to say was the truth: thanks to Cuomo and those of his ilk, the players were going to take abuse when they got back to America. (To repeat: Kenny Anderson’s wife was worried about their kids’ safety, the media had already succeeded in demonizing the venture.)  After about two minutes, Rodman recovered his equanimity and repeated his hippie vision: “Someday this world will open wide…”

Then Charles Smith calmly provided a brilliant, uncompromising analysis of how Cuomo had baited his good-hearted friend. Blacklisting and tormenting people for associating with capital-C Communists was a prime feature of the McCarthy/Korean War era. The process was known as “red baiting.” But we have put McCarthyism behind us, says Chris Mathews. Ditto the legacy of slavery.

And yet… we suspect that if Fran Tarkenton had led a trip of ex-NFL players to North Korea, and if John Elway had explained that “football diplomacy” was not about delivering State-Department-type messages, Chris Cuomo would not have baited him with questions about Kenneth Bae.

Cuomo spent the days after his “Gotcha!” interview running victory laps on other news shows. CNN’s Piers Morgan (a Pseudo American, a supercilious Teabag whose career was advanced by Rupert Murdoch) did an excruciating interview with Kenny Anderson and his pathetic White Boy agent. Morgan pressured Anderson to give to charity the “blood money” he’d been paid for playing in North Korea. It will make your skin crawl, but watch it if you think McCarthyism is a thing of the past and/or you think the hounding of Dennis Rodman is not essentially racist. 

Why CNN is considered a “liberal” network is incomprehensible. They slanted their post-trip stories about Rodman’s teammates  Clifford Robinson and Charles Smith to imply that they were apologizing for having accompanied Rodman, when in fact they were expressing regret for the brouhaha that had been stirred up back home. CNN and the other outlets playing up up the story made it seem as if Rodman, interviewed on his way back to the U.S., was expressing regret about his response to Cuomo. In fact Rodman was expressing regret about the media response, and he asked “What did I do wrong?”

Striding through the airport in Beijing, mobbed by people with cell phones and cameras, the NBA’s all-time greatest rebounder restated his hippie credo: “I want to show people that no matter what’s going on in the world, for one day —just one day— not politics, not all this stuff. I’m sorry about all the people —what’s going on. I’m not the president. I’m not an ambassador. I’m Dennis Rodman, just an individual showing the world the fact that we can actually get along and be happy for one day. I love to see the… I love (overcome by tears, starts walking away).”  

The throng scurried along to keep pace with the tall man, yelling questions, shoving their recording devices in his face. Rodman said “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”  That’s what you get for wanting to see people happy.

The great Clifford Robinson, when he was playing for Portland, demanded a trade because he despised the coach, one P.J. Carlesimo. This was several years before Latrell Sprewell gave Carlesimo his momentary payback… Charles Smith was a very good player who repeatedly failed to dunk over someone in a crucial game, for which some fans in New York could not forgive him. In dealing with the CNN inquisitors, Smith came across as a profoundly peaceful person.  Maybe it takes a certain level of aggression to dunk over someone —what the sportswriters admiringly call “killer instinct.” The man who gets dunked over, the sportswriters say, has been dunked “on,” or “posterized,” meaning  the highlight reels will show him in a supposedly shameful light.  But how many sportswriters can touch the rim? 

Here’s Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong Un. Give it a spin. Add it to your repertoire.