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Defending Dennis Rodman

Dennis Rodman's recent trip to North Korea with a team of retired NBA players to take part in an exhibition game 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 try to make it happen with desperate, hopeful gestures.

Kim Jong Un & Dennis Rodman
Kim Jong Un & Dennis Rodman

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" in honor of the rightwing Senator from Wisconsin whose stated goal was anti-Communist but whose actual achievement was to roll back New Deal reforms. MSNBC's Chris Mathews says we Americans have put McCarthyism behind us, but the video clip of Rodman losing his cool that Mathews showed to his "Hardball" viewers was the equivalent of a doctored photo.The context had been airbrushed out.

Rodman's now infamous expression of outrage came during a January 7 interview by Chris Cuomo on CNN, in response to Cuomo's ill-concealed disrespect. Rodman had been dissed in the media ever since he announced his plan, during a previous trip to North Korea, to return with a team of his NBA contemporaries. NBA Commissioner David Stern, a financially secure Jewish American, 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, an Italian American, 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 to Charles Smith's left. They were flanked by the other retired players who had made the trip. (Kenny Anderson didn't take part.) Cuomo pointed out that the planned exhibition game was being presented as a birthday gift to bad, bad 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 withdrew support, then chipped in belatedly. The retired players did not take money from the North Korean government.

Smith is eminently sensible and dignified. 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 ignored Smith's explanation of the 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 "activites" 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 (the son of New York  Governor Mario Cuomo and brother of the current governor, Andrew), "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. "There's activities that take place all over the world."

As Smith resumed talking about his 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 sounding like the character in Peter Pan who asks 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. After about two minutes of anger, 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.

In the McCarthy era, the mere association with a capital-C Communist was like a crime in and of itself — grounds for firing a public school teacher if she refused to explain the nature of her association to the Investigators. This guilt by assocation was called "red-baiting." But we have put McCarthyism behind us, says Chris Mathews. Ditto the legacy of slavery.

So why do 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?

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