Dennis Rodman's bromance with the dictator

On the surface, the former basketball player Dennis Rodman seems easy to grasp.




He’s a 6ft 8in black guy, with dyed blond hair, pierced nostrils, a pierced lip, and around 100 tattoos, the largest of which is, as he puts it, “a spread-eagled beauty pleasuring herself”.

He is, in his own words, “America’s No 1 badass”. So: he’s big, brash, edgy and horny. He says he’s slept with 2,000 women — including Madonna, whom he tried to impregnate. His lived life has been a rolling tabloid pageant — hotels, nightclubs, booze, brawls, cops, motorbikes, doctors, rehab, hundreds upon hundreds of strippers, more hotels — and, recently, increasingly extreme PR stunts. I’m meeting him to talk about his latest, a strange concoction that involves Rodman, an Irish bookmaker and a Third World dictator.

The bookmaker is Paddy Power. The dictator is Kim Jong Un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Rodman, who likes Kim, refers to him simply as “the Marshal”. Or “this young kid”.

As a player, Rodman was a member of the famous Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s — he played alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. A “power forward” with a strong defence, he was good at stopping the opposition. In football terms, he was more of a Rio Ferdinand than a Wayne Rooney. What Rodman realised, about halfway through his career, was the importance of image. He styled himself as a rebel — and an on-court hard guy. He dyed his hair. He tatted up. Pierced his nostrils and nipples. Head-butted a referee. And the media lapped him up — he drew big TV audiences, in the way John McEnroe had for tennis. Sponsors — and strippers — threw themselves at Rodman. He partied hard. Now he’s retired, he’s still partying hard.

I’ve made it clear that I want to interview Rodman, 52, somewhere quiet, and he’s agreed to see me in his hotel suite in central London. But there’s a last-minute change of plan — he’s in a place called Humidor, just about the only public establishment in London where you’re allowed to smoke. Rodman, of course, smokes. He likes big cigars. When I arrive, he’s sitting in a small, smoke-filled room, talking expansively to the room in general. He has a bodyguard, who is much smaller than him. He’s hiding behind huge sunglasses, a baseball cap and a cloud of acrid smoke. He’s wearing tracksuit bottoms and Crocs (size 15). Up close, I can see, Rodman is not quite so easy to grasp.

At first, his demeanour is odd, verging on mildly hostile. It’s like having an audience with a gang boss. He says: “What’s your name — Larry?” No, I say. I introduce myself and offer a handshake. He offers a fist. A huge fist. So I bump his fist with my fist. “Let’s just talk,” he says. “How’s everything going? Let’s just talk — come on!”

Rodman laughs in a way that might or might not be sinister. “It’s up to you to play the game,” he says. I’m nodding slowly. He says: “Simple shit.”

I can see that, eventually, I just might get his attention. But this is classic Rodman — even he has admitted he is always trying to distance himself from people. It’s on account of his childhood — he grew up shockingly poor in the housing projects of Dallas.

His father, who is actually called Philander, was a terrible philanderer and disappeared when Rodman was tiny. His mother had to work so hard, scrabbling from job to job, that she didn’t have much time for intimacy. In any case, he has said, she preferred his sisters. As a kid, he could not command enough attention from the females in his family; as an adult, he went through a phase of wearing dresses in public. As a teenager, he thought he might be gay. You don’t have to be Freud here, do you?

Much later, after he famously had a brawl with Carmen Electra, his wife at the time — he said it was because she tried to insert something in his bottom — Rodman went wild. The police were called. “A man’s butt is his castle,” he explained later.

Another thing concerning intimacy is that Rodman is incapable of committing to just one woman. He usually has a main woman, whom he refers to as “the mothership“, and several satellites, whom he calls “life rafts”.

So I’ll have to tread carefully. He’s a textbook case of a man with a huge, but also fragile, ego. So I ask him about this latest project — a basketball game, between a Rodman-selected team and the North Korean national side, to be played in Pyongyang on Jan 8, which is Kim Jong Un’s 31st birthday. I speak to the marketing spokesman for Paddy Power, the bookmaking company that is promoting the event — he’s actually called Paddy Power — and he refers to it as “basketball diplomacy”. It sounds crazy. But it might just be brilliant. As Power says, here’s this huge, pierced, tattooed black dude, and he’ll be hanging out with the leader of a country that, to say the least, does not celebrate diversity.

Rodman explains: “It’s like saying, if I went to South Africa, to a village... I’d be going because the people need money. It’s the same thing with North Korea. They need money. I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it to open a gap between North Korea and the world. And North Korea has a lot of things to offer. They want to branch out.”

He bites on his cigar. Takes a puff. “I’m not saying that the Marshal of North Korea is in control. It’s the system that’s been built for years and years and years. And this young kid is trying to do one thing — to open that gap. To do something to make it work.”

He goes on: “It’s amazing how people say how dangerous North Korea is, and how poverty is really eatin’ the country up because of the Marshal. I’ll just say this in favour of the Marshal. If you sit back and look at China, Japan, Tokyo and Hong Kong, it’s amazing how we, as Americans, and the BK — the UK here — most of the products are made in Asia. Over there. And they slave for 20 hours a day to make what? Fifty cents an hour? I don’t hear shit like that! Really! Guess what? We’re selling shoes! And the richest countries around the world — China, Tokyo, Japan...”

At some point, Rodman’s precise argument bypasses me. But, as his rant becomes more effusive, I pick up his gist. It is, I think: North Korea might be bad, but lots of other places, places that make our shoes, are bad, too. Also, it’s not all the Marshal’s fault. The repressive system is not something he built — it’s something he inherited. “Remember that recession shit?” says Rodman, waving his cigar. “Well, no one knows that shit!” It suddenly occurs to me that the reason he calls the UK “the BK” might be because of the American sneaker brand British Knights. Opening his arms, he encompasses China in his argument: “Instead of having 10 motherfucking kids, it’s only three! No more than three now! After that, it’s a bitch! And no one knows that shit! You can’t have kids no more!”

I nod. Point taken. Sort of. He returns to the subject of the Marshal. “As I say, the guy — he’s a good guy. He’s a good guy. He’s a good-hearted kid.”

How did this all come about? Rory Scott, who works for Paddy Power as a publicity fixer, explained it to me. In February, when the Pope resigned, Paddy Power ran a book on the Papal succession. Scott and Power went to Rome to publicise the idea. Cardinal Turkson from Ghana and Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria were in the running for the Papacy. Scott had an idea: if you bet on any candidate, and one of the cardinals became Pope, you’d get your money back. He also came up with a slogan: “Get your money back if the Pope’s black.”

So there they were, the Irish bookie and his publicist, rattling around Rome, trying to get people to bet on who the new Pope would be. Reading a newspaper one day, Scott saw a picture of Dennis Rodman meeting Kim Jong Un, the Supreme Commander of North Korea. Rodman had been invited by Shane Smith, a documentary-maker connected to the Vice media group, who had arranged a basketball exhibition in North Korea. One evening, there was a knock at Rodman’s door. Several officials had been ordered to bring him to the Supreme Leader’s palace. He thought he was being arrested. But he wasn’t — he was being given an audience with Kim Jong Un, who is a massive basketball fan; when he was a student, in Geneva, he loved the Chicago Bulls. You can just see it: lonely student, funny haircut, no experience of the West, sitting there, watching Rodman’s antics. Loving the tatts, the piercings, the implication of sex and rebellion.

He invited Rodman back to spend a few days on his private island. “It’s like Hawaii or Ibiza, but he’s the only one that lives there,” said Rodman recently. That is, aside from the “50 or 60 people around him all the time — just normal people, drinking cocktails and laughing the whole time”. Kim’s tequila is top quality: “Everything he has is the best.”

The way Rodman explains it to me is: “I don’t care what the fuck he does over there, what he does over here — between me and him, we’re friends. I don’t care.”

Anyway, Scott thought Rodman would be a great frontman for the “Money back if the Pope’s black” campaign. Rodman agreed. He flew to Rome. Sitting in a restaurant one night, Scott, Power and Rodman came up with an idea. A basketball match! In North Korea! On the Marshal’s 31st birthday!

Rodman takes his cigar out of his mouth. “If it works — great!”

We look at each other. “It will work,” he says. “It will work. Just watch. Twenty-four months from now. The door will open — a crack. It took an asshole like me to do it. On January 8, I will be the most famous guy in the goddamn world — without even trying.”

Rodman has sometimes described the double-edged sword of fame. We talk about how, somewhere inside, there exists a guy called Dennis Rodman, who grew up poor, fatherless and hopeless in Dallas, who was “a drug dealer and a thief”. He says: “I don’t try to over-analyse, to relive it. If I did, guess what? We do have emotional trigger points. You do cry alone sometimes. You do cry alone.”

But then, every morning, he puts on his shades and his baseball cap, and becomes a different person — “Dennis Rodman“, the persona he created with the help of the media. The party animal who never stops. The guy who drinks, sometimes for days on end. The guy with a protective carapace of strippers and Bunny Girls, a moveable entourage that protects him from everything, even his girlfriends. He once had a bender that involved a motorcycle accident; he went to hospital, had his leg stitched up, then went back to a strip club. The bender continued. “Always do one thing — go forward,” he says.

Where does he live now? “Hotels,” he says.

We talk about his father, who has moved to the Philippines, and whom Rodman contacted and visited a few years ago. “He had 15 kids living with him. I don’t see him as my father. I see him as ... my friend. I’ve done all my crying. If I had my father back then, I wouldn’t be here now.”

YOU can see why Dennis Rodman mostly prefers to be “Dennis Rodman” — it’s a way of avoiding psychological pain, mostly with women. For Rodman, intimacy is the hardest thing. He has often said he refuses to remain faithful to one woman. That way, he’s never alone. And his relationships don’t last long, because nobody likes being cheated on. Or, as Rodman has put it, “There’s always fine print.”

“Life doesn’t play fair, man,” he tells me. “Pick a woman. What’s the chance she’s going to be with you for ever? If you googled divorce rates today, it’s insane! Go any place. And watch women. Watch ‘em. If you look at women, you see one thing. They’re not trying to impress men. They’re trying to impress who? Other women.”

Still, sometimes he falls in love. One of his great romances was with the actress and model Carmen Electra. “I don’t know how many hotel rooms we destroyed having sex. Anybody who heard it must have thought we were fighting, or trying to kill each other,” he wrote in his autobiography I Should Be Dead By Now.

One day, after a long bender, Rodman and Electra decided to get married. But Rodman’s handlers — his agent, his manager, and his lawyer — didn’t like the idea. They wanted the bride-to-be to sign a prenuptial agreement. Rodman and Electra drove to the airport, having arranged a private flight to Vegas.

Rodman’s manager wouldn’t let them get on the plane. He threatened to “blow a hole in the engine”. Then the pilot refused to fly. So Rodman ordered his manager to drive them to Vegas. The three got in Rodman’s Bentley. The couple passed out in the back. Rodman’s manager drove him home. “We wanted to get married so badly,” wrote Rodman.

In the end, they did — but annulment papers were filed nine days later. Electra did not appreciate being cheated on. “She couldn’t tame the wild man,” Rodman wrote, “and neither could I.” I then ask him about his six-month fling with Madonna.

“I told her, ‘I don’t like your music. It sucks. It’s bubblegum’.” But she’s an “awesome person”.

He’s very enthusiastic about sex — so much so that he’s “broken his dick” three times. Three times, I say. I mean, once sounds bad enough. He says, “You know that Lionel Richie song?” He starts to sing ‘Three Times a Lady’. Then he laughs, hard.

He’s not a reformed character. He still drinks, still parties. “I’m still doing my thing. It’s up to me to stop. I don’t do pills or nothin’.” He says he doesn’t want any more children. Says he knows he’s been a bad father to his three children: Alexis, Dennis Jr and Trinity, aged 25, 13 and 12. Says he made a point of explaining himself in the speech he made upon being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. “I said how bad I am. How bad I was. My kids were right in front of me.”

For a moment, he brightens. He has an idea: “We could go to Stringfellows. Get our shit together. I guarantee you it’s open.” But it’s mid-afternoon and Stringfellows is closed. Some girls walk past the window. He says he’ll give me “30 quid” to have sex with one of them. “If she likes it.”

We laugh. He is being “Dennis Rodman”. He says, “I’m pretty much balanced. You have to understand why you’re living. Because it’s coming.” He’s talking about death. “Eventually, you’re going to go there.”

We look at each other for a while. I can’t see his eyes. I haven’t seen his eyes once. He’s getting ready to party. Tonight: the Playboy Club in Mayfair, where he will be photographed with Bunny Girls. Soon: basketball in Pyongyang. What’s his ambition in life? “To make life the way I want it to be before I die.”

Rodman stands, revealing his full height. Of course, he’s very, very tall — but, in NBA terms, not by any means the tallest. “You’ve gotta shower with these guys — you’ve gotta look at their cocks, right?” he says. “You’ve gotta look at their cocks.” He laughs, in a way that may or may not be sinister. “I’m not gay,” he says.

Walking with Rodman, from the cigar bar to the hotel, I wonder what the future holds for him. One imagines years of reality TV shows — Celebrity Big Brother and Celebrity Apprentice maybe, or a show based on his life, or maybe a supporting role in a cheesy action movie alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme, followed by a sad performance on Celebrity Rehab. The thing is, he’s already done all these things. On Celebrity Apprentice, his family, friends and handlers staged a rehab intervention to deal with his drinking. When he made Double Team with Van Damme, his performance was panned.

On the night Celebrity Rehab aired, he was “ejected from an Orange County, California, restaurant for disruptive behaviour”. Looked at in this light, a warm relationship with Kim Jong Un looks logical — perhaps even necessary.

When we enter the Soho Hotel, his home for the moment, he looks around, spots two blondes at a corner table, walks across the room and sits with them. One day, perhaps, he will learn to live life as himself. But for now, aged 52, he is still eager to party, still moving forward, still looking for ways to spend one more day as “Dennis Rodman”.

* The Paddy Power Dennis Rodman Invitational takes place in North Korea in January 2014

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