Dennis Rodman's strange, naive fascination with North Korea (2023)

Dennis Rodman has clung to celebrity, or at least his sketchy notion of it, for the nearly two decades since his basketball career ended. "Anyone with the right combination of flair, talent, drive and luck can become important in America," Rodman wrote in 1997, in the third of his four - count 'em, four - memoirs, "Walk on The Wild Side."

If importance is still what he is after, he holds a broad and naive view of it. Rodman is walking 1990s nostalgia. The subversive vibes he projected as a player today come across as behavior that resembles the way a small, rebellious child might imagine a cool adult.

Rodman, 56, a Hall of Famer whose manic energy and genius sense for rebounding helped him win five NBA championships and become perhaps the greatest defensive player in league history, resurfaced this month when he took his fifth trip to North Korea to visit Kim Jong Un, the Stalinist leader whom he befriended in 2013. The latest trip, which the State Department distanced itself from and Rodman called a "mission," was funded by, a company that peddles cryptocurrency for buying and selling marijuana.

"The main thing we doing is trying to open doors between both countries," Rodman said in a video uploaded to his Twitter account before he departed, walking next to Chris Volo, part of his marketing team and a former low-level mixed martial arts fighter. "Wish us luck."

When Rodman returned, he hawked T-shirts on his Twitter feed. They showed a cartoon image of himself spinning a basketball with one hand and flashing a peace sign with the other, sandwiched by the words "Ambassador Rodman." By last Tuesday morning, he had settled in New York. A night earlier, Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student held in North Korea for more than a year and released June 13 in a coma, had died at home in Ohio.

Rodman made no public comment in the immediate aftermath of Warmbier's death. In an interview broadcast Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America," however, Rodman and Volo insisted that his visit to North Korea helped lead to Warmbier's release. A State Department official told The Associated Press he had nothing to do with it.

Rodman offered "prayer and love" to Warmbier's family in the ABC interview, adding, "I didn't know he was sick."

"As always, I advised him not to go, but he doesn't listen to anyone," said his friend Elaine Lancaster, a Miami actress who met Rodman in the early 1990s. "Dennis is one of the sweetest, most approachable people you'd ever want to know. He does this stuff to stir up publicity a little bit. But Dennis is nothing but pure love."

Those close to Rodman believe he travels to North Korea with sincere, if naive, intentions. "He genuinely thinks he's trying to change the world," Lancaster said. But having befriended Kim Jong Un, a basketball fanatic who reportedly admired Rodman as a player, he seems, even to some friends, willfully ignorant of the dictator's brutality.

"I said Dennis, you realize they have gulags and they have oppressive regimes, right?" Lancaster said. "He said, 'Yeah, but I haven't seen it.' Of course you haven't seen it!"

Rodman told ABC "if you actually talk to" Kim Jong Un, people would see a friendly person. He said the two have sang karaoke and ridden horses together.

Aside from his trips to North Korea, Rodman's post-basketball life can be distilled into a string of legal troubles, voluminous alcohol consumption and trading off B-list fame. In 2012, he allegedly owed more than $800,000 to his ex-wife and the mother of two of his three children. In legal filings, his representatives responded by saying he was broke and unable to pay, his alcoholism having sapped his corporate marketing opportunities.

Over years, drinking and loud parties led to rampant run-ins with police. "His former oceanfront home in Newport Beach could have been mistaken for a police substation," the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2012. Rodman went into rehab following a doomed "basketball diplomacy" trip to North Korea in 2014, only to emerge and proclaim he wasn't an alcoholic. This February, a judge sentenced him to three years of probation after he faced misdemeanor charges for driving the wrong way up a highway entrance ramp after midnight one night last July, causing another motorist to veer into a sidewall on the I-5 in Santa Ana, California.

Through turbulence, Rodman engenders warmth. "I love Dennis Rodman like a brother," said John Salley, a former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls teammate. "I really mean that." The political naivete he shows in his North Korean dealings materializes elsewhere in his life as innocence. His generosity, mixed with apparent indifference toward material good, both worries and charms friends.

"He rarely has money, but when he does he has big wads of cash," Lancaster said. "I've seen him give $100 bills to homeless people. I say 'Dennis, what the hell are you doing?' 'I'm just going to give it to strippers, anyway.' "

Rodman keeps a small stable of advisers who double as friends, and he felt deep hurt when it turned out one of them, a presumed financial adviser whom he counted as a trusted friend, had been stealing from him for years. Peggy Fulford, a 58-year-old who went by several aliases, was arrested in December after an FBI investigation and charged with defrauding former NFL running back Ricky Williams and three other professional athletes, including Rodman, who, according to, earned $26.97 million during his playing career.

According to a U.S. attorney in Texas's Southern District, Fulford gained the trust of victims before she scammed them. She claimed she had graduated from Harvard Business School and had become rich buying and selling hospitals and real estate in the Bahamas. She told "clients" she would not take a fee, because she had already become wealthy enough, and wanted only to ensure they would not go broke. Those were all lies. Instead, she gained access to their accounts and used the money to buy luxury cars, real estate, jewelry and airline tickets.

"She was one of his friends," said Bradford Cohen, a Florida-based lawyer who has represented Rodman in various cases since 2003. "That's what kind of hurt him the most, when he found out he was missing a lot of money. He's got a tight circle of friends. That hurt him. It was very upsetting."

Rodman grew up without a father in Texas and worked part-time as a janitor after high school, during which time he grew nine inches. He played organized basketball for the first time at an NAIA school in Oklahoma. In his mid-20s with the Detroit Pistons, coach Chuck Daly became the closest thing he had to a male authority figure. When the Pistons forced out Daly, Rodman changed. As he has chronicled many times, he "killed" the person he called "the old Dennis" and crafted a new persona.

In the latter half of his playing career, Rodman wielded his unruly streak as a marketing weapon. Despite a playing style reliant on hustle and subtlety, he achieved fame - a Rolling Stone cover, celebrity flings with Madonna and Carmen Electra, to whom he was married for five months - beyond that reserved even for the sport's greatest scorers and most traditionally marketable personalities. Playing alongside Michael Jordan for the dynastic Chicago Bulls, his dyed hair, piercings and embrace of the LBGTQ community were utterly alien to professional sports.

"He was the one who started it," Salley said. "Now, you can't get in the NBA without a tattoo. Most people looked and go, 'You can do that? I always wanted to do that.' "

As the limelight from basketball faded, he latched on to fame in forms available to oddball stars - professional wrestling, two turns on Donald Trump's "The Celebrity Apprentice," autograph signings, paid appearances. He talked on camera with Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil.

He makes a living now on the outer reaches of celebrity. Rodman frequently books gigs as a host/emcee at clubs in Europe alongside the DJ Vic Latino. "Worldwide, bro," said a man who answered the phone at Nene Musik, his booking agent. "Could be Moscow. Could be anywhere." The products Rodman offers on his website include action figures, T-shirts, fantasy sports games and personalized voice-mail messages, at $500 a pop.

"In the past couple years, he's made a living because people still love Dennis," Cohen said. "Everybody loved his hustle. Everybody loved his persona. Especially in Europe, he's like a huge star. People still love him, so they pay him to do appearances."

The appearances have given Rodman, it seems, a warped sense of his place in the culture. When he shows up at an appearance, people come to see him. He is often stopped for autographs and photos. The recognition, combined with his experience during his basketball playing days and general naivete, have given him an exaggerated scale of his fame. "If you ranked the 10 most identifiable people on the planet, I'd be Number 5," he told Sports Illustrated in 2013. "I'd come in right after God, Jesus, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama."

Rodman's deluded notions provide a theory as to why he continues to travel to North Korea, beyond the fact that companies on the fringe keep paying him to do it. He seems possessed of the belief he can bridge the United States and North Korea.

Rodman supported Trump's presidential campaign and knows him from his two appearances on his reality TV show. He handed North Korea's sports minister Kim Il Guk a copy of Trump's book, "The Art of the Deal," in Pyongyang last Thursday. He did not meet with Kim Jong Un before returning home.

Before leaving Beijing for the North Korean capital last Tuesday, Rodman told reporters trailing him, including CNN, he hoped to do "something that's pretty positive" during his visit. Although Warmbier was released the day Rodman arrived, those involved called the timing a "bizarre coincidence."

During prior trips, Rodman had scolded President Barack Obama for refusing to talk with Kim; Obama administration officials said they would have blocked Rodman's visits if possible under law, on the belief they distracted from the plight of North Korea's impoverished population.

Suzanne Scholte, chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, an organization working to improve human rights in the country, said the connection between Rodman and Trump did not change the dynamic of Rodman's latest trip. But she believes Rodman, who told ABC he plans to return in August, has only been used as a distraction.

"I do not see Rodman having any impact on the regime's behavior," Scholte said in an email. "Whether it is harmless or dangerous, is a good question. He is simply being used to divert attention from the horrific crimes this regime is committing against its own people. It is tragic because Rodman appears to be well-intentioned and is a famous athlete. I wish that he would use that fame and influence to convince the regime to release the men, women, and children in their political prison camps, but I doubt that topic will come up."

Rodman was not interviewed for this story. Messages left with his agent were not returned.

Colin Offland, a British filmmaker, shadowed Rodman with a film crew on a 2014 trip to North Korea, the basis of the documentary "Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in Pyongyang." Offland first met Rodman in London and found him "daunting," he said. "He's got his overpowering aura about him."

The trip turned into a disaster. Rodman took a team of ex-NBA players to play against a North Korean team as a birthday present to Kim Jong Un. He drank heavily, sang "Happy Birthday" to Kim before the game and gave a drunken, unhinged interview on CNN admonishing Kenneth Bae, an American then imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp. Several players, including Vin Baker, later said they regretted attending. Despite Rodman's unsettling behavior, Offland could not help but like him.

"He became someone I really admired by the end of it," Offland said. "He had a vulnerability about him. . . . He genuinely saw an opportunity to do something. I don't want to sound naive saying this: He believed he could make a difference."

When he arrived home, Rodman checked into rehab, then told the Associated Press he was not an alcoholic. In the years since, friends say Rodman has tamped down his drinking.

"It has changed dramatically," Lancaster said. "Dennis used to drink a lot. He doesn't get annihilated anymore. We'll go out to dinner, and he'll have a couple drinks. He can stop. He's not like he used to be. I think getting in the Hall of Fame changed him a lot. He told me, through his tears, all this is for his children."

Once, after Cohen and another lawyer finished a case for Rodman in Orange County, Rodman asked if they could stop off at Walgreen's for Burt's Bees. He emerged with two thank-you cards, which carried hastily handwritten notes.

"None of my other clients ever do that," Cohen said. "It was a real heartfelt card. That's the Dennis that I know."

In April, Rodman joined former Pistons for a ceremony at the closing of the Palace at Auburn Hills, reuniting with the teammates he knew at the beginning of his public life. He updated them about his kids and asked them about their family members. He remembered the name of Salley's cousin, Sabrina.

"We called Dennis, 'Big Man,' " Salley said. "We didn't call him The Worm of any of that. Big Man is always, when he's around us, is mostly quiet and subdued and part of the fabric. When he's on his own, he's a shining diamond."

Rodman remains a tangle of contradictions, destructive of himself but generous to others, burdened, in his own mind, by brokering peace but unable to track his personal finances. "Even when he's sad," Lancaster said, "he's happy."

The most remarkable thing about Rodman may be the resilience of the body that made him a basketball all-timer. He eats clean - chicken, fish and vegetables, almost no red meat. He has never done drugs other than alcohol, and insists those around him don't, either. He hates the smell of marijuana.

Rodman has often expresses the idea he should be dead by now, including in the title of his most recent memoir. The ravages of alcohol and a life lived on the edge, though, are not readily present. Six months ago, Lancaster said, a doctor gave Rodman a full checkup, down to tests on his kidneys and liver. The doctor was shocked at the results.

"The doctor told him, 'You're in great shape, man. Keep doing what you're doing,' " Lancaster said. "I said, 'Don't tell him that!' "

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