Dennis Rodman and North Korea: A Love Story

His latest stunt with the North Korean dictator is a sign that the attention-seeking former baller is still empty inside.

Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

At the peak of his 1990s notoriety, he had a TV show, was wearing wedding dresses in public, dated Madonna, then briefly married Prince protégée Carmen Electra. He co-starred in films, including a Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick. He dyed his hair outrageous colors (after watching the Sylvester Stallone sci-fi flick Demolition Man) and became known for his tattoos and garish stunts, often overshadowing his admirable work on the basketball court.

But all this was subterfuge. Rodman was playing the clown to get our attention, then drowning himself in alcohol when fickle fandom wasn’t enough. In 2011 many were surprised by Rodman’s frank Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech, during which he admitted his many flaws. He spoke of being desperate for a father figure: His father abandoned him as a child, so he sought one in his coaches. He apologized for being a terrible father to his own children and a “bad son” to his mother.

About the speech, Patrick Hayes wrote (emphasis mine): “He didn’t apologize in an, ’I’m going to make it up to you guys,’ kind of way. That was what was so real about it—Rodman’s life, driven by pain, driven by the difficult time he’s had managing his emotions and vices, is not controllable. He’s cognizant that he’s hurt people and at the same time terrified that he can’t change.”

Rodman has a hole in his heart that he fills with all the wrong things.

Trophies. Trophy wives. Fame-whoring. Alcohol. Awards. Fair-weather fans. Media attention. No matter what Rodman consumes, it doesn’t replace what’s really needed. So now “the Worm” has tragically filled up his empty vessel with a North Korean fantasy.

To Kim Jong Un, Rodman is a way to hang out with the icons of his youth, to buy a part of something he can never have for himself. To Americans, Rodman is an embarrassing relic of the 1990s. But to Rodman, North Korea is a time machine where he gets to be forever an NBA All Star, forever adored and displayed triumphantly, like a really well-kept, rare anthropological study. “See the NBA icon in his natural habitat, the basketball court!” Now with cigars and endless, fawning adulation. He’s like a Sarah Baartman who’s in on the cruel joke, encourages it and profits.

Rodman’s excursions to North Korea are not about money, about being a “bad boy” or some secret ruse as a CIA plant. This is about a drunken, wounded man using a nuclear-powered tyrant as salve to his bludgeoned ego. It’s about trying to recapture something Rodman either lost years ago or—in all honesty—never truly had.

You see, Rodman doesn’t believe anyone actually loves him, so he takes his love where he can get it, like so many other grown children who have felt used and abandoned. While those players whom Rodman convinced to go on this moneyed excursion might have excuses that ring false, Rodman’s “love,” tragically, rings true.

Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine.