Dennis Rodman
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

I guess it’s better to be a fool with “friends” than a fool alone.

That’s the first thing that came to mind when I heard that NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman was bringing a cadre of “All Stars” to North Korea to play an exhibition game. I believed this even more after Rodman’s sometimes screaming but often rambling defense of his “friend,” North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

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Explaining why the whole “my BFF is a ruthless dictator” stuff doesn’t bother him, Rodman told reporters: “This game is for his birthday, and hopefully this opens the doors and we can actually talk about certain things and we can do certain things. But I’m not going to sit there and go, ‘Hey, guy, you’re doing the wrong thing.’ It’s not the right thing to do, he’s my friend first … I love him.”

While I have no insight as to why former NBA players Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Vin Baker and Charles D. Smith signed up for this trip to the real-life Hunger Games (other than the most obvious one: money), I have a pretty good idea what motivated Rodman.

As someone who grew up watching him play, I’d always imagined Rodman as sort of a kicked puppy who would say or do wild things while desperately clinging to anyone who tossed him some love, attention or a bone. But choosing his newfound buddies from a country known for the mass starvation of millions of its own people and operating cruel, dehumanizing gulags seems to point to a more self-immolating kind of desperation.

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Rodman has chosen to enter an unhealthy, “loving” relationship with the leadership of North Korea, a group most recently in the news for executing a government official by firing squad. (Or by vicious, starving dogs, if you believe that sort of thing.) Leader Kim is a lifelong basketball fan who grew up idolizing Rodman, as well as the 1990s Chicago Bulls roster, as a teen in a European boarding school.

Why Rodman has chosen this guy for his love is pretty obvious if you understand his history.

Dennis Rodman is not a happy person.

Rodman grew up in a turbulent home, had crippling self-esteem issues and even contemplated suicide in 1993. After that low, he reinvented himself as a “bad boy” and temporarily found the adoration he’d long sought in America’s wildly unpredictable and cruel fame cycle.

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.

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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 blacksnob.com and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine.