Dennis Rodman is on a mission to help his dictator pal bring basketball to North Korea. Tom Ellen shares an odd afternoon with a sportsman-turned-ambassador.
"You want a cigar?” Dennis Rodman asks me.
“No thanks,” I tell him. “I don’t smoke.”
He stares at me blankly. “I’ll get you a cigar,” he says.
“Honestly, Dennis, I’m fine.”
“OK, OK. I’ll get you a small one.”
I nod. “OK, a small one.”
It’s not quite as strange as it might seem that Rodman is so insistent on me having a cigar (we’re sat in a cigar bar), but it definitely is strange that the “small one” he subsequently thrusts upon me is slightly longer than my hand.
It’s my fault we’re in the cigar bar in the first place. After I complained about the noise levels in our initial interview spot – a restaurant in Rodman’s London hotel – he promptly downed his Coke, stood up, and marched me and his entourage (one man the size of two) straight here. Rodman might be channelling Cuba as he puffs contentedly on his own gargantuan Habano, but it’s another far-flung socialist republic I’m here to talk to him about: North Korea.
In one of the least predictable news events of 2013, the former NBA star-turned-jack-of-all-reality-TV-trades became the country’s unofficial ambassador when he visited in February for a documentary project, and he’s since struck up an unlikely friendship with its Hoxton-haired supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.
So solid is this unlikely bromance that Rodman is currently organising a one-off basketball match in North Korea for Kim’s birthday in January. Which is why I’m here, coughing my way through 10 inches of fermented tobacco, trying to find out what on Earth he’s playing at…
Tell me about the game in January. Who’s playing?
I can’t tell you much right now, man. But I’m going to get 12 NBA players over there, and I’ll mix up the teams, so they’ll be half-American, half-North Korean. Kim [Jong-un] loves the game; he had a Chicago Bulls jersey when he was at school in Switzerland. It’s going to be the greatest birthday in that country’s history.
Will there be any celebrity guests?
I’d like to get David Beckham there.
You should invite Eric Clapton: apparently Kim Jong-un’s brother is a massive fan, and tried to get him over to play a concert.
That’s a good one. Is that true? [Rodman’s pal confirms that “it’s on Kim Jong-un’s Wikipedia page”]. That’s cool. OK, I’m going to reach out to Eric Clapton to come along as a surprise dinner guest. He can come over for a day and surprise Kim with a song.
So, what’s the motivation behind this match? Do you think your friendship with Kim could strengthen relations between North Korea and the US?
Oh, hell yes. Kim wants that connection with the US. There’s going to be a time when he has to make a decision – do I stay a dictator or become an open-door guy? His father and grandfather wouldn’t allow him to do it, but I think he’ll break that barrier. The door is going to open, and if I have to be the guy to open it, and let people know this is a good country, I’ll do it. [Loudly sings Paul McCartney] “Someone’s knocking at the door/ Someone’s ringing the bell/Do me a favour – open the door… And let them in!” [Explodes into laughter]
How do you feel when you hear about North Korea’s dubious human-rights record?
Sh*t, it’s like anything, man. Like, when a woman says you’re bad in bed… F*ck ’em, right? [Explodes into laughter once more]
Did you do much research into the country before your visit in February?
I wasn’t trying to do a history check-up. I watched a lot of movies.
Team America: World Police?
What is that? [Rodman’s pal explains, “It’s a puppet movie”] I don’t know that one. I don’t focus on the negativity: that’s the past. Kim was brought up to be like his dad. He’s been groomed to be this way. I stay away from politics. As long as I’m friends with Kim and he trusts me, everything is awesome.
What was your first impression of North Korea?
How much they respected their leader. When you have the whole country out at 3am to build statues and sh*t – for free – that makes you a real leader [laughs]. You don’t pay them, and they still love you.
Do they love him, though? Aren’t they just terrified of him?
Hell yes, they love him. It’s a new generation now.
Right… Are there rules about how you have to conduct yourself when you speak to Kim?
For everyone else. I don’t stand up when he comes in a room, and all that bullsh*t. He’s my friend; we’re equals. He likes that. When I met him, I said, “What’s up, dude?” I didn’t kiss his ass.
Did you get him a gift?
Yeah, I got him a [basketball] jersey, and I gave his baby a signed copy of my autobiography. He gave me a little bronze statue of myself. Oh, and I got him some vodka, too.
He’s a big drinker, then?
He’s a social drinker. Whisky, vodka, whatever. The banquet we had was insane, dude. We had 20 courses. They had watermelons carved in the shape of goddamn f*cking giraffes and sh*t. They love karaoke, too.
Did Kim get up and sing during the karaoke session?
Sure he did. Everyone had to sing.
Even the Supreme Leader?
Yeah. It’s like Bill Clinton playing the horn on Jay Leno, remember that? What the f*ck was that [laughs]? That’s how he got elected, right? Anyway, Kim sung his little Korean song, then I got up and did some more upbeat, cool sh*t – some James Brown. [The North Koreans] didn’t know James Brown, but they loved the beat, it’s universal.
Apparently, there’s a law in North Korea that says men can only have a hairstyle that is state-approved. Did Kim mention any of the unorthodox hairstyles you’ve had over the years?
We don’t talk about sh*t like that. His hair’s good, though. It’s very fine. He must use Wella or some sh*t [laughs].
So, what did you talk to Kim about besides basketball?
Everything. He loves everything about the US. He’s a cool kid. He loves having fun like any other young man, you know? You don’t catch Obama going out and f*cking girls, do you?
Well, he has a wife…
Yeah, and his wife tries to look beautiful, but that’s not happening. You can quote me on that. This motherf*cker Obama is doing all this bullsh*t, meeting Beyoncé, but what’s Beyoncé ever done? I’m doing some real cool sh*t all around the world.
Finally, as you’re in London, have you been in touch with David Cameron about strengthening the UK’s ties with North Korea?
Who is David?
He’s our prime minister.
Oh, that guy? No.
Dennis Rodman jetted into London to discuss the Paddy Power Dennis Rodman Invitational basketball game, which takes place in North Korea in January 2014
(Images: Rex Features)