On the NBA: ‘Basketball Diplomacy’

Along with members of the Harlem Globetrotters, Dennis Rodman visited North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week, in what the two men—now considered ‘friends for life,’ by Rodman—dubbed as a moment of ‘basketball diplomacy.’ Rodman subsequently went on network TV, Sunday morning, to relay the message that, when it comes to Barack Obama, the controversial Un doesn’t seek war; all he wants is a phone call. Public and pundits, alike, are skeptical: North Korea’s track record on human rights, and in threatening the U.S.A, is deplorable, and hasn’t shown improvement. But Rodman pleaded that the new is not the old; Kim Jong Un is only twenty-eight years old, and as a (potentially unwilling) heir to human cruelty, he’s still trying to figure out how to live beyond the shadow of his ancestors.

Whether or not their country and ours can ever be allies—or even acquaintances—instead of enemies, one thing is clear: everybody involved is a basketball lover. Rodman said that basketball, as it was for him and Un, could be an ice-breaker for Obama and his ostensible enemy. A photo of Un in his adolescence has emerged, with the heir sporting a Bulls jersey in the 90’s. It’s a believable situation—who didn’t have a Bulls jersey, then?—but still an amazing image, as proof that even kings and princes of the orient yearned for the stupefying glory and bombast known only to Jordan and his crew. (As highlighted in this past summer’s NBA TV production, the 1992 U.S.A Dream Team begat an unprecedented global explosion in the popularity of the game).

An earlier photo of Un is even more direct, though, in bearing his taste for American culture. Like Un, I liked Disney fare quite a bit as a child. But as soon as the Bulls began their historic spectacle of NBA dominance, Mickey took a permanent backseat to Michael, as the team largely regarded as the best in sporting’s history became an infinitely more magnetic slice of
America abroad, as well.

The question, here, is the whether the sensation of the game significantly transcends entertainment and culture; is there a point at which ‘basketball diplomacy’ is a concept with real potential? If you saw the Oscar-winning ‘Argo,’ you learned that there is, indeed, a historical precedent for forms of American international intervention that are unlikely, silly on their face, readily dismissed by politically-shrouded decision-makers, and—most importantly—ultimately effective. C.I.A. Agent Tony Mendez really did infiltrate Iran, and save would-be American hostages, under the parafictional umbrella of an alien-happy movie production.

Perhaps I merely watched M.J. save the Looney Tunes from the Monstars far too many times in my early adolescent years, but I think there’s something to this; that Rodman’s positive angle and highfalutin mission-by-accident are somewhat admirable, and that the media (as it repeatedly has been with the man called ‘the worm’) is too quick to write off a perceptive, brave, big-hearted-but-troubled man as myopic, absurd, uninformed, and laughable. Response to the event has largely been centered on quick comedy, and calls that the star struck out by not confronting Un about his repeated human rights violations. But Rodman has always been an easy target, and a moral compass which only points north has never been useful in politics. The reaction to his visit misses the miracle at base of the event: for better or worse, the world of sports has always had an uncanny power to confront and make bare our strongest socio-political barriers. And here, in the form of Rodman and Un’s head-scratching bond, sports have found our nation its most feasible entry yet into an issue of national security that’s mostly perceived as unworkable.

The president confirmed the unique political edge of the game when he gave Bill Russell the Medal of Freedom (the highest honor available to any non-military American citizen) two years ago, and said that his behavior under the pressure of racial scrutiny in 1960’s Boston was instrumental in the shaping of perception of Black Americans which made his presidency possible. And while Rodman is not Russell—far, far from it—it’s nearly as foolish, now, not to exploit a lead into the possibility of greater international harmony as it was, then, not to give Russell his due respect as the sport’s greatest winner and citizen, merely because of the color of his skin. It’s my hope that this instance of ‘basketball diplomacy’ can help to set our national vision to a speed faster than one which only properly rewarded Russell forty years past his prominence.


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