Former NBA star Dennis Rodman said Thursday he is hoping a basketball game he is organizing in North Korea could “engage” the American people and President Barack Obama.
“Sport is so important to people around the world so I hope this is going to engage the American people, especially Obama,” the eccentric former Chicago Bulls star told reporters at Beijing airport, on his way to Pyongyang.
Rodman is organizing an exhibition game between North Korea and a team of mainly ex-NBA players on January 8, to mark the birthday of reclusive leader Kim Jong-Un.
The young ruler, who was educated in Switzerland, is reported to be an enthusiastic basketball fan and especially of the Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played a key role in winning three NBA titles alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
The Bulls give Kim and Obama one of the few things they can agree on.
Obama, an avid basketball player, is also known to be a die-hard fan of the team, who are based in the city where the US president forged his early political career.
The heavily tattooed Rodman has developed an unlikely relationship with the North Korean leader since making his first trip there in March, when he declared Kim a “friend for life”.
Earlier this month Kim had uncle and former mentor Jang Song-Thaek executed in a surprise move, but Rodman distanced himself from political events in the country.
“I have got nothing to do with that,” he said.
The ex-NBA team is expected to be announced during Rodman’s visit to the reclusive state, his third of the year.
Rodman brushed aside official warnings by the US government to its citizens not to travel to North Korea, saying “there is nothing I can do about that” and adding that “if something happens it is beyond my control.”
He also said he would have “a good conversation” with Kim “to help the world,” without elaborating.
Accompanying Rodman to Pyongyang were Irish bookmakers and trip sponsors Paddy Power — which has said the match schedule had not been affected by political events — and a television documentary crew.
Paddy Power spokesman Rory Scott said Rodman was not being paid for his involvement in the exhibition match — which he billed “The Big Bang in Pyongyang”.
“Dennis is just doing this. We never discuss that (payment) but we are not paying him for this,” he said.
Pyongyang is holding a US citizen, Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges of trying to topple the North Korean regime, but US officials said earlier this week that they had not been in touch with Rodman over the visit and he did not represent the US government.
Rodman is one of the few Westerners to have met with Kim, who took over following the death of his father former supremo Kim Jong-Il.
On Tuesday, massed ranks of military and party leaders pledged complete loyalty to Kim on the second anniversary of his father’s death.