Growing up, I loved Dennis Rodman. I was a die-hard Knicks fan (still am), and if you’re from New York, you’re taught at a young age to never respect any opposing player, even Michael Jordan. But for some reason, Rodman spoke to me. I’m talking about the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons’ Dennis Rodman. The one who worked for every rebound like his life depended on it. The guy who came off the bench and caused problems.
That is why for the first basketball game I ever attended, I told my parents I wanted to go to a Knicks/Pistons game. It was February 4, 1988 and my mother took me to Madison Square Garden where we sat up in the nose-bleeds and I cheered against every player on the Pistons except for “The Worm.” Twenty five years later, I am still cheering him on, as he continues his mission to open a cultural conversation with a country that we have been told is our enemy, North Korea.
Another country on that enemy list is Cuba. A country I visited in 1999 to film a documentary about the first ever baseball game between the Cuban National Team and a Major League ball club, the Baltimore Orioles. As we landed at the Havana airport, I had flashbacks of the air-raid drills as a kid in elementary school, hiding under our desks, in case the Soviets launched a nuclear attack. I was nervous and scared to enter my first Communist country, not knowing what to expect. And when Fidel Castro walked across the field before the game, there were certainly whispers that he was using this game to prop up his troubled dictatorship. But, when it was all over, what mattered most was that the world saw images of Americans and Cubans shaking hands and enjoying a nice day at the ballpark.
After traveling to Cuba over 25 times since, I have learned that everything I was previously told about Cuba, its people, its way of life, its politics was all wrong. Yes, Cuba is complicated. Yes, Cuba has problems. Yes, Cuba has human-rights issues. But, so do we. The death of Trayvon Martin, case and point.
North Korea has been isolated from most of the world for decades. We have been told of the brutality of its former leader, Kim Jong-il and now his son, Kim Jong-un. We have been convinced that they are trying to develop a nuclear bomb. We have been made to believe that the country is starving to death. All of these things may be true. But, I believe that the only hope for the future of humanity on this planet is to engage with each other. Isolationism is a foreign policy that did not work in the 20th century and certainly cannot work in the 21st century, with the advent of technology and mobile communication. President Obama was ridiculed by Democrats and Republicans alike, when during his 2008 campaign he said he supported “sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy” with the North Koreans. For his supporters, we applauded this change of attitude from an American politician, as my generation no longer wants to isolate anyone from the rest of the world. We want to engage. With the North Koreans. With the Iranians. With the Cubans. And with anyone else in the world who puts out their hand.
I respect Dennis Rodman and his crew of former ballplayers for putting their hands out and offering another option of diplomacy. It worked for Richard Nixon in 1972 when he used “ping-pong” as a way to open a dialogue with the Chinese, so why not give basketball a try with the North Koreans? I am not ignorant to the brutality of Kim Jong-un’s regime or the imprisonment of American, Kenneth Bae, or the poverty rate of the North Korean people. I am sure that the Kim Jong-un is using this opportunity to further solidify the strength and power of his dictatorship. If I were advising Dennis, I would have told him not to cozy up to the man in power, and just focus on basketball, as it opens Dennis up to the criticism that he is being used by Kim Jong-un. However, I also know that when countries open up to the outside world, its people begin to see a better option than their current “leader.” So, Kim Jong-un’s plan might just backfire.
Is Dennis eccentric and a little wild? Of course he is. Was he at his best during his interview with CNN? Definitely not. Did he disrespect the family of Mr. Bae? Yes. Have his trips to North Korea been partly about bringing attention to himself? Probably. Do Americans take him as serious as say, Michael Jordan? No. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t the right person to lead this delegation, as his eccentricity attracts attention. And the more attention he can bring, the more we can learn about the people of North Korea and not base our opinions on biased news reports or uniformed politicians. It was just twelve years ago that President Bush declared North Korea as an “axis of evil,” and throughout his term as President, we certainly heard the drums of war beaten often. And just this Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that they will be sending 800 more American troops, as well as tanks and armored vehicles to South Korea, as a precaution to the potential volatility in that region. If the basketball game with Dennis Rodman and his band of patriots can open a dialogue with a dictator and a nation that has been closed off for so many years, maybe risking the lives of American troops can be avoided and the drums of war can be silenced. And that is why I respect him coming off the bench and causing problems.
Michael Skolnik is the Editor-In-Chief of GlobalGrind.com and the political director to Russell Simmons. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. Previously, Michael was an award-winning filmmaker. Follow him on twitter @MichaelSkolnik
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty