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Rodman worms way into N. Korea

Ex-NBA star takes shot at basketball diplomacy

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PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Former NBA star Dennis Rodman brought his basketball skills Tuesday and flamboyant style -- tattoos, nose studs and all -- to a country with possibly the world's strictest dress code: North Korea.

Landing in Pyongyang with VICE television, the American athlete and showman known as "The Worm" became an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.

Rodman is joining three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and a VICE correspondent for a news show on North Korea that will air on HBO later this year.

Rodman and VICE hope to engage in a little "basketball diplomacy" by running a basketball camp for children and playing with North Korea's top basketball stars -- and, they hope, drawing leader Kim Jong Un to a game. Kim is said to be a huge basketball fan.

"Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes," said Shane Smith, the VICE founder who is host of the upcoming series, referring to North Korea by the initials of its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.

Rodman might seem an odd fit for North Korea, where men's fashion rarely ventures beyond military khaki and where growing facial hair is forbidden. Though there's a burgeoning fashion sense among the women of Pyongyang, the men in this conservative society still tend dress austerely: khaki work suits, military uniforms, dark blue Mao-style suits or Western-style suit jackets.

Shown a photo of a snarling Rodman, piercings dangling from his lower lip and two massive tattoos emblazoned on his chest, one North Korean in Pyongyang recoiled and said: "He looks like a monster!"

But Rodman is also a Hall of Fame basketball player and one of the best defenders and rebounders to ever play the game. During an often controversial career, he won five NBA championships.

On Tuesday, Rodman, now 51, was low-key and soft-spoken in cobalt blue sweatpants and a Polo Ralph Lauren cap. There was a bit of flash: white-rimmed sunglasses and studs in his nose and lower lip.

Along with soccer, basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it's not uncommon to see basketball hoops set up in hotel parking lots or in schoolyards. It's a game that doesn't require much equipment or upkeep.

An informal poll of North Koreans revealed that "The Worm" isn't quite as much a household name in Pyongyang.

But Kim Jong Un, also said to be a basketball fanatic, would have been an adolescent when Rodman, now 51, was with the Bulls, and when the Harlem Globetrotters, an exhibition basketball team, kept up a frenetic travel schedule worldwide.

The notoriously unpredictable and irrepressible Rodman said he has no special antics up his sleeve for making his mark on one of the world's most regimented and militarized societies.

But he said he isn't leaving any of his piercings behind. "They shouldn't be scared of a few piercings."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2013 D2

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