PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Former NBA star Dennis Rodman held tryouts Friday for a North Korean team to face a dozen NBA veterans in an exhibition game on leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday next month — though he hasn’t convinced all the players on the American team that it’s safe to come to Pyongyang.
The flamboyant Hall of Famer said plans for the Jan. 8 game are moving ahead but some of the 12 Americans he wants are afraid to come.
Some foreign analysts say the dramatic purge and execution of Kim’s once-powerful uncle less than a week ago has cast doubt on Kim’s future. But officials here say there is no instability and Kim remains firmly in control.
“You know, they’re still afraid to come here, but I’m just telling them, you know, don’t be afraid man, it’s all love, it’s all love here,” Rodman told The Associated Press after the tryouts at the Pyongyang Indoor Gymnasium. “I understand what’s going on with the political stuff, and I say, I don’t go into that venture, I’m just doing one thing for these kids here, and for this country, and for my country, and for the world pretty much.”
Rodman, who arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday, said he expects to announce the roster soon. He also said he is planning another game in June.
Rodman, wearing a pink button-down shirt and puffing on a cigar, watched as a couple dozen local players took to the basketball court for the tryouts. After the session, he told the players that each of the 12 he chooses will get two new pairs of tennis shoes.
When asked why he liked basketball, North Korean player Kim Un Chol told Rodman he started playing the game because he was impressed by it on TV, and said he also wants to be good at the sport because it is a favorite of leader Kim and his late father, Kim Jong Il.
Rodman asked all the players if they felt the same way. They nodded in unison.
“I want you guys to do one thing for your leader,” Rodman then told them. “It’s his birthday. It’s a very special, special day for the country.”
Rodman and Kim have struck up an unlikely friendship since he traveled to the secretive state for the first time in February with the Harlem Globetrotters for an HBO series produced by New York-based VICE television.
He remains the highest-profile American to meet Kim since the leader inherited power from his father in 2011.
Known as much for his piercings, tattoos and bad behavior as he was for basketball, Rodman has mostly avoided politics in his dealings with the North and has avoided commenting on the North’s human rights record or its continued detainment of American Kenneth Bae for allegedly committing anti-state crimes.
On Friday, he stressed that he hopes the game will be friendly, without political or nationalistic overtones.
He said the former NBA players will take on the North Koreans in the first half, but the teams will be mixed for the second half.
“It’s not about win or loss. It’s about one thing — unite two countries,” Rodman said.