Really? Dennis Rodman? Are we talking about the same guy here – the one with more metal in his head than the average toaster, chameleon hair, tattoos and wedding dress? This is the Dennis Rodman who’s now “friends for life” with Kim Jong-un?
Basketball diplomacy, they’re calling it. They can’t have seen anything like this out there since Corporal Klinger hung up his nurse’s uniform in M*A*S*H. Who knows? Perhaps Rodman has been striving for a Section 8 discharge all these years, and has finally been repatriated to a dystopia where he can feel properly at home. Oddball diplomacy, more like.
Or maybe he’s closer to “Radar” O’Reilly, who mailed home a jeep piece by piece – prompting Hawkeye to predict that his postman, on finding out, would have a retroactive hernia. Rodman might yet turn out to be working with the CIA to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capacity, and return home casually wearing vital parts in his ears, nose and lips.
True, it’s better than sending over Frank Burns. But surely there was a more suitable candidate, even within the basketball community. Step forward Ron Artest of the LA Lakers – or, as he has been known since legally changing his name in 2011, Metta World Peace.
Yep, you heard me. World Peace. That’s what it says on his jersey, and that’s what they say in commentary. And you couldn’t ask for a more wholesome contrast from the subliminal aggression of a name like Rodman. Any dictator worth his salt would like to be called Rodman. Think rod of iron. Stick not carrot. Think, also, of an implied priapic magnitude, indispensable to every tyrant nervous of Napoleon complex.
Surely sending World Peace to Pyongyang would have been more appropriate? After all, this is the man who changed his name “to inspire and bring youth together all around the world”. True, this is also the man who once served a 73-game suspension, the longest in NBA history, after climbing into the crowd and punching a fan. In fairness, that was when he was still Ron Artest, who had a history of domestic violence and drank cognac in the locker room at half-time. But it was World Peace whose “unintentional” elbow concussed an opponent only last year. Who needs a nuclear threat, you might ask, when you can have World Peace?
Regardless, it’s nice to see the relationship between sport and politics again under review after all these years. In this country, of course, the debate has lapsed largely because we don’t really do politics any more. The polarities of the apartheid era, and Olympic boycotts, have been assimilated in a consensus of panicked self-interest. Politics is itself increasingly a game, a reality show. As a result, it can only be a matter of time before celebrities start exploiting a shallow continuum between sport, show business and Westminster.
We have already had an actor in the White House, obviously – though it remains an edifying mystery how a system so dependent on money and influence keeps producing weirdly statesmanlike candidates. (Even if they normally lose. Whatever else they might have been, John Kerry and Al Gore were the very opposite of “jocks”.)
But sport has hitherto produced few to follow Imran Khan, George Weah and the sainted Lord Coe into politics. Some day, perhaps, we will see John Terry at the Home Office, Michael Chopra as Chancellor, and David Beckham in the Elysée Palace. In the meantime, we must make do with the surreal career of Stuart Drummond, serving his third term as mayor of Hartlepool after initially standing as H’Angus The Monkey, mascot of the town’s football club.
Even in retirement, Rodman retains a sufficiently distorted sense of his status to position himself, jolly kindly, between mankind and apocalypse. Sooner or later someone, somewhere, is going to take the logical next step for a rampant ego, lovingly stimulated by mass adulation. In team sports, moreover, our hero will have been seen in constant altruism, his magisterial qualities devoted to a common cause.
Unless, of course, his name is Nathan Dyer. As he tried to wrest the ball from De Guzman at Wembley last Sunday, Dyer shed the veneer of team spirit to disclose fetish-like self-regard. The longer Dyer squabbled, the more you implored his manager to order his immediate substitution. What a message that would have sent – not just to Dyer, but to anyone riding the inane tides of fame.
As it is, unfettered sporting vanity can always surprise us. You think you’ve seen it all before, then Rodman rocks up in North Korea. Of course, the only person who has really seen it all before is Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. That’s how he was able to achieve the height of cynicism, even as he raised a glass and anticipated Rita’s favourite toast. “I’d like to say a prayer,” he says. “And drink to world peace.”