Brittney Griner: Can Dennis Rodman free the WNBA star from Russia?

Retired NBA great has proven himself a highly unorthodox but arguably successful go-between in dealings with North Korea over the last decade

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 23 August 2022 15:03 BST
Brittney Griner pleads guilty as Russian court sentences her to nine years in jail

Dennis Rodman, the eccentric former NBA icon, has said he plans to jet out to Russia to plead for the release of Brittney Griner, the American women’s basketball star imprisoned on dubious drug trafficking charges after her arrest just days before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Ms Griner, 31, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after being found in possession of marijuana oil for a vape pen, which is illegal in Russia and has seen her sentenced to nine years behind bars, although the US has argued her detention is a politically-motivated response to the sanctions imposed on the country over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the neighbouring sovereign state.

“I got permission to go to Russia to help that girl,” Mr Rodman, 61, told NBC News. “I’m trying to go this week.”

It is not yet clear whether the White House granted that permission or whether it is an official visit, although one unnamed aide told NBC they thought the intervention would do more harm than good.

“It’s public information that the administration has made a significant offer to the Russians and anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder release efforts,” they said.

That offer relates to a proposed prisoner swap, exchanging Ms Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

There are currently no restrictions on American citizens visiting Moscow, although the State Department has advised against it because of the conflict, warning of potential “harassment” from officials and the risk of “wrongful detention”.

Mr Rodman, a pivotal part of Michael Jordan’s legendary Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s, known for his “bad boy” persona on the court, flamboyant dyed hair and high-profile relationships with Madonna and Carmen Electra, has previously spent time in North Korea after befriending dictator Kim Jong-un.

Mr Rodman met Mr Kim after visiting the country for a basketball exhibition tour in 2013, subsequently calling on then-US president Barack Obama to reach out and improve relations between the two countries.

He also tweeted Pyongyang calling for the release of American prisoner and Christian missionary Kenneth Bae after reading about his case in The Seattle Times, an event that actually did come to pass in November 2014.

“My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries,” he told Sports Illustrated in July 2013.

“Why it’s been left to me to smooth things over, I don’t know. Dennis Rodman, of all people. But I’ll tell you this: If I don’t finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something’s seriously wrong.”

Brittney Griner behind bars in Moscow
Brittney Griner behind bars in Moscow (AP)

He visited North Korea on a number of occasions that year organising exhibition games but was criticised after changing his tune on Mr Bae during an interview with CNN in January 2014 in which he suggested the captive, sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour after being charged with plotting to overthrow the government, was at fault for his detention.

Accused of being Mr Kim’s stooge, Mr Rodman apologised, retracted his remark and attributed it to alcohol and stress.

Nevertheless, Mr Bae duly emerged unscathed later that year and credited the celebrity with securing his release, saying he had helped to raise awareness of his plight around the world.

Mr Rodman became a prominent backer of Donald Trump in 2016 and returned to Pyongyang at least twice during his presidency in an attempt to smoothe relations between Mr Trump and Mr Kim as they traded insults on social media over the latter’s sabre-rattling missile testing programmes.

The basketball great reportedly gifted Mr Kim a copy of the luxury property mogul’s famous ghost-written memoirThe Art of the Deal (1987) as part of his goodwill mission, which turned out to be sponsored by Canadian cryptocurrency venture PotCoin.

While Mr Rodman has never admitted any presidential involvement in his visits to North Korea, it is true that another American detainee, 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier, was released on the day of his arrival in Pyongyang in June 2017 (Warmbier was in a non-responsive coma at the time and sadly passed away soon after being reunited with his family in Cincinnati, Ohio).

Whether Dennis Rodman’s unique profile and influence will carry the same weight with the Kremlin remains to be seen, although Vladimir Putin is hardly as impressionable and hungry for attention and adulation as his North Korean counterpart.

Mr Rodman did notoriously describe Mr Putin as “a cool guy” in 2014, however, which is the sort of flattery from an elite sportsman that might just appeal to the Russian tyrant’s sense of vanity.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in