The Real Story Behind Dennis Rodman’s Kim Jong-un Friendship and North Korea Visit Is Wild

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Since ESPN is amongst the best—and most consistent—sports documentary producers out there, the biggest question surrounding each new installment is less about its quality, and more: Should this be a 30 for 30? For its latest episode, “Rodman: For Better or Worse,” which airs Tuesday at 9 P.M. ET, the answer probably depends on your interest in its subject—the highlighter-haired (apparent) U.S. global ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman.

As the documentary makes clear, Rodman is one of the weirdest—and somehow, most popular—athletes we’ve ever seen. After joining the Detroit Pistons in 1986, he quickly established himself as an defensive menace—winning two championships (and later, three with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls) and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards.

When his skills improved on the floor, so did his notoriety off of it—the shy rookie added piercings and a blond mohawk, began a relationship with Madonna, and later, when promoting his memoir in 1996, paraded through Fifth Avenue in a wedding dress. And, of course, there’s his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whom he made several trips throughout the 2010s to see, and said some (controversially) pretty nice things about the guy—a Black Mirror-ish stretch of time that functions as the documentary’s climax.

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ESPN Films

Yeah, it’s a lot to cover—which explains the film’s 90-minute-plus runtime. The North Korea saga comes about an hour and a half in—where we find out that Rodman’s agent, Darren Prince, didn’t know the difference between North and South Korea when he was setting up the Hall of Famer’s first meeting with Jong-un in 2013. This partially came about because the North Korean dictator is an NBA superfan and watched Rodman play basketball growing up, by the way. “The backlash was all about the way Dennis vocalized and verbalized in several interviews,” says Prince in the documentary. “The other problem was that he was drunk in several of the interviews.”

It’s an ugly sight: Rodman repeatedly defending his relationship with Jong-un to reporters: “The guy is my friend, forever and ever ever.” There’s his fourth (and drunkest) trip to North Korea, too: We see footage of Rodman singing “Happy Birthday” to Jong-un, and verbally assaulting on Irish reporter at a dinner. Rodman checked into rehab a week after he returned, but the documentary asks: Would the 2018 summit between President Trump and Jong-un have happened without Rodman? “It’s a good thing that they’re talking, right?” says Rodman in the film. “So that is my biggest legacy and the biggest thing I want in my life to carry on for the future.”

Otherwise, “For Better or Worse” is at its best when it’s running through Rodman’s strange, innocent early years in nowhere Oklahoma. After his mother threw him out of their Detroit home, Rodman enrolled at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and found something of a surrogate family out there in the Rich family—finding love at first, but later, hate when he had a nasty falling out with Pat Rich. It’s a kind of story we hardly get now that kids are jumping into basketball camps and the AAU circuit as soon as they’ve moved on from diapers.

“For Better or Worse” is by far one of the most creatively made 30 for 30s, leaning into Rodman’s weirdness with its format. The series has come a long way from the visuals of “The U,” the episode recapping Miami University’s rise as a football powerhouse which, although is one of the show’s best, looks and sounds like Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2. The episode’s between-interviews sequences are incredible, like a reenactment of Rodman’s late-career, off-floor antics that looks like Mean Streets meets Groundhog Day, tracking the back of Rodman’s head as he goes: basketball, club, bed, repeat. You’ll see an Oklahoma! number, and try to follow along with Jamie Foxx’s narration, which veers into meta territory less than a minute in.

To its credit, the episode touches on a ton of issues that tie to today’s NBA, without really drawing the line between the Jordan and LeBron eras. Even though Rodman was an old-school player (even at the time), everything else about him was new-school. His teary, genuine 1991 Defensive Player of the Year speech in a boys-don’t-cry time in the NBA came over two decades before Kevin Durant’s “This is for you, mom,” moment. And when Rodman fell asleep with a loaded rifle head outside of The Palace in 1993, the media could hardly make sense of what he was going through—a far cry from the language we’ve started to develop after Kevin Love and Demar Derozan opened up about their mental health issues.

Aside from some of the takeaways from Rodman’s story for today’s fast-changing NBA and the North Korea postscript, it’s hard to see why we needed a Dennis Rodman documentary in 2019. Especially after 30 for 30 Podcast Presents: The Donald Sterling Tapes chronicled an undeniable turning point in the NBA’s history—where players became politicians during a controversy that ramped up around the beginning of a larger reckoning with powerful men like Sterling—it seems tangential to spend so much time looking at what celebrity did to Rodman, as hard as it is to watch. Maybe it’s best to consider this one a warmup for Netflix and ESPN’s “The Last Dance”—the behemoth, 10-part Jordan-era Chicago Bulls documentary coming next year.