Sports Illustrated's annual "Where Are They Now?" issue often feels like an unpredictable real-life version of Mad Libs: [Former athlete] goes to [unexpected place] and [contributes to society in surprising manner]. For 14 years now, those blanks have been filled in, simultaneously prompting trips down memory lane and offering a glimpse at life after sports.
This year's cover story is arguably the maddest of the Mad Libs: Dennis Rodman goes to North Korea in hopes of normalizing relations between the country and the United States and capturing a Nobel Peace Prize.
The eccentric, uninhibited basketball Hall of Famer drew untold headlines this year when he accompanied HBO's Vice and members of the Harlem Globetrotters on a trip to North Korea, one of the least-accessible countries to Americans and a place with one of the world's worst records on human rights. Franz Lidz caught up with Rodman for the story behind the story, revealing the former Bulls star's surreal experiences with North Korea's new leadership, his plans for international diplomacy and peace, and, yes, his belief that he should be considered for a Nobel, an honor bestowed on the likes of Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr.
Rodman's very public powwow with Kim Jong-un, the rogue state's missile-rattling dictator, was the most existential odd coupling since Nobel Prize-winning writer Samuel Beckett met a hulking boy named André Roussimoff in the French countryside and drove the future André the Giant to school in his pickup.
More astounding, Rodman got serious face and partying time with the reclusive despot, whose brother, Kim Jong-chul, used to parade around their Swiss prep school in the Worm's Bulls jersey. At a private dinner reception, Rodman even serenaded the Supreme Leader with Sinatra's "My Way." Afterward, the Worm said of Kim, "guy's really awesome" and a "friend for life." A headline in Britain's Daily Mirror pronounced them THE BASKETBALL ACE AND THE BASKETCASE.
Early on this warm, blustery afternoon outside the Jet Blue baggage claim at JFK, the Worm is holding forth -- to his limo driver, to anyone who will listen, to the wind -- on his foray into geopolitics. "Before I landed in Pyongyang, I didn't know Kim Jong-un from Lil' Kim," he says. "I didn't know what country he ruled or what went on in the country he ruled."
"Fact is, he hasn't bombed anywhere he's threatened to yet. Not South Korea, not Hawaii, not ... whatever. People say he's the worst guy in the world. All I know is Kim told me he doesn't want to go to war with America. His whole deal is to talk basketball with Obama. Unfortunately, Obama doesn't want to have anything to do with him. I ask, Mr. President, what's the harm in a simple phone call? This is a new age, man. Come on, Obama, reach out to Kim and be his friend."
Rodman plans to return to North Korea in August. "I'm just gonna chill, play some basketball and maybe go on vacation with Kim and his family," Rodman says. "I've called on the Supreme Leader to do me a solid by releasing Kenneth Bae." The Korean-American missionary was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges that he tried to topple the North Korean regime. He'd organized tours into the isolated state.
"My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries," Rodman says. "Why it's been left to me to smooth things over, I don't know. Dennis Rodman, of all people. Keeping us safe is really not my job; it's the black guy's [Obama's] job. 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."
Vice has posted must-see footage of Rodman's trip to North Korea, which was highlighted by a basketball exhibition in which he sat side-by-side with Kim. The packed house's thunderous standing ovation for its Supreme Leader -- which saw a number of grown men openly weep -- is jaw-dropping and eye-popping, a reminder of just how far outside the realm of normal Rodman ventured in making this trip.
Where is Rodman now? Out of this world, just like always, but in ways we never could have imagined.
Note: This week's cover recalls a 1995 cover that featured Rodman during his second and final season with the Spurs. The following season, the two-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year joined Michael Jordan's Bulls, reeling off three straight titles from 1996 to 1998.