Dennis Rodman, diplomat?

    When Dennis Rodman played professional basketball, he was called “The Worm” for his rebounding prowess. But Rodman’s clashes with referees and wild off-court antics earned him another, less endearing nickname: Dennis the Menace.



    And that’s what critics are calling him again, now that the former Southeastern Oklahoma State star has wormed himself into American foreign policy.

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    Rodman recently accompanied a TV crew and three Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea, where he attended a basketball game with the nation’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un. Afterwards, Rodman pronounced him “awesome” and “a good guy” — and urged President Obama to call Kim.

    Rodman’s remarks generated mirth as well as outrage on the Internet, which lit up with pictures of Rodman sitting alongside Kim. Believe it or not, though, Rodman’s trip could actually lead to better relations between North Korea and the United States. Indeed, it’s hard to see how they could get much worse.

    Admittedly, we’re talking about a a guy who wore a wedding dress to promote his book and once challenged NBA commissioner David Stern to a naked boxing match. So veteran Rodman-watchers assumed that he was just playing the buffoon — and pumping up his bank account — in a new country.

    To other critics, however, Rodman’s latest escapade was no joke.

    Stern led the way, condemning Rodman for cozying up to a dictator who is “starving his own people.”

    Secretary of State John Kerry was more circumspect, but left no doubt about his own disdain.

    “Dennis Rodman is a great basketball player,” Kerry said. “And as a diplomat, he is a great basketball player. And that’s where we’ll leave it.”

    Sporting diplomacy

    Sometimes, though, sports can succeed where diplomacy can’t.

    In 1971, American athletes helped put the United States on a path to peace with another murderous and secretive Communist enemy: the People’s Republic of China.

    China was coming off its Cultural Revolution, when millions were slaughtered, and it was closed to American visitors. The U.S. athletes were ping-pong players, who had gone to Japan to play in a 1971 tournament. Thanks to a series of coincidences, one of the Americans—19-year-old Glenn Cowan—boarded the Chinese team’s bus.

    The Chinese had been warned not to interact with Americans. But their star player, Zhuang Zedong, bravely welcomed Cowan and told him — through an interpreter — that the Chinese and Americans could be friends, even if their governments were not. Zhuang also gave Cowan a silk painting, as an impromptu gift from one athlete to another.

    A self-described “hippie,” Cowan later gave Zhuang a T-shirt bearing the American flag over the words “Let it Be.”

    Their new friendship made international headlines and was reported to Chinese dictator Mao Tse-Tung, who had initially promoted ping-pong but soured on it during the Cultural Revolution. Three of the leading Chinese players had committed suicide after being jailed and tortured; Zhaung Zedong was imprisoned, too, but his own suicide attempt failed.

    Fortunately, Mao had recently rehabilitated Zhuang and was looking for a safe way to begin diplomatic contact between China and the United States.

    Back in America, as it happened, president Richard Nixon was seeking the same thing.

    Ping-pong provided it

    The Chinese sent the American team an invitation, which was quickly approved by the White House. A few days later, 15 American players arrived in the country for a week-long tour.

    The visitors were shocked by the anti-American propaganda they encountered, including posters of a pygmy Nixon being vanquished by muscular Chinese workers. But they were also gratified by the friendly welcome from curious citizens, who crowded around them wherever they went.

    With his long flowing hair and tie-dye outfits, Glenn Cowan turned the most heads.

    During an audience with Chou En-Lai, Cowan asked the Chinese premier what he thought of the “American hippie movement.” And when the team was accosted by 600 reporters in Hong Kong after leaving China, Cowan confidently announced that he “could mediate between Chou En-lai and Nixon quite easily.”

    Cowan shared a wacky streak with Dennis Rodman, who says he plans to return to North Korea to broker a peace deal between Kim Jong Un and Barack Obama. “He loves basketball,” Rodman said, praising Kim. “Obama loves basketball. Let’s start there.”

    Naive? Sure. But we do have to start somewhere. The U.N. just slapped new sanctions on North Korea, which warned that it would terminate its 60-year armistice with South Korea. Meanwhile, North Korean authorities posted an on-line video of New York under an apparent nuclear attack from Pyongyang.

    By comparison, a basketball game—or a ping-pong match—seems pretty tame. And that’s the whole point. Less than a year after the American ping-pong team’s visit, Mao Tse-Tung welcomed Richard Nixon to China. “The little ball moves the Big Ball,” Mao said. Dennis Rodman couldn’t have put it better himself.

    Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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