The growing basketball collaboration between Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, can be traced back to an Irish online betting company and the pope.
Rodman, the former NBA star who arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday to tutor North Korea's best basketball players at Kim's behest, is doing so under the sponsorship of Paddy Power, Europe's leading internet gambling business. The four-day trip comes after a deadly purge by Kim that has raised worries of a dangerous power struggle in the nuclear-armed and often unpredictable country.
How Rodman and Paddy Power came to know each other is rooted in what gambling industry experts call the company's culture of shrewd stunt marketing, offensive ads and the acceptance of wagers on almost anything, ranging from the final episode of The Simpsons to a president's longevity in office.
The relationship began in February, when Paddy Power took note of Rodman's highly publicised first visit to North Korea and his declaration of friendship with Kim - just as company officials were strategising to maximise betting profits on the successor to Pope Benedict.
They recruited Rodman to encourage betting on a black pope, riding him around Rome in an ersatz popemobile, as speculation intensified that the cardinals closeted in the Sistine Chapel might pick Peter Turkson of Ghana to be the Catholic Church's first African pope.
"We had a money-back special: your money back if the pope's black," Rory Scott, a Paddy Power spokesman, said in a telephone interview.
So when Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, was chosen, Scott said jokingly: "Our prayers were answered."
During their pope collaboration, Scott said, Rodman and Paddy Power executives devised the idea of setting up an international basketball tournament involving North Korea's national team. Months later, when Rodman visited Kim a second time, the North Korean leader, an avowed basketball enthusiast, embraced the idea. He said they should hold the tournament in Pyongyang on his 31st birthday on January 8.
"So it all started when the pope resigned," Scott said, speaking from Beijing as he was preparing to accompany Rodman to Pyongyang. "That had everything to do with it."
In Pyongyang on Thursday, Rodman said the trip could ease the long-standing estrangement between the US and North Korea, which never declared a formal end to the Korean war six decades ago. He said it was an opportunity for others to see "that this country is actually not as bad as people project it to be in the media."
Additional reporting by Associated Press