While critical of Dennis Rodman’s trips to North Korea, incoming National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver says the former All-Star also helped raise awareness of leader Kim Jong-un’s “repressive regime”.
Rodman took a group of retired NBA players to the pariah state this month to play a game as a gift for Kim, a move criticised by some members of the US Congress, human rights groups and the NBA.
Rodman, the highest-profile American to meet Kim, has stressed he is not a statesman and is only seeking to build cultural ties between Pyongyang and Washington through basketball.
But the 52-year-old Rodman has been denounced for not trying to use his influence with Kim to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, an American missionary with health problems who is being held in North Korea on charges of “anti-state” crimes.
Although Rodman has been accused of becoming a public relations tool for North Korea’s government, Silver regards the publicity from the trips helping to shine a light on a country with a poor human rights record.
“As negative as that trip was in so many ways it also brought attention to a critical issue in North Korea that ... most Americans hadn’t focused on at all in terms of a repressive regime,” Silver said on Thursday in London ahead of a game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks.
At the start of the January 8 game in Pyongyang, Rodman sang “Happy Birthday” to Kim, who was seated at the stadium, and bowed deeply as North Korean players clapped.
Silver, who succeeds David Stern as commissioner on February 1, said the NBA persuaded some former players not to participate in the game.
“We did talk directly with certain other players who decided not to go,” Silver said after appearing at a meeting organised by the Sport Industry Group.
“In terms of any damage done to the NBA, we don’t think there was any damage done to the NBA ... the fact basketball happens to be very popular in North Korea I don’t think is a negative for our league.
“And it just demonstrates that it’s not just basketball but all sports bring tremendous opportunities.”
And, with the Nets owned by Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, the NBA is looking beyond the US for more investment in franchises.
Stern said there are discussions with investors from China, Latin America and the Middle East, in particular those in oil-rich United Arab Emirates whose “connection to the governing families is quite close”.