Rodman: Ping Pong vs Basketball Diplomacy


Dennis Rodman in North Korea, weirdest thing we’ve seen this year. We didn’t get all the pictures. We don’t know if he wore his calico dress or his formal nipple rings to the state dinner, we can only imagine. We do know this, a few days after Rodman left town, Rodman’s good friend and Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, announced that if necessary, North Korea might need to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on America. 

Did Dennis scare them that much? Do all North Koreans now think he is what all Americans look like?

Don’t call me Pollyanna, but perhaps Rodman’s visit could lead to a thawing, maybe a sort of basketball diplomacy, an updated version of the 1971 China-U.S. “ping-pong diplomacy.”

You don’t remember it, only 42 years ago, how ping-pong opened up relations between two hated enemies, the U.S. and China? Did you think Wal-Mart always had Chinese trinkets on their shelves? You’d be wrong, Mr. Wrongperson. You can thank Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon for all those goods you find at Wal-Mart.  Let me re-wind for you.

In 1971, China had the bomb and over two million more soldiers than we did. They didn’t like us. Mao called us imperialists and fed their people anti-American propaganda. The Vietnam War had just cooled down. Relations between both countries were strained. Ping pong changed all that. Here’s how it happened. During the World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan in 1971, American player Glenn Cowan practiced a little too long and missed the team bus. Set to miss the tournament, he was offered a ride to the event on the Chinese team bus. He accepted, photographs were taken, Chairman Mao saw them shaking hands and decided to extend a mainland invitation to the American team.  The rest is history and China is now our biggest trading partner.

So here we go, could Dennis Rodman be this decades Glenn Cowan? Surprisingly they’re not all that dissimilar. Cowan was an outspoken bandana wearing long haired hippie who most people considered a weirdo.  Rodman broke bread with, talked sports with and had an audience with Kim Jung Un, unlike any other American. The long-haired, goofy looking Glenn Cowan had an audience with Chou En-lai, at the time the first American to do so. They talked about the American hippie movement which Cowan referred to favorably. Chou responded “Youth wants to see the truth” and that the “movement” was a “transitional period.” Rodman and Kim Jong talked basketball and where to get the best tattoos. Both guys are aware we have a basketball loving president, and maybe, there might be an opening for discussion.

Does that make sense to anyone? Can sports provide an avenue for a relationship between even the bitterest of enemies? We say why not? Let the Korean team tour, even let Michael Ri, the 7’9” center join in and visit Hawaii, Alaska and Seattle.  While in Seattle, let their team play some professional players. We hear Seattle fans might like seeing pro basketball players.

If any good comes from this, many will hate it if Rodman gets any credit. It’s an affront to our values and  any hope for propriety. Those who think that way forget the lessons of the ping pong diplomacy.

If little balls once worked, isn’t it time to use the big balls?   

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3 thoughts on “Rodman: Ping Pong vs Basketball Diplomacy”

    1. For the first time in forever, I’m in no brackets. However, and hurrah, this frees me up to write about whatever team I wish, and I’ve got a great article on FGCU I’ll be sending you.

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