May 10, 2017

Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang: Who'll Drink to That?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dennis Rodman burst onto the scene and turned basketball into something unexpectedly exciting to people like me, not through his unrivaled defensive playing but with his highly theatrical unwillingness to toe the line. Simultaneous with the corporate neutering of professional sports and the accompanying blandness of athletes fearful of losing lucrative endorsement deals, Rodman's outrageousness — his fluorescent hair, his body piercings, his flashy wardrobe, his no-fs-to-give commentary — delivered what so many of us want from our celebrities: a greater sense of freedom. Here was a man living on his own terms, as much as he could. As you might expect, it came at great cost.

Watching Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang, you realize that while a piranha-like press may not be the cause of the former NBA legend's alcoholism, the systematic scrutiny and savagery have no doubt contributed to it. And yet despite a tabloid presentation that revels in Rodman's self-destructiveness, this documentary also reveals that Rodman's not just some crazed drunk hoping to squeeze that last bit of publicity out of Access Hollywood. Take a look at the former athletes and young players who rally to Rodman's defense when the exhibition match between the US and North Korea that Rodman's orchestrated looks destined to fail. No one throws Rodman under the bus; no one quits. Any complaints are kept behind closed doors. Admittedly, part of that graciousness is due to Charles Smith, his eloquent colleague and a master strategist who understands the larger implications and respects the nobler intentions that underlie this game on a dictator's birthday. But Rodman's colleague feel universally autonomous and his support staff seems to genuinely like him. Because of that, Big Bang doesn't seem to be so much about wrongheadedness, naivete or demonization. It's just another snapshot of the cost of being famous while trying to be true to yourself.

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