Why you should care
Because America needs Michael Jordan like never before.
Standing on his bed, the little boy stretches his arms out wide, but he’s not even close — the tips of his fingers barely reach his hero’s elbows. The child turns and uses a running start to vault off the mattress, tongue out, for a thunderous slam on the nearby hoop hanging over his doorframe.
It was me. It was you. It was Kim Jong Un too.
Before becoming an international agitator, North Korea’s supreme leader was a fan of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. During his late father’s reign, Kim enjoyed some perks not afforded to most citizens of the communist state. As the story goes, Kim bypassed his nation’s absent internet and cultural shackles by having VHS tapes of Bulls playoff games delivered by his father’s chef. He quickly became obsessed with the NBA and Michael Jordan, spending hours doodling “meticulous pencil drawings” of Jordan, according to The Washington Post.
It’s time to send Michael Jordan to Pyongyang.
Fast-forward 20 years and Kim is engrossed in a verbal standoff with America’s own impulsive leader. As Donald Trump continues his public mocking of “North Korea’s little Rocket Man,” Kim has vowed to “tame” Trump “with fire.” As diplomacy between the two countries grows more delicate by the day, it’s time to finesse the statecraft. Let’s send in an icon with a proven business acumen that Kim reveres. It’s time to send Michael Jordan to Pyongyang.
Using Jordan as a celebrity emissary may sound crazy, but it’s not without precedent. Starting with an exploratory 2013 visit to North Korea, Jordan’s ex-teammate Dennis Rodman has served as a self-appointed North Korean diplomat. Somehow, a man nicknamed “the Worm” has built a friendship with Kim over basketball, ski trips and fine cuisine. But Rodman wasn’t North Korea’s first choice of basketball buds, or even the first Chicago Bull. Jordan was invited to visit Pyongyang back in 2001. Unsurprisingly, he politely declined. According to Roland Lazenby, author of Michael Jordan: The Life, Jordan has long been more focused on economic gain than playing politics. Plus, a keen self-awareness won’t allow Jordan to enter situations unprepared. “A man must know his depth,” says Lazenby. “Michael has always had pretty damn strong self-awareness.… Of course, Rodman was happy to oblige Kim’s request.”
Still, Jordan’s previous disinterest in global politics doesn’t mean that a similar request is a lost cause. After all, Jordan’s famous explanation of why he avoids politics — that “Republicans buy shoes too” — plays here as well. While Jordan has historically avoided political engagement, he has a knack for tactfully earning approval from global citizens of every color, creed and socioeconomic status. Well, won’t all global citizens, regardless of political persuasion, buy into avoiding nuclear annihilation? Plus, although Jordan may not be “a man possessed of some great hubris,” as Lazenby puts it, a few previous celebrity diplomacy successes provide a blueprint that could stoke his competitive fire.
The pantheon of America’s past guest diplomats includes some big names. In 1983, on a solo mission, the Rev. Jesse Jackson secured the release of a captured American pilot from Syria. A year later, he negotiated the release of 22 Americans detained in Cuba; in 1999, in the heat of the Kosovo War, he won the release of three American POWs in Belgrade. When two American journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea in 2009, former President Bill Clinton took an unannounced visit to meet with Kim Jong Il. A day later, both women were pardoned.
Could Jordan be the next member of this club? “A lot of Michael’s life has been about learning to control his competitive instincts,” says Lazenby, before noting that Jordan’s competitiveness and negotiating experience could still pay dividends. “I’m not saying Michael is going to end up pounding on the launch codes, but he’ll want to kick your ass.” Plus, Jordan commands something that might be enough to avoid conflict: Kim’s respect. Kim admires his heroes — why else would he let a wild card like Rodman hang around? If Jordan showed Kim admiration, North Korea’s supreme leader would be giddy. He might even reel in his threats of nuclear war. And if not, what’s the damage? Jordan’s presence alone may be enough to distract Kim from our president’s heckling.
Any act of diplomacy in North Korea is certainly a long shot, but, for my money, I’d like to see a man who has sunk more than his fair share of game-winners get the chance to pull out just one more big victory before the buzzer (or missile) goes off.