WHEN he was one of the best defensive players in the National Basketball Association, fans cheered Dennis Rodman despite his penchant for showboating.
After he left the NBA, people chuckled when the New Jersey native donned a bridal gown and said he would marry himself, and again, when on a catwalk, showed off his many tattoos in a tutu.
But few Americans are laughing now about his romance with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un. Even talk-show hosts no longer sound like they are jesting. On his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, last Wednesday, funnyman Stephen Colbert said: "Happy birthday to North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Please accept our gift of Dennis Rodman. No returns!"
Rodman was in the news last week after his fourth visit to the reclusive communist country in a year. He showed up with a group of retired, lesser-known NBA players for a game with a North Korean team to celebrate the birthday of the leader he has called a "friend for life".
"My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries. Why it has been left to me to smooth things over, I don't know," he told Sports Illustrated last year.
In the kind of aside that annoys many former fans - and added to his increasingly bizarre image - he added: "But I will tell you this, if I don't finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something is seriously wrong."
That quote underscores an explanation for the Rodman-Kim mutual admiration society made by Foreign Policy magazine assistant editor Elias Groll in a column on Thursday - both "know the pain of ostracisation".
"Isolated from the world," he noted that Mr Kim "is repeatedly ridiculed and denounced for barbarity", and preconceived notions of his country paint it as "utterly weird, utterly depraved, utterly fascinating".
Further raising ire, the NBA legend serenaded Mr Kim, who is believed to be 31, with an off-key Happy Birthday, even as American tour operator Kenneth Bae, 45, has been languishing in a North Korean prison since 2012, serving 14 years of hard labour for what Pyongyang calls "hostile acts".
As Mr Groll wrote: "North Korea threatens to fire missiles at the United States and South Korea, and detonates nuclear weapons. In return, it generally gains diplomatic concessions. Rodman uses a similar tactic of outrage to receive his pay cheques. By maintaining his media profile as a bad boy beyond repair, the reality shows keep calling."
The reality, though, is that Rodman, 52, and a towering 2.01m, overcame a tough childhood to earn a place in the NBA Hall of Fame, playing for five different teams, but never seems to have grown up.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, he and his two sisters were moved to one of the poorest areas of Dallas, Texas, by their mother.
When he was seven, his father, Philander, left and moved to the Philippines and, there, apparently lived up to his name. He claims to have fathered 29 children by 16 mothers, reported Breitbart.com, and now owns Rodman's Rainbow Obamaburger restaurant there.
Rodman was nicknamed the "worm" as a kid because of his gangly moves, and even his mother threw him out of the house. A Caucasian family headed by James Rich helped him get into college.
Years later, when Rodman was enshrined in the NBA's Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he thanked Mr Rich.
Rodman first showed real promise in basketball at the small Southeastern Oklahoma State University in the mid-80s.
By the time he started winning NBA titles with the vaunted Michael Jordan-led Bulls teams of the mid-90s, however, Rodman's hard play and daunting defensive abilities earned him fame, fortune and the nickname "Rodzilla".
Despite success and wealth, the scars of his childhood apparently never healed. In a 1996 autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be, he admitted he had considered shooting himself to death in 1993.
A short stint with the Dallas Mavericks ended his NBA career in 2000. He flitted from a few film appearances, for which he received the worst new star Golden Raspberry Award, to reality TV.
He entered rehab treatment for alcoholism, spent a year in jail on spousal abuse charges and ran up more than US$800,000 (S$1 million) in unpaid child support and alimony. Though once earning an estimated US$27 million, he told a court last year that he was broke.
For many former fans, Rodman's flirtations with North Korea were the last straw. After his first trip last year, the Economist reported that he was kicked out of the Time Hotel bar in New York for screaming about how much he loved his "friend" Mr Kim.
"He wouldn't leave, and he wouldn't let anyone talk to him about shutting up, or what an oppressive country North Korea is," a witness told The New York Post.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 13, 2014
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