Dennis Rodman sang "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before leading a squad of former NBA stars for a friendly game Wednesday as part of his "basketball diplomacy" that has been criticized in the United States.
Rodman dedicated the game to his "best friend" Kim, who along with his wife and other senior officials and their wives watched from a special seating area. The capacity crowd of about 14,000 at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium clapped loudly as Rodman sang a verse from the birthday song.
Rodman said he was honored to be able to play the game in the North Korean capital, and called the event "historic." To keep it friendly, the Americans played against the North Koreans in the first half, but split up and merged teams for the second half.
The North Korean team scored 47 points to 39 for the Americans before the teams were mixed. Rodman played only in the first half and then sat next to Kim during the second half.
"A lot of people have expressed different views about me and your leader, your marshal, and I take that as a compliment," Rodman told the crowd. "Yes, he is a great leader, he provides for his people here in this country and thank God the people here love the marshal."
Rodman is the highest-profile American to meet Kim. He has carefully avoided getting involved in overtly political activities, saying that he is not a statesman and instead is seeking only to build cultural connections with the North through basketball that may help improve relations between Pyongyang and Washington.
That has not stopped many in the United States — including members of Congress, the NBA and human rights groups — from calling his visits to North Korea ill-advised and naive.
They have criticized the game because of North Korea's human rights record, its development of nuclear weapons and its threats to use them if a conflict breaks out with Washington or Seoul.
In particular, Rodman has been slammed for not using his influence with Kim to help free Kenneth Bae, an American missionary in poor health who has been confined in the North over a year for "anti-state" crimes.
Rodman erupted at a CNN host during an interview Tuesday when challenged about whether he would speak up for Bae's family.
"The one thing about politics, Kenneth Bae did one thing. If you understand — if you understand what Kenneth Bae did," Rodman said. "Do you understand what he did? In this country?"
"What did he do?" CNN's Chris Cuomo shot back. "You tell me."
Bae's sister Terri Chung said in a statement to NBC News that the family was "outraged" by Rodman's comments, and accused the basketball star of "playing games with my brother's life".
"Dennis Rodman could do a lot of good by advocating for Kenneth to Kim Jong Un, but instead he has decided to hurl outrageous accusations at my brother, insinuating that Kenneth has done something sinister," the statement said. "He is clearly uninformed about Kenneth's case, and he is certainly not in any position to pass judgment on Kenneth Bae, who has never any hostile intentions against the DPRK."
The game is a new milestone in Rodman's unusual relationship with Kim, who rarely meets with foreigners and remains a mystery to much of the outside world. Kim, who inherited power after the death of his father in late 2011, is believed to be in his early thirties, but his age has not been officially confirmed. Until recently, his birthday was also not widely known — though it was quietly observed elsewhere around the capital Wednesday.
Along with Rodman, the former NBA players included ex-All Stars Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker. Also on the roster were Craig Hodges, Doug Christie, Charles D. Smith and four streetballers.
Members of the team, who average in their late 40s, said they came because they believed the game would be a good opportunity to create a human connection with the people of the isolated country. But some said they have been concerned by the negative reaction they have seen from the media and critics back home.
"This was a test of faith. We stepped out into the unknown," said former New York Knicks player Charles D. Smith, who has played similar games in other countries and has acted as the team's spokesman to balance Rodman's famously outspoken character.
Smith said he was gratified to see the North Korean crowd enjoy the game, but he added that he had mixed emotions about the two-hour event.
"Emotionally, I don't know what to feel," he told The Associated Press afterward. "I'm indifferent. I'm not totally overjoyed."
Smith said he and the other players did not join Rodman in singing the birthday song.
"We always tell Dennis that he can't sing. He is tone deaf," Smith said. "He did it alone."