Ex-NBA Player Cliff Robinson on North Korea Trip: 'What Are We Doing Here?'

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterJanuary 28, 2014

AP Images

Ever had a friend invite you to a party where, upon walking in, you say to yourself, "Whoa…what kind of party is this?"   

If you survived the party, chances are it didn't end your friendship, but simply became one more crazy adventure that, in a way, made you closer.

That, to hear Cliff Robinson tell it, was the experience of going to North Korea to play an exhibition game with fellow ex-NBA forward Dennis Rodman.

Robinson and several other Rodman contemporaries agreed to put on a basketball clinic and exhibition game in what is officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea earlier this month. It wasn't until they landed in the capital of Pyongyang that they discovered they would be performing for the country's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, as a birthday gift.

"I don't think anyone other than Dennis knew," said Robinson, who played 19 NBA seasons, the last one in 2006-07 with the New Jersey Nets. "We thought we were going to do something good. We heard some of the backlash right away from our family back home. The range of emotions (among the players) were crazy. We're thinking, 'What are we doing here?' It was definitely a trying four days."

The trip made headlines for all the wrong reasons, thanks to an interview Rodman granted CNN, which asked how he could be friendly with Jong Un, an oppressive dictator who is holding a U.S. citizen, Kenneth Bae, captive for allegedly planning to overthrow the Korean government. Rodman sounded confused and defensive and later admitted he had been drinking before going on camera.

Various players on the trip—Charles Smith, Sleepy Floyd and Robinson—already have been quoted about being misled by Rodman about the trip's purpose. There is an understanding among NBA players, however, that may seem strange to anyone outside their circle. Whatever might happen between them, they invariably recognize that they are part of an exclusive club, not just as well-compensated and highly recognizable athletes, but in most cases, men of color who were granted exit visas courtesy of their physique and dexterity from a much harsher existence.

They do not live normal lives.

They are, in turn, judged more harshly and granted more allowances. Crazy situations are borne from the intersection of wealth, fame and a heritage that didn't prepare them for either. The rules of society sometimes appear to be suspended.

So when something bizarre like the junket to North Korea transpires, you can only get so mad at someone with whom you share such a rare kinship. Players may square off in the moment—think Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony—but the point of contention invariably fades in the face of their unique shared place in the universe.

That goes for ex-players as well, apparently. Robinson, for example, takes full responsibility for going and says his friendship with Rodman remains intact.

"I'm not going to blame Dennis because I went on the trip knowing there was going to be some fallout," Robinson said. "I looked at it as a chance to touch people through basketball and visit a country that doesn't allow a lot of people in. The mention of a birthday is when it got uncomfortable. It was unfortunate all the politics got dragged into it. As far as what we went over there to accomplish, aside from Dennis' agenda, we did what we set out to do."

Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press

Rodman first approached Robinson while they were on a similar trip to Malaysia in early November, organized by the Pro Basketball Alumni Association. Since Dennis has a reputation for grand schemes that don't always come to fruition, Robinson agreed not fully knowing if the trip actually would ever take place.

It was a month later—only a few weeks before the planned departure—that the trip became a reality.

"It happened so quick and I didn't want to back out on him," Robinson said.

The group flew to Beijing and then on to Pyongyang. By the end of the first day, they found out about the birthday angle.

"There was a moment when nobody wanted to play the game," Robinson said. "But then we thought, 'We flew all the way over here to not play a game? How's that going to look?' We didn't plan to create an uproar. Believe me, we're not politicians. We didn't go over there to disrespect our country or do something unpatriotic. That's what really hurt me."

So they stayed. They found out that their hotel rooms only could be locked when they were inside, but not upon leaving. The clinic turned out to be a practice session with the Korean National squad before playing against them. The next surreal moment came when they walked onto the floor. The packed crowd of some 13,000 was already seated and remained eerily quiet while the Americans warmed up.

"It was definitely an experience," Robinson said.

Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press

Rodman's serenade of Jong Un with "Happy Birthday" came as a surprise as well, but the visitors knew better than to react.

"At that point in time, we're standing in front of dignitaries and the supreme leader," Robinson said. "I wasn't going to be disrespectful in any way. There's nothing good to come of that."

The visitors played the national team for one half before mixing up the teams and playing the second half. "Out of all the trips we've been on, they played the hardest," Robinson said. "I can respect that."

He laughs when asked about the officiating. "When they started playing super hard and the refs weren't calling anything, we knew how it was going to be."

Robinson has not spoken to Rodman since he left Pyongyang with the other players; Rodman stayed behind and followed his own itinerary before returning stateside and checking into an alcohol rehabilitation program.

"I have nothing but good things to say about Dennis," Robinson said. "I know Dennis' heart is in the right place. I just want him to get things worked out so he can live a healthy life."

All that despite the fact that Rodman dragged him into a politically charged international incident that alarmed his friends and family and far outweighed whatever compensation he received from the trip's sponsors.

Only an NBA player—or someone with an irascible, unpredictable friend—would ever understand.


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Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.


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