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Interview With NBA Commissioner David Stern; Rodman Meltdown

Aired January 7, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: North Korea meltdown. The former NBA star Dennis Rodman gets angry in an exclusive interview with CNN defending his friendship with the strongman Kim Jong-un and his new round of basketball diplomacy.


DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER: No, no, no. I'm just saying -- no, I don't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) -- I don't give a rat's ass what the hell you think. I'm saying to you, look at these guys here. Look at them!


BLITZER: This hour, an in-depth look at a controversial sports figure in a very volatile country with a rare opportunity to go one-on-one with one of the most dangerous leaders in the world.

And what does it mean for the fate of the American captive in North Korea, Kenneth Bae, and for Kim Jong-un's threats of nuclear war?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's Wednesday in North Korea, and Dennis Rodman is about to give a birthday present to his -- quote -- "friend" Kim Jong-un. He and other NBA veterans will play against North Korea's basketball team. Rodman sees it as a goodwill gesture.

But his combative CNN interview today is raising more concerns about the visit and his relationship with a leader so ruthless that he had his own uncle executed.

Stand by for some strong opinions from the NBA commissioner, David Stern, the former U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill. We're also be joined by CNN's own Rachel Nichols, Chris Cuomo.

Chris conducted that exclusive, amazing interview with Dennis Rodman today.

But, first, Brian Todd is here with more on the possible benefits and the backlash from Rodman's trip -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this Rodman trip, the game he will play in the coming hours and his interview with CNN, this is creating huge buzz here in Washington inside the halls of government and out.

There is real tension over this especially with the sense in this town that Rodman has access no one else has and officials here have no control over him and they're worried about what he will do next.


TODD (voice-over): Dennis Rodman is deeply emotional when talking about Kim Jong-un.

RODMAN: I love my friend. This is my friend.

TODD: And explosive when asked if he will press the hosts on detained American Kenneth Bae.

RODMAN: We got 10 guys, all these guys here. Does anyone understand that?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: We do. And we appreciate that. And we wish them well with cultural exchange.

RODMAN: No, no, no. I'm just saying -- no, I don't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) -- I don't give a rat's ass what the hell you think. I'm saying to you, look at these guys here. Look at them!

CUOMO: Yes, but, Dennis, don't put it on them.


CUOMO: Don't use them as an excuse for the behavior that you're putting on yourself.

RODMAN: They came here.

TODD: In a contentious interview with CNN, Rodman implied Bae had done something wrong. U.S. officials responded by saying they increasingly worried about the condition of Bae, the American missionary held for more than a year in North Korea.

The White House wasn't happy with Rodman's tirades.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: But I'm not going to dignify that outburst with a response.

TODD: Rodman and 10 former NBA members staging an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang for Kim Jong-un's birthday. But the players seem increasingly uncomfortable with the political tension.

SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Rodman is a guy who doesn't want to be criticized. He hates it. I think that anytime somebody confronts him on the moral hazard aspect of North Korea, he responds very emotionally.

TODD: Behind the scenes, U.S. officials roll their eyes when Rodman's name comes up. No one in Washington says they want to talk to Rodman about his trip. But a former U.S. envoy to North Korea says privately U.S. officials may want to get details from him.

JOSEPH DETRANI, INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY ALLIANCE: I think they are saying, look, this has happened. If we could get some insights, if Dennis Rodman could get insights and bring it back to the United States, that is fine.

TODD: What intelligence could these former NBA stars bring?

SNYDER: They will be asked about Kim Jong-un himself and their impressions of Kim Jong-un. I think they will asked about who seems to be Kim Jong-un's right-hand man. After all, we're a situation right now where it's very clear in North Korea that it is not good to be number two.


TODD: A reference to Kim Jong-un's recent execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek.

Analysts say for all the drama this Rodman trip, his fourth to North Korea, could move the needle just a little bit on the intelligence if these players can give any indications of who the key people are right now around Kim Jong-un, his emotional state, even his body language. This might turn out to be a positive.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thanks very much.

Let's bring in the NBA commissioner, David Stern. He's joining us now, also CNN's Rachel Nichols, the host of "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS."

Commissioner, thanks very much for coming in. Rachel, stand by for a moment.

What are your thoughts? You hear Dennis Rodman. You have been the commissioner for 30 years of the NBA. You see these other NBA players show up in North Korea, what goes through your mind when you see this, Commissioner?

DAVID STERN, NBA COMMISSIONER: The entire team is composed of former NBA players. OK?

And for what I would guess is a relatively large sum of money they have agreed to go and give a birthday present to the leader. We did not sanction this. This is not part of us. We wouldn't do such a thing without collaborating with the U.S. State Department.

And I want to make the point that sports diplomacy is, I think, a terrific thing. In cooperation with or the blessing of the State Department, the NBA has entertained the Iranian national team, the Chinese national team. We are well aware of instances where sports diplomacy has been very well used, so this is not a problem.

But even -- I know Chris Cuomo is in the studio or standing by. There was no mention made of the fact that there were probably between 800,000 and two million Koreas starved systematically by this country, that it has got the fourth largest army in the world, that it has missiles and nuclear weapons.

I think the debate little bit off-kilter because Dennis had a meltdown. Dennis will be Dennis. But I think there is a lot at stake here in terms of a country that is a very dangerous country.

BLITZER: We know the NBA is popular all over the world, not only in North America, but all over the world, in Asia, in Africa, South America.

Rachel, I know you want to ask the commissioner a question. Go ahead.

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, David, we saw Charles Smith, former Knick, very smart guy, sitting right next to Dennis. He has expressed some regret today and said he didn't quite realize the ramifications of that group being there.

As you say, Dennis will be Dennis. But how do you think a group of former NBA players, a number of guys ended up going over there and say they don't really realize what they were doing or what they were getting themselves into?

STERN: They were blinded by the payday. I don't know what else to say or how directly to say it. That is all.

And Charles should have known better, but he didn't in this case. And I'm sure he is sorry for what he is doing. I understand all of the diplomats who are going to come in and suggest that there is going to be some move ahead, move along in intelligence that is going to be gotten by the body language or whose close to Kim Jong-un, but I think there have better ways to do that.

We, actually, back in 2006 had had some preliminary through an intermediary discussions with Kim Jong-un's father's administration. And then I think in 2008 the New York Philharmonic went. So, obviously cultural exchanges with respect to a country that we would like to know more about are not out of the question, but they should be done in a far more dignified fashion than this particular trip is.


BLITZER: Let me ask you a specific question on that, commissioner, because I was in North Korea three years ago and I saw how they cherish the NBA. They have a ball that Madeleine Albright, as secretary of state, brought to Pyongyang to give to Kim Jong-un's father.

There it is right there signed by Michael Jordan. It's revered there. What would it take for the NBA to send an official delegation to North Korea and engage in some positive basketball diplomacy?

STERN: In conjunction with our government, it wouldn't take very much.

We have obviously had discussions on this subject. We know, for example, that North and South Korea actually marched in the Olympics in 2000 and 2004 under a unified flag. We know what sports can do. At the recent weight lifting championships in North Korea, for the first time, they played the South Korean national anthem when two South Korean weight lifters I think finished first and second in a particular weight class. We're very attuned to the nuances and like to serve our government in that respect.

BLITZER: Rachel, go ahead.

NICHOLS: Yes, just athletes and political activism is always a hot topic.

And the NBA had several players very positively step into that arena over the decades. How do you recommend that your players and former players know where the line is for them and how to manage those situations? Because they can have a great impact, but also they can also get themselves into trouble.

STERN: Our players and our former players have for the most part been terrific on this subject.

They know they have run for office. Senator Bradley is an icon. They have worked on social responsibility with us. They have visited -- as far back as 1993, we visited soon-to-be, but not yet President Mandela of South Africa. Our players have gone back to South Africa for the last 10 summers.

So with our retired players -- so our players know all they have to do is check in, phone home and we work with them extensively. They have traveled all over the world. This one is a little bit -- and mostly for nothing, OK, mostly to do good in the communities where they can be helpful.

This one, I believe, was blinded by a flash of North Korean money, and I'm worried for their sake. They may get paid in counterfeit U.S. money, because I understand that North Korea used to be a leader in counterfeiting U.S. money.

BLITZER: Well, I assume they are watching in North Korea right now. We're being seen live around the world, commissioner, so your words will be paid attention to, for whatever they are worth, obviously.

STERN: I'm willing to lead the delegation. And I'm sure that Secretary Albright got the basketball from us, as so many other diplomats have gotten materials, as basketball has been used as an icebreaker.


BLITZER: I am told that Michael Jordan, by the way, was asked before Dennis Rodman to go to North Korea. He declined, and Dennis Rodman became the former NBA player to do all of this.

Commissioner --

STERN: Wolf, who told you that and who asked them? BLITZER: I was told by sources that are very close to the North Koreans that Michael Jordan was -- you can check with Michael. He will tell you. He was asked. He declined. He didn't want to go.

But Dennis Rodman was apparently the second choice. And as we know, this is his fourth trip to North Korea right now. And I saw personally when I spent six days in Pyongyang how much they do love NBA basketball over there. Obviously, it has had an impact and can have an impact for good if it's done properly, as you want to do it.

We have to go right now.


STERN: You can't eat the basketball, Wolf. You can't eat the basketball.

BLITZER: That's also true.


STERN: They're the most malnourished country that we don't do business with.

BLITZER: David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, he's wrapping up 30 years as the commissioner and he's done an outstanding job.

Commissioner, thanks very much for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We will have you back.

STERN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Rachel, as usual, thanks to you as well.

Still ahead, the latest on the effort to win the release of the American captive Kenneth Bae. Could Dennis Rodman's trip actually make a difference one way or another? I will ask the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill. He's standing by to join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



RODMAN: Do you understand what Kenneth Bae did?


RODMAN: Do you understand what he did --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did he do? You tell me.

RODMAN: -- in this country?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You tell me. What he do?

RODMAN: No, no, no, you tell me. You tell me. Why is he held captive?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They haven't released any charges. They haven't released any reason.


BLITZER: That's Dennis Rodman in his exclusive interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo earlier today talking about the American captive in North Korea, Kenneth Bae.

Rodman seemed to suggest that Bae had something wrong before he was arrested in November of 2012, but he didn't say what.

We are joined now by Christopher Hill, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and a visitor to North Korea on official business over the years.

Ambassador, how does a trip like Dennis Rodman and these other former NBA players impact serious diplomacy, if you will, negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear issue, tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the region? What is the impact, if any?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: I would probably -- I doubt there is much impact.

You always look at these things, whether they are going to be good, marginally helpful or marginally unhelpful. I would probably put this in the marginally unhelpful category. But if he could reel in Bae, that would be a good rebound.

BLITZER: Can anything really positive though come out? You and I remember ping-pong diplomacy as practiced between the U.S. and China in the early '70s. Can this basketball diplomacy improve the relationship that the U.S. and other countries have with North Korea potentially?

HILL: Well, as David Stern was saying in your last segment, there's a lot of good that can come out of sports diplomacy. I have seen it personally. I have certainly seen how the NBA can play that role.

I'm not sure that this is an example of that. I think Rodman, as he has often been, he is kind of on his own. There is a lot of buffoonery here. I don't rule out some thing like pulling in Kenneth Bae. But overall I think the problem is it turns it into a kind of Dennis Rodman reality program. And what is really going on in that country, the reality for 23 million people is pretty awful.

BLITZER: It is pretty amazing though when you think about the proximity that these NBA players will have to Kim Jong-un, the 31- year-old leader of North Korea.

When they come back and let's say they are debriefed by your former colleagues at the State Department, will they have useful information?

HILL: It is possible. You don't rule it out. Sometimes people who have no idea what they are picking up can actually in a debrief tell you something that is interesting. So, I certainly don't rule out that possibility, maybe not so much from Dennis Rodman based on that interview we saw earlier, but maybe some of the other people who are with him could have some interesting thoughts and insights.

BLITZER: Why would they keep Kenneth Bae? What is the point?

HILL: You know, they often grab these people in anticipation of somehow releasing them in the context of trying to show how reasonable good guys they are. It is not to be ruled out that he could be released as some kind of goodwill gesture.

But right now we are dealing with a leader there, Kim 3.0, who just took his uncle, frog-marched him in a perp walk out of a meeting and then had the guy shot. We are dealing with, as you have said, a very dangerous leader and frankly very unpredictable leader.

BLITZER: Chris Hill, the former U.S. ambassador, thanks very much.

HILL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, CNN's own Chris Cuomo on this red-hot response to his exclusive interview with Dennis Rodman, what he hopes will happen next.


BLITZER: Dennis Rodman went a bit ballistic with CNN's Chris Cuomo. Listen to this.


RODMAN: People around the world -- around the world -- I'm going to do one thing. You're a guy behind the mike right now. We're the guys here doing one thing.

We have to go back to America and take the abuse. Do you have to take the abuse that we're going to take? Do you, sir? Let me know. We're going to take the abuse. We're going to get it. But guess what, though?

One day, one day, this dude is going to open because these 10 guys here, all of us, Christie, Vin, Dennis, Charles, all these guys, everybody here, if we could just open the door just a little bit for people to come here.


BLITZER: And Chris Cuomo is joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What an amazing interview, Chris. Excellent work, as usual.

What was your intent here? Walk us through what was going through your mind as you were interviewing Dennis Rodman and these other former NBA stars.

CUOMO: Well, Wolf, certainly there was no anticipation of what happened in terms of Rodman's outburst, somewhat inexplicable.

That part of it, I will leave that part alone. The interest was the obvious, trying to find out if this cultural basketball game, the way it was being pitched by Charles Smith and other ex-NBA players, could be used to help the situation with Kenneth Bae, and obviously a much longer list of concerns about North Korea, but specifically that situation.

Because of Dennis Rodman's odd, somewhat difficult-to-explain relevance, would the ruler of North Korea place the politics of which you understand very well -- you have been there -- I have followed your reporting on it.

As bizarre as it is, I felt that we had to take the opportunity to do the obvious, which is to hope whatever attention Rodman and the players get can somehow help the cause of this American who is being detained.

BLITZER: And with Kenneth Bae, when he said something along the lines, do you know what this man has done, that flabbergasted me and I'm sure it did you as well. You tried to get an answer from him, but he didn't give you an answer.

CUOMO: Well, that's exactly what I was trying to do.

I was trying to figure out what it is that he thinks he knows, because, not to speak out of turn, you certainly understand the situation there better than I do. There was nothing in my preparation for this that revealed any hard reporting or proof of anything that Kenneth Bae had admitted to certainly or even been accused of.

BLITZER: I know social media lit up right after that interview. What kind of reaction have you been getting?

CUOMO: Well, look, social media is something that I haven't really figured out how to value and measure yet in terms of response.

It is all over the place because of Dennis Rodman being such a lightning rod. Some things that I thought were interesting, one, we did achieve success. The attention of Dennis Rodman has focused people again on Kenneth Bae, has focused attention on what is the U.S. State Department doing about this?

I saw you had the former ambassador on before. We have been pressing consistently and constantly, as I know you and many different arms of CNN have been doing. And this gives us a new effort to do that, to give the Bae family some attention. And certainly there are many families like theirs with people held captive in different countries.

But this situation has begged the attention. So there was good attention to that. That was good. There was also an odd reflexive reaction to defend Dennis Rodman, where because of his seeming inability to control himself, that he shouldn't be held to the standard of being a diplomat. And certainly I wasn't doing that.

And, certainly, Wolf, you have known me a long time. My intention was certainly not to get in a fight with Dennis Rodman. This is a regrettable part of the interview, except to the extent that it gets attention to the issues there that matter. People said he is not a diplomat.

The problem is, he isn't a diplomat, but he is relevant. And we really have to try anything we can right now to make any kind of access into the situation there because nothing else seems to be working.

BLITZER: All right, Chris, you did an excellent job. Thanks so much for doing it. Thanks so much for joining us.

CUOMO: Wolf, high praise from you. I appreciate the opportunity. Always good to be with you.

BLITZER: All right, that's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

For our international viewers, "CNN NEWSROOM" is next.