Last week both Eric Freeman and I discussed the provocative and slightly depressing trip Dennis Rodman made to North Korea, ostensibly to reach out in a goodwill gesture, but most assuredly to work the ego of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The head of state is a notorious hoops nerd, with a particular love for the 1990s Chicago Bulls – a love that this hoops nerd shares and is most definitely questioning as these stories leak out.
In a Washington Post feature from 2009, it was relayed that Kim Jong-un had a bedroom filled with 1990s NBA paraphernalia, including pictures taken with both Kobe Bryant and former Chicago Bull point forward Toni Kukoc – photos presumably snapped before any of the particulars were aware that Kim Jong-un was the son of the ruthless Kim John Il. On Monday, New York Magazine’s Dan Amira reached out to Kukoc to ask about the encounter, and Toni was quick to give the reporter an electronic pair of shrugged shoulders.
Nothing else is known about how Kim Jong Un came to meet Kukoc or Bryant. Asked via e-mail today if he could remember anything about the encounter, Kukoc, a Croatian-born small forward who helped the Bulls to three championships, enthusiastically told Daily Intelligencer, "No, not really, maybe it was McDonald's tournament in Paris! I don't recollect anything else!"
This is understandable, as Kim Jong Un was just some random Korean kid at the time, not the world's only twentysomething with a nuclear weapon. (Asked how it felt to know that he met a child who would become North Korea's dictator, Kukoc told us, "[I] have no opinion about it!")
Amira rightly connects the dots to the 1997 McDonald’s Championships, an old goodwill tournament that NBA teams took part in during the exhibition season, and one a weary Bulls team worked through in October of 1997. Kukoc was dealing with a very painful bout of plantar fasciitis during that tourney, and though the Bulls won with ease while playing with Michael Jordan and a retinue of training camp fodder, it would be the last year for the exercise as the NBA lockout hit the following season, and the league focused its efforts more intently on the FIBA World Championships.
Kim Jong-un, studying in Switzerland under a pseudonym and in his mid-teens at the time, would have probably looked like just another well-wisher as the defending champion Bulls made their way through Paris – and definitely not an obvious match for the son of Kim Jong Il, despite the teenager’s chauffeured car. There’s certainly, as Kukoc’s email reveals, nothing as sinister and misinformed as the trip that HBO and Vice Magazine decided to lead Dennis Rodman through.
For those that were wondering, Scottie Pippen was injured and could not play during the 1997 McDonald’s Championship, likely saving him the embarrassment. Dragan Tarlac could not be reached for comment; and yes, that is a real person and not a name I made up.