Dennis Rodman sang "Happy Birthday" and dedicated a basketball game to his "best friend," North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, before leading a squad of former NBA stars onto the court Wednesday at a Pyongyang stadium for a game Rodman said is part of his "basketball diplomacy" with the North that has been heavily criticized in the United States.
Kim,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.
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.
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.
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.
Members of Rodman's 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."
"What we are doing is positive, but it is getting dwarfed by the other circumstances around it," Smith, 48, told The Associated Press Tuesday. "Apparently our message is not being conveyed properly due to the circumstances that are much bigger than us, and I think that has to do with politics and government."
Smith's comments came after a bizarre TV appearance in which he and other former stars, including Baker, Anderson and Robinson, sat behind Rodman as he tried to defend the trip to the communist dictatorship. The players appeared to be uncomfortable as Rodman, an NBA Hall of Famer known as much for his erratic behavior as the rebounding and defense he provided alongside Michael Jordan during his days as a Chicago Bull.
"You have 10 guys here, 10 guys who have left their damn families to help this country in a sports venture," Rodman shouted at CNN's Chris Cuomo, when asked about North Korea's abysmal human rights record.
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 North Korea 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.
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 is being confined in the North for "anti-state" crimes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.