Since retiring from professional basketball in 1998, Dennis Rodman has seemingly been engaged in a single, uninterrupted publicity stunt, the latest example of which is his current jaunt to Rome in hopes of meeting with the new Pope. Of course, that was preceded by another attempt to pose as an international statesman: his recent visit to North Korea, where the former Detroit Piston and Chicago Bull met with the country's dictator, Kim Jong Un. Yet lost in all the outrage and skepticism stirred up by that trip to Pyongyang was a simple, encouraging lesson: Dennis Rodman, former NBA star, could with minimal assistance get a meeting with the leader of the world’s most secretive, and problematic, rogue nation. He could even, if we trust his account, have an impact on international diplomacy
Yes, Rodman’s presence was most likely a function of the fame he acquired as one of the defining basketball players of his era, an overwhelming defender and rebounder with a penchant for dyed hair. But that's just the point. The fact that he got there (and got out) demonstrates that basketball is a remarkably effective form of international outreach.
Among America's current exports, basketball is particularly well-suited to win hearts and minds abroad. Both Barack Obama and Kim Jong Un are avid fans of the NBA, of course. But basketball's potential as a diplomatic tool extends beyond appealing to heads of state—particularly the endlessly marketable, highly stylized brand proffered by the NBA.