NEW: Smith says players weren't acting as political liaisons
Players were "absolutely" not paid by the North Koreans, Charles Smith tells CNN
In 30-minute interview he says he felt for Dennis Rodman, who put a lot of pressure on himself
Smith says he didn't know the date of the contest was the birthday of North Korea's leader
Charles Smith insisted Sunday that the former NBA players who went to North Korea for a basketball diplomacy trip, led by Dennis Rodman, weren’t paid by the repressive regime.
“Absolutely not. I think I am astute enough to understand the dynamics, especially collecting monetary dollars from North Korea. No, we did not get paid from North Korea at all,” he told CNN in a lengthy exclusive interview on “New Day Sunday.”
Smith, who retired from the NBA in 1997 after nine seasons, said an Irish online betting company and a documentary film crew paid expenses for the ex-players turned hoops ambassadors.
Last month the Irish company, Paddy Power, said it had removed its name from Rodman’s project after the execution of Kim’s uncle and top aide, Jang Song Thaek. But it said it would honor its “contractual commitments” to the team.
Speaking by satellite from Beijing, Smith said it wasn’t about the money. He saw it as an opportunity to go to a reclusive country and exchange cultural information with other athletes and citizens. But he didn’t see it as a birthday present for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“That’s the date that was set. I didn’t know it was his birthday,” he said in the half-hour interview. “And it didn’t matter to me once I found out that it was his birthday.”
Smith said he felt for Rodman, who asked for his help organizing the trip and who really seemed to want to pull off a big event.
“I saw the pressure mount. I saw him change, and it was very difficult keeping him and everyone together (once controversy began over traveling to North Korea),” he said.
The players’ trip also met with criticism because North Korea still holds Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in November 2012, convicted last spring by Pyonyang of “hostile acts” intended to topple the government, and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. Some questioned whether the players would advocate for his release, but they didn’t – at least not publicly.
“We didn’t go there for that. We went there to do what we normally do, and that’s to be cross-cultural ambassadors and use the game of basketball as a bridge for exchange,” he said.
Smith said the difference between this trip and other sports exchanges was that the players weren’t sent as representatives of the United States.
“We’re athletes doing it ourselves,” he said.
Smith said he has no regrets about going. He said he was able to meet some North Korean citizens and even came across one man who winced before shaking the hand of the first African-American he had ever met. Smith said the man told him they didn’t have a very good view of African-Americans. The man rubbed his hand as if the color would come off, Smith said.
“Then the next day after we talked for a while, he came up to me and said he was sorry,” Smith said.
The former NBA player, who now travels frequently as a basketball ambassador, said he didn’t go to any areas where people are hungry.
Smith also swapped sports stories with North Korea’s sports minister and basketball players from the national team. He thinks that will be a positive outcome from the trip.
“We accomplished a relationship on the sports side in North Korea,” he said. “Where it goes from there, I do not know at this point in time. But we established a relationship. They’ve asked us to come back. Whether we go back or not, I’m not sure. I don’t know. But there was a relationship established between a group of individuals in two different countries that don’t communicate.”