LONDON - While critical of Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea, incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver says the former All-Star also helped raise awareness of leader Kim Jong Un's "repressive regime."
Rodman took a group of retired NBA players to the pariah state this month to play a game as a gift for Kim, a move criticized by some members of the U.S. Congress, human rights groups and the NBA.
Rodman, the highest-profile American to meet Kim, has stressed he is not a statesman and is only seeking to build cultural ties between Pyongyang and Washington through basketball.
But the 52-year-old Rodman has been denounced for not trying to use his influence with Kim to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, an American missionary with health problems who is being held in North Korea on charges of "anti-state" crimes.
Although Rodman has been accused of becoming a public relations tool for North Korea's government, Silver regards the publicity from the trips helping to shine a light on a country with a poor human rights record.
"As negative as that trip was in so many ways it also brought attention to a critical issue in North Korea that ... most Americans hadn't focused on at all in terms of a repressive regime," Silver said on Thursday in London ahead of a game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks.
At the start of the Jan. 8 game in Pyongyang, Rodman sang "Happy Birthday" to Kim, who was seated at the stadium, and bowed deeply as North Korean players clapped.
Silver, who succeeds David Stern as commissioner on Feb. 1, said the NBA persuaded some former players not to participate in the game.
"We did talk directly with certain other players who decided not to go," Silver said after appearing at a meeting organized by the Sport Industry Group.
"In terms of any damage done to the NBA, we don't think there was any damage done to the NBA ... the fact basketball happens to be very popular in North Korea I don't think is a negative for our league.
"And it just demonstrates that it's not just basketball but all sports bring tremendous opportunities."
Stern was critical of Rodman during his trip, and again denounced the North Korea game on Thursday, saying such endeavours should be undertaken only with the help of the government.
"There's a huge, huge spot for sports diplomacy," Stern said at a news conference before the London game. "Birthday parties for dictators that torture, kill, starve, develop missiles and bombs — not so much."
With the Nets owned by Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, the NBA is looking beyond the U.S. for more investment in franchises.
Stern said there are discussions with investors from China, Latin America and the Middle East, in particular those in oil-rich United Arab Emirates whose "connection to the governing families is quite close."
Efforts to grow the NBA beyond U.S. shores in Britain have been limited, despite Thursday's regular-season game at the O2 Arena being the fourth in four years at the venue.
While acknowledging that "football is king" in England, the NBA feels that its efforts to intensify interest have not been matched by a commitment from the government and local groups to promote the game and build facilities.
Silver described the club infrastructure as being "not on a par" with other basketball nations.
"We would have thought there would have been more growth," Silver said.
"For whatever reason basketball hasn't caught on here," he added. "And I think there has been an absence of leadership and we have to fill the vacuum."
Having expected a strong basketball legacy from the 2012 London Olympics, the NBA was disappointed the chance was not grasped.
"I would say lost opportunity rather than wasted opportunity — every government has their priorities but given how popular a venue (basketball) was during the Olympics, it should have been the launching pad for additional things happening," Silver said. "There are all kinds of reasons why governments should be getting behind the sport."
Stern went further, saying: "I know the debate about physical activity in schools, but if you shut down the gyms you can't have basketball games."
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