It would be hard to decide what's the weirdest thing Dennis Rodman did in his life. But his North Korean episode definitely has to make any top 5 list. Some think Rodman truly believed he could start a process that would result in North Korea opening up to the world. Others that he was on a spy mission for the USA. One thing is for sure; Rodman isn't the first NBA player to try and make peace between the US and a dictatorship. Not only that - he was inspired by the first guy to do it.
If the name Chuck Connors rings a bell, that's because you probably read our piece about the first player to shatter a backboard in an NBA game. That's not the thing Connors is known for. In the sports world, he had an important role in eradicating the reserve clause. The removal of this clause led to the creation of free agency across all 5 major North American sports.
But your average American is most likely to know Chuck Connors as the star of "The Rifleman," one of the most famous western TV shows of its era. After his athletic career was done, Connors went to Hollywood and made it big as Lucas McCain, a widowed rancher known for his skill with a customized Winchester rifle. As faith would have it, Lucas McCain was Leonid Breznhev's favorite TV character. Yes, the leader of the Soviet Union wanted to be a cowboy.
The Rifleman was one of the only American shows allowed to appear on TV in the Soviet Union on account of it being Brezhnev's favorite show. In 1973, President Nixon threw a party for Brezhnev and invited many famous people to the White House, with one special guest in mind. According to one report, Whitehouse Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, told Connors that “Brezhnev is a fan of yours” and asked him “to do something” when he met him. Connors had just the thing.
“When Brezhnev met Connors, he told him through his interpreter how big a fan he was of his work, in particular his cowboy series. Connors smiled, shook Brezhnev’s hands warmly, and said he would like to present him with a matching pair of Colt .45 revolvers on behalf of everyone who worked on The Rifleman.”
The next day, Brezhnev and Connors had a photo op to commemorate the gift Brezhnev was given by his favorite cowboy. Connors showed the Soviet leader how to twirl the Colts, and Brezhnev invited Connors to come and make a movie in the Soviet Union. Later, when Brezhnev was walking to his plane, he saw this famous actor in the crowd.
“Brezhnev ran across the tarmac and jumped into the actor’s arms, who briefly lifted him off the ground. The image went global. It featured on the cover of some 1600 newspapers (apparently). This wasn’t just a hug of admiration; it became a symbol of the freedom American culture seemed to offer the world and the inevitable undoing of the U.S.S.R.”
Brezhnev was so enchanted that he invited Connors to the Soviet Union, and the former Boston Celtic accepted. Connors visited the Soviet leader in Moscow in December 1973. This entire episode is considered to be an important step that led to establishing better diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union.
It also had an impact on recent NBA diplomatic history. This episode is supposedly the inspiration behind Dennis Rodman's attempts to bring the United States and North Korea closer together through his personal relationship with Kim Jong-Un. Actually, when you compare Connor's and Rodman's careers, there are a lot more similarities than you'd expect.
Chuck Connors, the original Dennis Rodman.