‘The Redeem Team’: How NBA stars worked together to win Olympic gold in 2008

In Olympic Games

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When you look at the roster of the 2008 United States Men’s Olympic basketball team and you see the list of iconic names, from LeBron James to Kobe Bryant to Dwyane Wade to Dwight Howard to Jason Kidd to Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, you think: Of course they won the gold medal. Just look at that list of Hall of Fame talents!

Hindsight is a layup. But as we’re reminded in the soaring and exhilarating and beautifully rendered Netflix documentary “The Redeem Team,” victory in the 2008 Games in Beijing was anything but a lock for Team USA. This was four years before LeBron would win his first title, this was a time when Kobe’s image was tarnished as he had been labeled a selfish player who had helped facilitate Shaq’s departure from the Lakers, this was an era in which there were legitimate doubts about the Americans having the will, the drive, the commitment to compete on the world stage. After all, they’d just had their hats handed to them in the 2004 Olympics, eventually settling for the bronze medal.

Director Jon Weinbach gives us a brief but valuable history of USA Men’s Basketball in the Olympics, noting that from 1936 to 1984, the team won nine gold medals in 10 attempts and lost only one game, to the Soviet Union in the 1972 Men’s Basketball Final. (There are many among us who believe to this day the result of that game was a travesty, with the final three seconds replayed twice until the Soviets finally “won,” ahem.)

After losing to the Soviets in the 1988 Olympics, Team USA allowed professional athletes to play for the first time in 1992 — and the result was the formation of the Dream Team with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, et al., arguably the greatest collection of talent ever assembled for any sports team ever.

There was never any doubt the 1992 team would win it all, and the Men’s Olympic squads also took home Gold in 1996 and 2000. By 2004, however, the appeal of playing in the Games had diminished, with nine top players bowing out, and coach Larry Brown presiding over an uneasy mix of veterans and young players. Concerns about terrorism led to the team staying away from the Olympic Village and on a cruise ship off the coast of Greece. “It didn’t really feel like we were part of the Olympic experience,” remembers Carlos Boozer.

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Lebron James of Team USA reacts after scoring in a pivotal Olympics game against Greece.

In the opening game against Puerto Rico, “they kicked our ass,” recalls LeBron James. The final score was 92-71, marking the first time the Men’s Olympic Basketball Team had lost with NBA players. The problem, in a nutshell: Players around the world had learned to play basketball from a team-first concept, while too many Americans were individual stylists. “You have to put a team together,” says Doug Collins. “It can’t be Fantasy Basketball.”

“The Redeem Team” kicks into another gear as we see how legendary executive Jerry Colangelo was given carte blanche to reassemble Team USA from top to bottom. At Dean Smith’s recommendation, Colangelo brought in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, and while the seasoned pros were at first skeptical about a college guy running the show, they quickly bought into Coach K’s style, which combined great respect for star talents and a full-on commitment to playing a team game.

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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won over the pros with his team-oriented style.

James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and other members of the team provide terrific insights and memories of their time together, particularly when it comes to the importance of Kobe Bryant not only agreeing to join the team, but to really JOIN the team. “We were surprised he even wanted to be a part of Team USA,” says LeBron. But when some members of the team returned to the hotel after a night of partying and crossed paths with Kobe, who had already commenced his morning workout, they knew Bryant was all-in.

“This mother—— Kobe was already like drenched in sweat, and we were like, ‘Yeah, he different,’ ” recalls James.

Even though we know the USA prevailed at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, it’s exciting to revisit the battles, starting with a blowout of a tough Greece team, a victory over the talented Argentina squad, and the epic final battle against Spain. In that Gold Medal game, James and Bryant got into early foul trouble, and Wade came off the bench to provide a huge lift. (“If you got D-Wade coming in off your bench,” notes James, “you’ve got the greatest international team ever.”) With both teams playing high-level basketball, the outcome was in doubt until the final minutes, when the Americans finally pulled away.

Carmelo Anthony sums it up best: “We came together for a cause. … My jersey didn’t have Denver Nuggets on there, LeBron didn’t have Cleveland, Kobe’s didn’t have Lakers. We had USA.”

That’s gold.



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