Redeem Team: How Kobe Bryant’s steel restored pride to US basketball

In the first decade of the 21st-century, America endured turmoil on multiple fronts. Following the devastating tragedy of 9/11, the nation would also find itself in the midst of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while a financial crisis at home nearly destroyed the housing market.

The vulnerability even trickled down to the US men’s basketball team, a seemingly invincible force during the Dream Team days of Magic, Jordan, Barkley, and Bird. But the NBA star-packed squad would lose its allure following collapses at the 2002 Fiba World Championships, where the Americans lost to Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals, and the debacle at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where they went home with bronze.

America needed hope and a reason to believe again, on and off the court.

Redeem Team, a new Netflix documentary which premieres on Friday, explores the tribulations of Team USA basketball in the early 2000s and the sacrifices made on the road to redemption at the 2008 Olympics.

Jon Weinbach, who wonderfully explored the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls in the award-winning documentary The Last Dance, serves as director of Redeem Team which features exclusive interviews from the late Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“There was a sense that America was teetering,” Weinbach says of the overall mood of America prior to the 2008 Olympics. “There was not a lot of optimism on America’s place in the world. All of those things contribute to a certain kind of atmosphere. And so when you have that kind of atmosphere, you’re looking for things that you can feel good about as an American. In American sports, basketball culture was sacrosanct. But there was a moment when even that was teetering.”

Similar the shift in American politics that took place during the election season of 2008, Team USA embarked on a journey to reestablish dominance on the basketball court.

Hired in the spring of 2005 as managing director, former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was handed the keys to a faulty sports car and needed to find the right parts to get Team USA back on the road and headed in the right direction. To guide the team, Colangelo called on Duke’s legendary Coach K, a strong motivator who, at the time, had more than two decades of experience coaching international basketball.

But it was the addition of Bryant that would prove to be the biggest X factor on a team in dire need of locker room leadership. He set an example through actions rather than words. When team members sought to decompress by venturing out on the Las Vegas Strip, Bryant remained at the hotel, working out until the wee hours of the morning. Initially the lone wolf of the team, Bryant would eventually stand out as the leader of the pack.

“Kobe was less known to many of his teammates when he joined Team USA,” says Weinbach. “So the model he set was the work ethic. It’s encapsulated in the story of him being up at 4.35 in the morning and working out as these guys were coming back from the club. It was an undeniable example. And it just set off a whole different kind of mojo in motion.”

Bryant also caught the attention of his teammates by setting the tone in crucial games during their run to the 2008 gold medal. Before tip-off against a deep Spanish team that featured NBA players such as the Gasol brothers, Ricky Rubio, José Calderón and Juan Carlos Navarro, Bryant sent a fierce message. He told the locker room that he would be running through Pau Gasol, his Lakers teammate at the time, on the first play. Running at full speed, Bryant crashed into Gasol’s chest, knocking the seven-footer to the ground.

“He set the example of: ‘This is the way you got to work if you’re going to play with me.’ And they responded to that,” Weinbach says.

Beyond the players and coaches, Redeem Team touches on how the gold medal completed a circle for some. Doug Collins, a member of Team USA 1972, suffered a heartbreaking loss to the USSR in Munich at the height of the Cold War. The last three seconds of that game were replayed three times until the Soviet team walked away victorious.

Collins served as a sports commentator during Team USA’s 2008 games and his son, Chris Collins, worked as a scout on the team. There’s a moment of vindication following the 2008 gold medal victory as Team USA players pay homage to Collins, hoping to provide a little solace for the 1972 defeat that continued to sting decades later.

As Weinbach sees it, the Redeem Team serves as an illustration on how America found its way following a time of upheaval, on and off the court.

“There is this magic to team building,” he says. “Guys of this level really have nothing to gain from the experience except the honor of playing for the United States and for each other. If they can do it, what does that say about our ability to come together on other things? This is a really great snapshot of team building and these guys’ personal arcs all kind of coalescing together in one event. The emotion of the journey, people can connect to that even if you’re not a basketball fan. And if you are a basketball fan, hopefully you’re enjoying all of the humanity of the interviews.”