TIn 2008, the iconic figure in American life was Barack Obama, the one we’ve been waiting for, the hinge between the ages, the basketball fan who taught America to say yes at the end of the terrible, stupid no decade. Still, given the world’s strangeness as it was only 15 years ago, it’s not strange that Obama isn’t mentioned or appears on screen. Redemption Teamthe riveting new Netflix documentary about the USA reclaiming its rightful men’s basketball gold medal in Beijing that year.
There’s a lot of psychopolitical baggage a filmmaker could pile on top of Mike Krzyzewski’s coached triumph. Larry Brown’s US team, captained by Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan, limped to a bronze medal in Athens in 2004, a national embarrassment that came at the nadir of the Bush administration’s collapse in Iraq. War and basketball were two things in which Americans fancied themselves undisputed world leaders, but the Argentine national team and a coalition of jihadist lunatics had cast deep doubt on cherished myths of American superiority. Communist China, host of the 2008 Summer Games, signaled progress in a world shaped by rapid American decline — and yet Obama, and arguably US alpha dogs Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, showed that decline was not inevitable. that America was still vibrant enough to improve upon its failures.
Director Jon Weinbach doesn’t deal with any of these things, at least not directly. The larger dimensions of his story emerge naturally with the film’s focus on basketball. The movie never comes out and says it, but the 1992 Dream Team, the first U.S. Olympic team to include NBA players, helped usher in a seemingly limitless post-history of American hegemony, a time when our full-spectrum dominance over the entire world was a glorious inevitability. Maybe that thinking wasn’t so healthy, according to one talking head. “We came to the realization that just because we’re American, we’re better,” says journalist Sam Smith, introducing NBA stars in the red, white and blue jerseys that painted the world’s smallest nations in the 1990s. But this notion was correct – is the right. To the right? If it weren’t for the ineffable connection between Americanness and basketball supremacy, the 2008 team wouldn’t have redeemed much. And yet, as Smith rightly notes, “The Dream Team was not about patriotism. They didn’t really do it for America. They did it for the NBA” — basically, for the money. The film keeps the politics to a minimum, but it still becomes a story about how our sense of national purpose can become clearer, sharper and less cynical when we’re losing.
Showing how the Americans became victorious again, Redemption Team becomes an unexpectedly intimate double portrait of perhaps the two leading basketball titans of the 21st century. One of them, Mike Krzyzewski, officiated his last game earlier this year. The other, Kobe Bryant, was killed along with his daughter in a helicopter crash in January 2020, an event that much of the older millennial demographic experienced as a “Day of the Music Died”-type reality tuner, a spectacular event. any ultimate delusions of youth. The film depicts the pinnacle of an era that is very recent but also decisively over.
After the disaster in Athens, USA Basketball fell under the one-man rule of former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who made the equally risky decision of choosing a college coach to lead a team of NBA stars. At no point does Duke University captain Krzyzewski, a middle-aged West Point graduate and then winner of three national championships, seem the least bit outmatched by Dwyane, LeBron, Kobe or any of the other one-name multi-millionaires under his command. In team meetings, Coach K is impeccably calm, even a little stoic — an “Army coach,” as sportswriter Bill Plasch describes him.
In the name of ultimate victory, Krzyzewski convinces a collection of showboating sneakers named after him to adopt the high pick-and-roll style of the international game. He issues basketball theories that could double as America’s own theories. Don’t suppress your own NBA-sized ego, he says in one team meeting. “You have to give me the egos you have…and put them under one ego umbrella.” “That made sense!” Dwyane Wade exclaims, recalling the moment 15 years later. As if to underscore the psychic link between dominant American basketball and our deepest self-concepts, Coach K has the team learn about “selfless service” from an Army colonel recently returned from Iraq, along with an active-duty soldier who had his eyes gouged out. with enemy shrapnel. “Hearing these stories allowed our players to open their hearts, and as a result, they became the USA,” Krzyzewski recalls today.
In Redemption Team, Krzyzewski’s greatness is something the mind can grasp: he pairs a knowledge-like understanding of human psychology with an appropriately grandiose conception of the task. In contrast to Coach K, Kobe’s greatness is in the realm of the sublime. In the film, he is remembered as a horrifyingly possessed, god who taunts mortals—“mortals,” in this case, Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade, and even LeBron James—from the pinnacle of all existence. where only he belonged. As Carmelo Anthony says, Kobe is a friendless, “comfortable” loner. Simple superstars look frivolous next to him: One night during training camp in Las Vegas, the rest of the team returns from clubbing at 5:30 in the morning to find Kobe in the lobby of his hotel, covered in sweat. early morning workout. By the end of the week, the scrimmage was over and the entire team was on the Laker guard’s schedule.
It would be a disservice to give away every great Kobe anecdote in this movie. We get the full details on the infamous body check he performed on Lakers teammate Gasol in the opening minutes of an Olympic round robin game against Spain, which remains a truly pathological performance by a winner. That “pathological victory” is an American value is one of the unspoken assumptions of this film. Oddly enough, this insatiable desire to succeed is part of why Americans are sometimes loved abroad. The documentary depicts how Kobe was treated by the Chinese public in Beijing as if he were Michael Jackson or Princess Diana, with thousands of screaming and fainting fans apparently following him around the Chinese capital.
At the time, the mobs that mobbed the Team USA bus looked like overwhelming evidence that Chinese society was under the liberalizing influence of American culture. In retrospect, the power dynamic was almost the opposite—LeBron James, now America’s foremost celebrity apologist for Beijing’s misdeeds, must have seen Kobemania as a preview of his commercial prospects under a basketball-crazed communist dictatorship. (One puzzling omission from this film is the omission of the USA’s blowout against host nation China in the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, which at the time was believed to have the largest televised audience of any sporting event. LeBron James, by the way, is one of the film’s executive producers .)
Redemption Team it’s satisfying to look back on a big national victory, but even a historic sporting achievement turns sour with time — and in less time than one might hope or expect. The film ends with Dwayne and Kobe icing a series of extraordinary long jump shots to prevent a late comeback by the Spanish in the gold medal contest. Every basketball fan knows this happened. Do they remember the time when it seemed like the NBA would have more influence on China than China had on the NBA? Do they remember Carmelo Anthony being as infantile as a high school freshman in 2004 and even 2008? Redemption Team is almost a distant world record for a gold medal – and for many onlookers it will be uncomfortable proof that we’re not young anymore.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based journalist Tablet.