The Redeem Team retells the story of the 2008 USA Olympic Basketball team through the words of the players and how they came together.
To sports fans, the story of the 2008 USA Olympic Men’s Basketball Team is a modern-day myth. The tale of how a team of some of the greatest players ever assembled redeems their country’s reputation after years of disappointment makes for a compelling narrative and seems a perfect candidate for being put to film. Fourteen years and four Olympiads later, Jon Weinbach has made a documentary on this subject at last. Recapturing the memories of this desperate moment in American sports history, The Redeem Team gives a fond memory of what went on with the team and basketball culture in the mid-2000s. It provides all the highlight footage from the team as well as interviews and never-before-seen interactions between players for the most cohesive and faithful chronicle of this team. While most of these players have retired, their legacy lives on in building one of the greatest sports teams ever assembled.
To understand the story, some historical background is needed. In 1992, professional athletes were allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time. The American basketball squad, nicknamed the “Dream Team”, crushed the competition en route to a gold medal. In the intervening years, however, many international players started to join America’s National Basketball Association (NBA), training harder and showcasing their talents in the best competitive circuit. The United States also felt overly cocky in their international runs, no longer sending their most talented players and playing down to their competition in games. This culminated with the United States losing three games in their bronze medal run in 2004, more than they had lost in every other Olympics combined.
A bronze medal still could be considered a modest success, but to a dominant force like Team USA, it was a national tragedy. In the four-year interim between Olympic Games, the story of the rebuild is given full attention. To coach the team, the legendary Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski is brought in. His discipline and rigor helps the team rebound somewhat, but they still finish third in the 2006 Basketball World Championships. As such, he pushes the team even harder, brings in more of the best players, and encourages them even further. The Redeem Team provides behind-the-scenes footage to show Coach K’s pep talks and how he plans to compete. This depiction of the coach in the locker room is every bit as exhilarating as the highlight footage on the court. There is no phoning it in for this tournament. Instead of accepting invitations to the Olympics at the last minute, this team had to play for the long term. They had to be ready and willing to win.
Though many interviews are given in the documentary, the story features three “protagonists”: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the late Kobe Bryant. LeBron is an up-and-comer, recovering from the disappointment of the 2004 squad, with a reputation to live up to. He provides the bulk of the narration and much of the footage shows him training and pushing to do better. Wade is in many respects the unsung hero of the team. He recovers from injury to even make the roster, and becomes a dominant scorer in his own right, with his twenty-seven points in the gold medal game being a highlight of the run. However, it is Kobe Bryant who carries his team through the tournament.
He trains when others on the team go to parties, makes aggressive fouls during games, and plays his heart out in pursuit of glory. At this point in his professional career, he was having disagreements with his team and showing a lack of energy on the field. For Kobe, this was as much a journey of his personal redemption as it was for the United States. The risk pays off, as all the media drama and team turmoil following Kobe show his quest in the movie, culminating with the gold medal game being played on his thirtieth birthday feeling like a symbolic gesture.
What makes The Redeem Team work is its cohesion and narrative methods. The story is a foregone conclusion if you follow the Olympics, but with the archival interviews showing the players leading up to and after the games adds an element of suspense. This is the first time you hear many of their thoughts and feelings, including their tension and uncertainty in parts. These moments of character combined with the compelling journalism and skillful editing make the final moments feel earned. By the time the last buzzer sounds, the run feels just as satisfying as it did in 2008.
A possible shortfall of this documentary is its focus on personalities over team composition. With the three men given the most focus, it feels less like a team effort. There were certain players, like Chris Paul and Deron Williams, who made great contributions to the team but barely even get a passing mention in the film. Kobe Bryant is given the limelight in large part due to his death in 2020, but he did not carry the team alone. Reports even at the time suggested Kobe was the central player on the team, but such reverence and central focus on him detracts from basketball as a team sport and how the players were able to adapt to their surroundings. Considering how Kobe’s rivalry with LeBron was a hot topic of the time, perhaps a discussion of Kobe’s relationship with him would have served as a compelling subplot, to add a new layer of depth to an otherwise familiar story.
To those who followed the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this is a worthy recap, chronicling the events as they unfolded and recapturing each heart-pounding moment as it was presented. To those who did not watch those Games, this serves as a solid account of what these players had to live up to and how they accomplished their task. While perhaps a bit romanticized, The Redeem Team is still the best record of this team and these Olympics in the documentary format.
The Redeem Team is now available to watch on Netflix.